Root Letter Review

Visual novels thrive when they’re filled with great writing. There’s doesn’t need to be any real gameplay mechanics, no level design, no boss battles. A visual novel lives and dies on polished storytelling and well-constructed pacing. You need vivid writing that compliments the visuals, dialogue should be gripping and natural, especially when there’s voice acting that goes along with it. The story should give you a good reason to start playing, and an even better reason to continue until the end. Root Letter fails to do this.

Root Letter shakes the base formula up a bit by having some classic adventure-game style menu mechanics, where you choose locations to go to, investigate environments for clues, ask characters questions, manage an inventory, and think about what to do next. It’s an interesting suite of options that give it some gameplay flair similar to titles like Ace Attorney or Danganronpa.

Unfortunately, options are always weirdly gated off depending on the moment. You can only check the environment when the game wants you to or ask a character something when the game wants you to. It never felt like I had agency over the story, but rather, it felt like I was forced to artificially navigate a menu of options in order to advance the story. I love the idea of breaking up visual novels with slices of gameplay, and this has led to some of my favourite games ever, but the artificial quality of the gameplay in Root Letter makes me wish they’d stripped the mechanics almost entirely and gone for a much more straightforward visual novel.

As for the novel side of things, it isn’t any better. You play as a 32 year old man in Tokyo, who is reminiscing about a pretty schoolgirl penpal he had 15 years ago and rummaging through his old letters from her. Suddenly, he discovers an unopened letter, despite pouring over all 10 letters he received constantly. It contains a new message full of mystery and murder, causing him to set off to her hometown of Matsue to try and discover what really happened to her.

It’s an interesting set up in theory. The idea of a murder mystery spanning 20 years and what it takes to uncover the truth is intriguing. Unfortunately, the game fails to set these events up in any kind of climactic or suspenseful fashion, especially not with the single ho-hum piece of music that never, ever, ever stops playing. The game is also plagued with cheesy sound effects, each menu interaction and new piece of info accompanied by a generic suite of soft chimes.

rootletter-il1

So, there’s poor pacing, poor audio, and artificial gameplay, but at the end of the day, it’s a visual novel. The writing is what’s most important, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we judge a book, not by it’s cover, but by the contents contained within? Sure, let’s do that.

The writing in Root Letter is abysmal.

It blows me away how mind-numbingly dull the actual word-to-word content of this game is. In most visual novels, you experience it from the first-person point of view of a specific character, but events and actions are narrated by an omnipresent narrator. In Root Letter, you not only experience the game from the protagonists first-person point of view, but the protagonist himself also narrates everything he does, talks to himself about everything he does, and has a running internal monologues about everything as well.

One of the worst examples of this that I remember from the game, found just within the first 40 minutes:

I should head to my hotel now. I made a reservation at the Matsue Inn.

I have arrived at the Inn.

Player: “This must be the Matsue Inn which I made a reservation at.”

The entire game is filled with this. Every event is laid out in plain, flat writing, and sometimes multiple times, as the protagonist says it, does it, then comments on it. There are 8 chapters, and around 10 hours of this. Things pick up a bit during chapter ending interrogations, and a bit more once you reach the end of the game and unlock the true ending route. Getting there is such a hassle, though, that I can’t imagine it being worth anyone’s time.

The one saving grace of this game is probably the visuals. Characters are rendered in a soft, beautiful painterly style with vivid colors and sharp, dynamic lines. At least, the main characters are, as incidental characters don’t have as much effort put into them. Environments and special event CGs also have plenty of thought and care put into them. I just really wish that same thought and care was put into the rest of the game.

What’s Good:

  • Beautiful art
  • Good voice acting

What’s Bad:

  • Terrible writing
  • Terrible pacing
  • Terrible music
  • Terrible sound design

I play video games to have a good time. I’m sure you do, too. Even when we turn on something truly masochistic like Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy, we do so knowing that the uphill battle we struggle with will culminate in a satisfying, euphoric sense of accomplishment and joy. My laborious, 10-hour uphill battle with Root Letter ended in the hill giving way to a massive drop into a bottomless ravine, and as I fell through the ravine, I felt regret. I felt pain. I felt aggravation.

And I heard the same damned song playing for like a dozen hours until I died.

Score: 3/10

Version tested: PS4

Written by
I'm a writer, voice actor, and 3D artist living la vida loca in New York City. I'm into a pretty wide variety of games, and shows, and films, and music, and comics and anime. Anime and video games are my biggest vice, though, so feel free to talk to me about those. Bury me with my money.

11 Comments

  1. Heh fab review :)

  2. I played the game and I enjoyed very much.
    I understand your views but hey, 3/10?

    We starve for Visual Novel and once a game is out you put 3 you kill the game.Kill Call of Duty with a miserable vote, not such a little title!

  3. I really enjoyed Root Letter! I think it’s a really interesting story and it’s great to have more games like this. The art really is gorgeous too, as you said.

    The narration thing you mentioned is an interesting point, but I found it generally only repeated things if I tried to do something I wasn’t supposed to do, so like if you try to go somewhere other than the hotel then it says ‘I should head to my hotel now’, but if you go straight there you don’t get that repetition? The style kinda added to my perception of Takayuki as a character too, so I didn’t mind it, haha.

    3/10 is such a shame :(

    • I agree that it’s amazing to get so many localized visual novels, and I’m constantly thankful for that. But not every visual novel is a hit provocative cult-classic, especially not this one. You’re totally free to disagree with how I felt about the game, everything isn’t for everyone!

  4. Duh. Whoo. Swearing Reviewer seems a little angry here : D

    I most likely won’t get Root Leter simply because Steins;Gate 0 is on the way. But I watched a lengthy preview via Youtube and read the other Reviews over at Metacritic, and this here seems like the writer of this Review was a little frustrated. Even when you read the pro and cons I only read the point of view of a twelve year old Hobby-Blogger.

    I get it you don’t like the Game, but isn’t it possible for you to express in a more mature way :D?

    But, I guess, I the writer of the Review is posting such stuff:

    “I’ll play any Call of Duty over this game any fucking day of my life.”

    I think you don’t have to expect much from him as an editor, he most likely don’t get even paid for writing here. That’s the expression the Review gave me. Anyway, here a few good Reviews I see so this was not the last time I spend time here (but as an commentator). Have a nice week nonetheless.

    • Oh, and don’t mind my English. I barely use the language in my private time. Sounds a little more harsh as it was meant (and buggy : D).

  5. I smell sarcasm miles away, but this time, I can’t tell : D

    I don’t wanted to offend you of course, and this goes for the quote with the Reviewers Point of View. But anyway. Reading this Review makes me wanna play Root Letter, just to know if the Game is really that flawed. Since Root Letter seems to be one of the shorter Adventures, I may give it a try before Steins;Gate 0 is released.

    Best Wishes from Germany!

  6. I respect your position, but pov starts with a lil’ mistake. This is not a Visual Novel, but a Japanese Adventure Game. You are led to conclusions through your inspections and actions (accordingly to the characters perspective), just li Famicom Tantei from Nintend and a wide variety of diverse Japanese games for PSX and Sega Saturn.

    Not liking this approach in Adventure games is like not liking any other genre or subgenre. The judgments base themselves in it being a Visual Novel, but it is not. You are not being driven to a narrative, you drive through the narrative by inputting a variety of actions through guessing and thinking.

    This is a subgenre that hasn’t been too exposed in the West ( probably only in handheld consoles and mobile games).

    All in All, ppl shouldn’t be too upset by this guys opinions. A Score represents simply his (biased) opinion, like any other. And this is a niche game, and it should satisfy its audience. Let Call of Duty for the bigger (and brainless) audience.

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