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.
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.
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.
Version tested: PS4