*This review is also posted on GameLuster.
Root Letter is the first title in the Kadokawa Game Mystery Series with contributions from key staff who worked on Konami’s Love Plus+ series, like character designer Mino Taro. When it was first announced, I found myself drawn in by the gorgeous art and knew I needed to play it. Other than its art, Root Letter also further held my attention with this line:
“I’ve killed someone. This is farewell…goodbye.”
Almost everyone who read it would find themselves gripped by curiosity, and like me, decided to give the game a chance. This was reflected in the sales for Root Letter, which had exceeded expectations and sold over two hundred thousand copies, the head of marketing of PQube describing it as ‘Phenomenal’ success.
Unfortunately, for all the excitement and intrigue the game generated from the art, summary and trailers, Root Letter ended up disappointing me. As someone who has played a number of visual novels, Root Letter is merely serviceable, failing in both story and its attempt at a mystery.
For the uninitiated, a visual novel is an interactive game with static graphics, most often using anime-style art, with minimal gameplay, consisting predominantly of narration. Many visual novels are similar in that they have multiple endings that are determined by the choices of the player, and Root Letter is no different in this regard.
For the sake of making this review less confusing, I will be referring to Root Letter as a game throughout the review.
The story puts you in the shoes of an adult man in his thirties, who discovers old letters from his pen-pal he regularly wrote to fifteen years ago. He finds an unopened letter with no post mark and to his horror, discovers it contains a confession where she claims to have killed someone. His curiosity bubbles over and sends him packing to Matsue, the town which his pen-pal, Aya Fumino, lived in.
The first chapter is a glance into what you can expect from the rest of the game. Throughout the story the main character is only propelled from place to place by vague reasons that makes absolutely no sense, playing detective and generally being a nuisance to the Matsue community. The premise of Root Letter is promising, but is badly executed and poorly written.
One example of this, is the reason the main character sets out to search for his pen-pal. His motivation for doing so is laughable. He decides to search for her just because he was curious, not even bothering to form any sort of plan. It’s a lazy attempt to justify why he sets off on a wild goose chase, and had me scratching my head.
From there it’s just a series of poor coincidences and random discoveries that pushes the story forward. The pacing is choppy, with the main character going from place to place with no rhyme or reason other than the game needing him to be there, and it really hinders the atmosphere of mystery and anticipation Root Letter is aiming for.
As you attempt to solve the mystery, you’ll run around Matsue and confront people who vaguely resemble the friends your pen-pal talked about in her letters, and wonder why your attempts to wheedle information out of them ends in hostility. The main character lack tact and comes off as a wannabe detective, constantly relying on brute force and wild guesses. There was a scene where he walks into a high school, searches the premises, and is surprised that the staff and security haul him in for questioning!
Root Letter feels like the writer scribbled down a bunch of vaguely interesting ideas and strung them together, lacking the coherence a proper story should have. I could only play it in short bursts because my attention would inevitably drift away, bored out of my mind as I read painful lines like:
I made a reservation at the Matsue Inn.
I have arrived at the Inn.
“This must be the Matsue Inn which I made a reservation at.”
Thankfully, Root Letter doesn’t last longer than ten hours, because I doubt I’d have completed it if it were longer.
Root Letter’s characters fall into either category: interesting and thoughtful, or plain obnoxious. You’re given some backstory on each character as the game progresses, and how their relationship with Aya Fumino shaped them, and for the most part, they are decently written. Being able to compare the characters’ past and present selves also made the game interesting. There’s something bittersweet about seeing how far they’ve come, or how far they strayed from their dreams.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the main character. He’s bland and uninteresting, the only thing resembling characterization is his obsession with his pen-pal, Aya. What Root Letter is doing, is giving us a blank canvas to project ourselves onto. This is a common tactic in visual novels as it gets the player to feel more invested in the story.
However, the failing of Root Letter is that it forgets the player has no control over the actions of the main character. The only thing you have a bearing on is how he replies to Aya’s letters, which determines which of the five endings you’ll end up with. This is a problem because when the main character does something thoroughly unlikable, doing something you wouldn’t, it creates a dissonance between the player and the game.
Root Letter’s only saving grace is its art. Each location in Matsue is beautifully drawn and brought to life, the clean and crisp backgrounds giving my eyes plenty of things to appreciate while searching for clues. Characters are also tastefully designed and gorgeous to look at, with none looking similar to the other. The game could have been so much more, but ends up falling short because of bad writing.
Overall, Root Letter isn’t the worst visual novel I’ve played and there are people who played and liked it. But I can’t recommend it unless it’s on sale, simply because there are better ones out there to spend your time on.