Root Letter Vita Review
I find that handhelds make for great visual novel devices. The size makes it similar to carrying a book, while the sleep mode allows to quickly get back to the story whenever you have spare time to read. There has been an influx of visual novels coming from Japan over the last few years on various platforms. Some of these are designed solely to tell a story, while others infuse gameplay into the plot in such a manner that the mechanics compliment the narrative. Quality has been across a wide scale, but some of my favourites in recent memory are Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward and DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. Kadokawa Games is joining the genre with Root Letter, their first entry in a group of visual novels called Kadokawa Game Mystery, but is it one that will be memorable?
Root Letter digs itself deep into delivering a mystery tale, one where the main character, Max, turns himself into a rather competent detective to say that he has never had a career in that area. The game begins with Max, who is currently 32, clearing out his room when he discovers an unopened letter with no post mark from a pen pal he had stopped receiving mail from 15 years ago. Not sure how he missed it, he opens the letter to find out that his penpal, Aya Fumino, left him a few shocking last words “I killed someone, I must atone for my sins. We won’t speak again. Farewell.” This sparks Max’s interest – he had developed a soft spot for Aya through her letters – and feeling rather bemused by Aya’s last words, decides to pack his things and travel to her home town of Matsue to see if he can find her to get an understanding what she meant in her cryptic letter.
Mysteries need to be kept under wrap, so I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum to make sure the impact is kept intact. Those ten letters that Max received from Aya play a vital role in allowing him to begin his manhunt, so over the course of my first completion, a short – for most visual novels I have played anyway – 10 hours, players will have to deal with various hiccups along the way, leading to many more questions rather than answers. Why is there no house at the address? Why won’t some of her friends speak about her? Does she even exist? Why do her friends have weird names, such as Snappy, Monkey and Bitch. There are many engrossing and fascinating turns that the game throws out that make for an enjoyable tale, but one that suffers from some mishaps along the way, either with weird script pacing or the rushed first ending (depending which you get) that requires playing again to find the true ending.
The endings are determined by how you reply to the letters Aya wrote all those years ago. It’s possible to see all the endings if you want to dig deeper in the story, as, thankfully, you can reply to them at the start of every chapter, then skip to the next chapter until chapter eight. This is where the story begins to split into the five ending routes. Some endings are decent, while others come to an end in a rather disappointing haste. I would have felt incredibly dishearten at one of these endings if I had received it after my first completion.
Visual novels live by their writing, it’s the main component of the game, but there is a impression of inexperience from the team at Kadokawa Games. Now having no understanding of the original Japanese release, I cannot tell if the dialogue in Root Letter is suppose to get as wooden as it does at times or if something was lost in translation. Either way, there are some strange characteristics in the script that seems weird to have included. The story is told from the perspective of Max in a first-person context, but rather than feed knowledge to the reader through character dialogue or what Max is thinking, the game double explains itself by Max mentioning what he’s doing, then the game says it again as a sort of acknowledge to you that Max is actually at the place he said he was at, or is talking about a subject that he mentioned he would talk about. It’s wasteful writing that doesn’t need to be there.
One other squabble I had with Max as a character is that he constantly refers to the friends by the nicknames Aya told him through the letters, even though he eventually knows their names. To be fair, the friends also call each other by their nicknames, but it seems strange. It’s weird seeing the world Bitch constantly mentioned as a noun, giving off an unfriendly vibe from Max as he keeps using it. I can only assume they were trying to keep the link intact with the letters, so that we are constantly reminded as a player that these characters are those Aya has addressed, but it comes across strange and unnatural, making Max seem impolite when it seems he isn’t suppose to be portrayed as that kind of guy.
When you aren’t reading, the game wants to delivery elements of an adventure game. Menus are used to move locations, speak to people, look at items in the inventory, ‘think‘ to yourself (this is basically a sort of hint mechanic that has Max speak to himself on what he should probably do next), use the guidebook to find locations or access the smartphone for saving and loading. The problem is, the point-and-click aspect of Root Letter is weak, it feels there just to add something to the game that the player has to interact with. It’s occasionally used to spot things in the background with the magnifying glass, which turns red when you can interact with something, except that doesn’t mean it’s THE item, as the highlighting red just means the area can be selected, but there might be a book or some other item that needs clicking in that area to trigger the next scene. It’s not clearly indicated what you are interacting with when everything is red within a given area. Games normally invoke some sort of sparkle or way to determine what can be examined, but not here.
At certain points in the game where it’s required to get the friends to finally come clean, an interrogation mode kicks in, a mini game that requires Max to (no, not torture somebody) pick the right inventory items or questions to get them to reveal the knowledge they know of Aya. Getting these wrong causes an envelope to rip, with six attempts bringing failure and a restart of the investigation mode. This feels like one of those Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney mini games, and it gets by fine being that, but at points during the interrogation, Max enters Max Mode, where a circle fills up segments, and each segment contains a response that would be suitable for the character’s personality. The higher the circle fills, the more aggressive the response is. I found it hard to determine what was the correct answer, so it became more of a guessing game, one where there are no consequences for getting it wrong, as it doesn’t do anything but get a response from the character being interrogated, then it’s back to picking a segment in the circle again. Max Mode is implemented as a gimmick to add gameplay where it isn’t entirely needed, or at least could do with reworking to make it more engrossing than what it is.
One area that Root Letter doesn’t fall at is its artwork. The game is full of stunning locations blessed with rich colour and variety, while the characters are beautifully drawn with a pleasant look that portrays exactly what they are feeling. There isn’t much animation to the art, as the game is full of static drawings, but at least those are pleasing on the eye. Dub is Japanese only, and the soundtrack is okay, a little repetitive on the selection of tracks, but the tunes do remain subtle in the background to give the town of Matsue its relaxing, quiet characteristic.
As the first entry in Kadokawa Game’s attempt at a visual novel mystery, Root Letter does succeed in bringing a engrossing story that manages to throw in a few captivating revelations throughout its short tale. That said, the beautiful presentation cannot hide some of the game’s irksome issues with its occasional wooden delivery and trip-ups within its script. Root Letter isn’t a visual novel that matches up with some of the quality imports that have come from Japan, but if you have exhausted all of those options, then Root Letter makes for an enjoyable alternative to spend a weekend with its intriguing story of friendship and love.