Do you ever look at strangers and wonder what secrets they might be hiding? 9 times out of 10 it’s probably something pretty mundane, but everyone’s done something they’re not proud of. On suspecting one of these to be overly sinister, how far would you be willing to go to drag up the truth? Cue Root Letter, the first entry in the Kadokawa Game Mystery series.
While tidying his room, Takayuki re-discovers letters from his old pen pal, Aya. For some reason one is unopened, and chillingly reads, “I killed someone. I must atone for my sins.” Suitably shaken, he sets off for Aya’s home town, in the hopes of finding her. Upon arrival he discovers that Aya’s house burnt down 15 years prior. To make matters worse, everyone claims that Aya Fumino died 25 years ago.
Wanting answers, Takayuki must look to the only clue he has – the information written in Aya’s letters. These talk about her 7 favourite classmates, but, not wanting to make things easy, all we really know are their nicknames (Four-Eyes, Monkey, Fatty, Bitch, Snappy, Shorty, and Bestie). Of course, people change an awful lot in 15 years, and with everyone denying that they had an 8th school-friend, Takayuki has a lot of digging to do.
Despite the intriguing setup, I was disappointed when the focus became about finding Aya’s school friends, rather than the mystery at hand. Peaking my interest were glimmers of information about Aya’s past, as well as hints surrounding local folklore, ghost stories, and even aliens. These clues were rare, though, and left me longing for the suspensive storytelling of the introduction.
On my journey of discovery I got to travel to a large number of beautiful locations. Root Letter‘s designs have been given a soft style, with clear vivid colours. Main characters were also given unique designs to match their personalities. I particularly loved seeing similarities between the teenage and adult versions. The only slight downside were a couple of repeated NPCs, that jarred a little against the mostly varying designs.
If you’re a Phoenix Wright fan, you’ll most definitely know the drill when it comes to gameplay. Visit new places, chat with the locals and check around for clues. When I gained enough information on someone I was finally allowed to face them in an Investigation sequence, calling them out on their lies.
Handling investigations was always pretty logical, and I’d often pieced most of it together before hand. I essentially had to go full Phoenix Wright, choosing exactly which question to ask, and when to present evidence – like showing a picture of someone wearing braces after they claim to have always had perfect teeth. Note that there is a lives system for these sections, but too many mistakes just means restarting the investigation, so players can just relax and go for it.
When evidence and questions weren’t enough, I was prompted to use Max Mode. It’s essentially a way of catching someone off guard by yelling blunt truths in their face. If Max Mode begins, a circle appears on the screen, and a roster of phrases will show up – with riskier ones logging higher on the circle’s meter. I simply had to quickly choose which phrase would put the greatest pressure on the receiver. I liked the idea of this, but it came across as redundant. Phrases showed up too fast, it was hard to know which one was right, and failure had no consequences.
Speaking of feeling unnecessary, while the basic gameplay elements were all relatively solid, Root Letter rarely let me think for myself. I felt like it was constantly holding my hand, spelling out which location to go next, and giving no reward for choosing to go anywhere else. The worst contender was the “think” button, which makes our protagonist consider what to do next. While I immediately registered this as a simple hint button, Root Letter often forced me to ask for the answer against my will.
For example, I was trying to prove that I knew the name of the man on a fitness poster, because his image was clearly in another picture in my possession. Showing the image got no response. The answer was getting Takayuki to think about it, so he could put two and two together, and bring up the picture himself. I was often left wondering why there were interactive sections at all, if the game wanted to show me the answer so badly.
Luckily, Root Letter allowed me one section of important decision making. Each chapter began by reading a different pen pal letter, that always ended with a question from Aya. The combination of how I replied, and the questions I asked in return, affected which of the 5 endings I received. What I really liked here was that the end of Aya’s replies changed based off what I said. For example, giving warm words if I said friendship with women is possible, and an aloof response to me thinking all women are selfish.
I have to say, I was left unsatisfied by the first ending. The mystery was solved, but storytelling wasn’t the return to form I had been hoping for. Playing again for the different endings did provide a bit more entertainment with some varying tales, though. And I was glad I made the effort to find the true ending. Use of a skip scenario and go straight to the letters button, also meant that gaining all endings was pretty smooth.
Before summing up, it’s worth quickly noting that Root Letter‘s English translation includes a number of spelling and grammatical errors. There are even moments when certain letters were cut off, such as, “I first saw it before the house bur” instead of “burned down.” I personally wasn’t overly bothered by this, as it was always clear what the game was trying to say. Yet, some are going to be left wishing that a touch more effort had gone in.
Root Letter contains many of the elements required of a decent mystery visual novel. I could easily have gotten over any niggling problems, if the whole story had lived up to its own intriguing setup. I found the realistic look at why people change over time to be well-done, but it was ultimately out of place for a title selling itself as a thrilling mystery.
This review is based off a Vita copy of the game, which we were provided with.
Root Letter’s intriguing premise was just enough to keep me playing, despite the lacking tension that was initially promised.