Imagine you’re a youngish gentleman – in his early thirties to be more precise – reflecting back on a pen pal he had some 15 years ago. Aya Fumino was her name, and with just 10 sincere letters she captured your heart. All of a sudden though, the letters stopped. Or so you thought.
Finding an 11th letter that you never recall receiving, and strangely, without a postmark, you’re alarmed to find that Aya claims she has killed someone and must disappear. Dazed, confused and eager to find out exactly what happened all those years ago, you head out to find Aya, unknowingly entering into a gruelling investigation filled with many twists and turns. That is the premise of Root Letter, and I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s attention-grabbing.
As a visual novel, it’s a good job that Root Letter’s premise is rather fascinating – it’s never going to win any awards for its gameplay. Although, that’s not to say that it’s a totally passive experience requiring no interaction or thought. Between reading reams of text as the story unfolds, you’ll be travelling to locations new and old, following up leads and making use of rudimentary gameplay mechanics to progress. What that entails could be simply asking a person a question, checking the environment for clues, consulting your travel guide to find a location, or even just taking a second to think things through in your head, piecing together fragments of information to figure out the best course of action. As I said, it’s simple, but engaging nonetheless.
Split into chapters, I’m not giving much away by saying that the main brunt of Root Letter is spent locating the seven friends that Aya so enthusiastically writes about in her letters to you, hopefully so that they can point you in the direction of her whereabouts. Obviously, people change over the course of 15 years though, and knowing only their school nicknames, it’s not such an easy task. It also doesn’t help that they all seemingly want to forget their pasts, so even once you have found them, getting them to admit who they are and divulge any information takes some work. Like a true detective then, gathering evidence to use as leverage is a must, and once you’ve finally got all the dirt you need to make them open up you can really step up your investigation.
Whilst generally a laid back experience, Root Letter’s one-on-one investigation sequences deliver some strenuous moments where your perception and powers of deduction are reasonably tested. Faced with individuals that really don’t want to spill the beans, they require you to give real thought as to which questions you should ask and what evidence to present at the right time in order to manipulate the flow of conversation. Ruin the flow of dialogue by selecting the wrong option six times and you’ll have to start again from the beginning. On paper, it sounds like these sequences could be rather irritating should you fail, but luckily, they’re rarely that taxing.
Personally, I found Root Letter‘s weakest aspect to be its “Max Time” instances, occurring mainly, but not exclusively, during the aforementioned investigation sequences. Challenging you to stop an on-screen gauge in the section associated with the response you believe is the most appropriate for the situation, the random movements of the gauge can annoy, and being forced to repeat the exercise until you’ve selected the right response renders the whole process fairly pointless.
Whilst i’m being down on Root Letter for the moment, I should also note my disappointment that there’s the odd localisation issue here and there. An errant space in the middle of a word, the occasional instance of a poor translation, and even a sentence that was unfinished are just a few examples that spring to mind. Admittedly, they didn’t really ruin my ability to enjoy Root Letter at all, but they shouldn’t exist in something so reliant on its writing. I also found it strange that Aya refers to most of her friends using nicknames that aren’t particularly loving, such as Bitch, Fatty and Four Eyes.
When all’s said and done though, what holds Root Letter together is its thoroughly captivating story that keeps you hooked from start to finish. Right from the get-go you’re trapped in an alluring mystery that only deepens as you uncover a web of lies and deceit. It’s well paced, spurring you on to find the next piece of evidence required to eke the truth out of your next victim, and with elements of the paranormal and science fiction thrown in for good measure, you never really know where the story is going to go. What’s more, it is well-presented, with fantastic artwork used throughout to bring each of the characters’ personalities to life, and an absorbing soundtrack that perfectly sets the mood for each scene.
With five endings to aim for, amounting to around 50 hours of gameplay, Root Letter is great for anyone that loves a good mystery. Obviously it’s not action-packed – this is a visual novel after all – but just like a good book it keeps you on tenterhooks from beginning to end, eager to find out exactly what happened all those years ago and the implications it may have in the present day. Those looking for a Phoenix Wright-style experience on PS4 should look no further – Root Letter scratches the itch whilst also presenting a more compelling and mature story.
Root Letter is available on PS4 and PS Vita. We reviewed the PS4 version