If you’re at all a fan of modern Japanese visual novels, then you’re probably well acquainted with the worlds of Danganronpa and Zero Escape. Both of these series take the core idea of locking a group of characters inside a mysterious facility as they fight for their survival and run with it to unforgettable mind-bending mysteries and sci-fi epics.
The creators behind both these series recently founded Too Kyo Games, where they’ve been joined by some other iconic visual novel talents on that team, though, including Takumi Nakazawa. If that name isn’t familiar to you and you want to get familiar with what kind of stories he might be bringing to this new collective, then picking the new Switch port of his iconic 2012 sci-fi epic Root Double: Before Crime * After Days Xtend Edition is a must.
Besides sporting an incredibly bizarre and lengthy title, Root Double also features one of the most ambitious and wide-reaching stories I’ve seen in a visual novel. Things start out simple, as the game presents two possible routes for you to play through – After or Before.
Despite the names, you’ll want to play After first, which focuses on a firefighter rescue crew that’s been sent to help evacuate a nuclear research facility after their reactor experiences a catastrophic meltdown. A few hours into their mission, though, every exit from the facility is sealed off and the rescue team captain, our protagonist, gets into a scuffle with a mysterious figure that leaves him with a bad case of anime amnesia. After navigating the story of the events that occur during this incident, the Before route will take you through a more exposition-laden and almost slice-of-life scenario that takes place before the meltdown. Then, you’ll unlock a brief recap-focused C route, an incredibly lengthy finale D route, and a bonus E route story.
All in all, Root Double is long. Very, very long. For many genre fans there isn’t anything wrong with a lengthy visual novel, so long as it’s a gripping and well-written experience. Root Double is definitely gripping, as the story dives into numerous themes and twists that consistently dropped my jaw. As the story unravels, your assumptions about the world that the game takes place in and the meaning behind certain events or actions are completely flipped around or proven wrong, and it’s a delight.
Unfortunately, it can sometimes be a bit too much of a chore to reach those incredible moments. Root Double’s biggest problem is inconsistency. This is most apparent in the route structure – the After route is a gripping, fast-paced and action-heavy story of survival, while the Before route that comes after is slow, plodding, and full of literal exposition dumps. The game is heavily reliant not only on real-life scientific concepts like nuclear radiation, but also a wide gamut of made up sci-fi jargon, which it will frequently dump on you via actual classroom lectures to thoroughly explain all of these concepts to you.
There’s nothing wrong with unrealistic and silly fictional sci-fi elements in stories like these as long as the game gives you the freedom to suspend your disbelief. Root Double takes itself so seriously, though, that in painstakingly explaining all of these fictional and non-fictional elements to you, it makes the fictional ones stand out as even bigger eye-rollers than they already are.
There’s also a bit of inconsistency with the way you make choices in Root Double, as well. Rather than being presented with dialogue decisions throughout the story, you utilize the Senses Sympathy System, or SSS, to navigate through the many paths and endings of each route. The SSS is based on the Enneagram of Personality, a real-life model of human psyche used to identify personality types. Each main character in a route is assigned to one of the personality types on this grid, and every time a major story event prompts you, you’re able to open up the SSS and move a slider to change your “impression” of each character. A low slider input means you don’t trust, like or prioritise them very much, while a high slider input indicates the opposite.
It’s a really interesting system, and I’m always a fan of visual novels giving you a more creative way to drive story decisions and branching paths beyond basic dialogue decisions. The only issue is how vague these SSS choices end up being. Despite the sliders allowing you to basically assign an impression value between zero and ten, the only values that really end up affecting the story are low, medium, or high. On top of that, it isn’t always clear what these updated impressions will translate to in the story. In one early scene, my captain character and a rookie partner were both attempting to dive into the fire to rescue someone. I thought that by putting my impression value for her at high and mine at low, it would mean I valued her life more and was ready to dive in and risk my own life. Instead, it became the opposite – because my impression of her was so high and mine was so low, my character trusted her more to dive in and perform the rescue while I sat back and watched her succeed.