One of the biggest challenges an author faces when writing fiction is coming up with an interesting hook. What can they do to make sure that audiences are going to become invested in their story’s plot and characters? How can they make sure that audiences are going to care about the narrative? Even if an author has a good hook, they’re still left with another challenge: making good on the enticing premise. Failure to follow up on an engaging hook produces an unsatisfactory result, and often leaves the audience with a bitter aftertaste in their mouths. The failure to overcome these challenges is at the heart of all the problems with Root Letter, the first entry in Kadokawa Games’ new series of mystery games.
The setup of Root Letter is genuinely intriguing. Reminiscing about his high school pen pal Aya Fumino, the main character (nicknamed “Max,” regardless of the name you enter) finds a letter that he thought was never sent. In her final letter to Max, Aya confesses to a murder she committed and bids him farewell. Max decides to track down Aya by taking a trip to her hometown of Matsue, Japan. In the process, he becomes a bonafide detective as he searches for the high school friends she mentioned in her letters — friends with horrible nicknames, such as “Four-Eyes,” “Fatty,” and even “Bitch” — and slowly uncovers the truth. Max’s only hope of finding Aya’s whereabouts and the truth behind her murder confession lies in interrogating her old friends. By going around Shimane Prefecture and talking to its citizens, Max starts to collect clues and evidence that he can present to his suspects, similar to another visual novel series, Ace Attorney. When needing to press his suspect, Max can enter “Max Mode,” a mini-game where players must select the appropriate dialogue choice. In theory, Max Mode is supposed to keep you invested in the conversations taking place, and the thumping heartbeat rhythm that accompanies it encourages a sense of both pressure and urgency. However, unlike when you present evidence in the game’s interrogation segments, choosing the wrong option in Max Mode doesn’t result in a penalty, making the entire purpose of the mechanic useless.
This is not only bad because it makes the game too easy, but also bad because there’s hardly any gameplay to begin with. Even the ability to examine your environments is rarely utilized, and this means that the only time you’re not just pressing a button to continue the dialogue is during these interrogations. Giving the player plenty of “lives” to lose when presenting evidence and not taking another “life” away from them if they mess up in Max Mode is easy enough as it is, but should you lose all of your “lives,” you simply restart at the beginning of the interrogation. These’s absolutely no penalty, and in turn, no true gameplay.
And that could be fine. It is, first and foremost, a visual novel. Unfortunately, the writing of Root Letter is abysmal. Characters are just plain unlikeable, there are extremely weird tonal shifts at inappropriate times, and the protagonist is a genuine jerk. In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever hated playing as a character so much in my life. Max is obnoxious, rude, pretentious, unkind, bratty, and truly full of himself. There’s nothing in Max’s characterization that makes you connect with him enough to even love to hate him, and he never really develops as a character. For a game with a central theme of growing up and putting your childhood mistakes behind you, Max still acts like an entitled teenager in his 30’s, even after seeing how much Aya’s friends have grown and moved on as people.
One of the game’s saving graces is its gorgeous art. The backgrounds look beautiful and every character seems to ooze with a sense of personality with their design. However, it’s sad that there’s not animation here. Characters can change their expressions, but there’s no animation; it’s simply just a new, static character model. This is par for course with visual novels, I know, but that doesn’t make it okay. When you couple a lack of production value with a steep price point ($60 for PS4, $40 for Vita), static art becomes a glaring flaw.
There are five different endings, and which one you get is determined by how you choose to reply to Aya’s letters. While the ending I got offered me a sense of closure, it still didn’t satisfy me, as it felt extremely rushed. The stilted dialogue and numerous localization errors, coupled with a cardboard-thin cast, ensured that I didn’t have a desire to give up even more hours of my life to this game by exploring its different endings.