Fun but useless fact about me; I had three pen pals growing up. One in Scotland, one in Italy and one in Canada. I have lost contact with all but one of them. From time to time I find myself just wondering what became of the other two. Root Letter takes that idea and develops a story around uncovering the truth between a lost pen pal.
Developed by Kadokawa Games for the PS4 and Vita, Root Letter plants its feet in the visual novel genre. As the main character you find a long-lost letter, the last one, from a childhood pen pal called Aya. The last letter ends up stirring a lot of feelings and so your journey begins. Using only information found in past letters, you must uncover just what happened to Aya and how her old high school friends might just be involved.
To begin with Root Letter does nothing in the way of messing with the visual novel premise. You are picking and choosing your story. How you react will shape the outcome of your story – a lost love reunited? A murder mystery solved?
Return To Sender
The game features several key characters aside from you and the enigmatic pen pal. You will have to find and interrogate Aya’s former classmates. Depending on how you like your visual novels you’ll love or hate these moments. The characters slot, a little too easily, into high school tropes that permeate the anime/manga world. Bitchy popular girl, socially inept nerd, aggressive jock, fat effeminate guy and so on. The crux of the gameplay revolves around interacting with them and regardless of what path your letters take you down, you’ll encounter each and every one of them. Bitch, Monkey, Fatty and the rest of the high school gang must be forced to relive their high school years in order to reveal the reason for Aya’s dramatic disappearance.
It all sounds so very appealing! A mystery with you at the heart of it? Who wouldn’t find themselves caught up in it? Unfortunately the game doesn’t quite deliver on that premise! The journey to the final destination is about as exciting as queuing in a post office for stamps! They game doesn’t really know what direction it’s going in terms of tone. The game takes place in the city of Matsue, a real city in Japan, it’s characters occupy this ‘real’ space but they’re unable to fill it out. Quirks become full-blown tropes which translate into poor writing.
Constantly referring to the support characters by their nicknames (someone should have told Aya that referring to her ‘friends’ by terrible names like Bitch and Fatty makes her a crap friend) doesn’t help either. It’s the constant shift between the real and the really weird that ultimately throws everything out of sync. Chasing a lead down always winds up with you berating a childhood friend of Aya’s into an emotional wreck while they’re standing outside a familiar location in the city; a park, cultural landmark or nightlife spot.
Outside the core group, the game hosts additional support characters; the innkeeper and her daughter, the restaurant owner and his waiter. All of these characters feel like they could actually be real people. Then you meet the Mulder and Scully inspired scientists lurking in an Observatory and you’re caught off guard. They don’t feel like they belong here or in Matsue just like Aya and her friends.
The balance between the real and the fictional is completely unstable and Root Letter never really tries to counterbalance this.
The same can be said for the gameplay. It being a visual novel it’s pretty obvious from the start you’re not exactly going to be executing savage button combos. It’s text heavy and you are here for the story after all.
The game introduces a mechanic quite similar to the interrogation system of the Ace Attorney series. You will enter ‘Max Mode’ when you’re just about to push a character into a nervous breakdown. The ability is literally used to force a character into admitting a truth about Aya or the event in school. It’s clumsy and awkward and short of having to re-interrogate the bewildered and emotionally scarred NPC, you face no real consequence for it. To shatter their psyche it takes timing; but you’re not hard pressed for the seconds either. There’s no real challenge which would be fine in any other visual novel but Root Letter doesn’t want play that game.
No Junk Mail
It’s not really sure what game it’s playing!
Is it a comedy? A drama? It’s not clever or able enough to blend the two together and winds up with very polarised story-telling. That’s a shame though! Root Letter had so many chances to offer something solid; it just winds up drowning in it all. On completion you’re able to replay and follow a new path to a new story and it’s another chance to experience the game and find the closure you need.
I’m just not sure how badly I need it!
Editor-in-Chief, part-time super villain and hoarder of cats. If you can’t find me writing, I’m probably in the kitchen!