Although I enjoy gaming and anime, I’ve never actually played a visual novel before, so when I first read about Root Letter I was drawn in by its beautiful graphics and that it was a game revolving around penpals. For those who don’t know, a visual novel is essentially an interactive, playable novel with mostly static graphics. They are largely linear with a set storyline and ending, although some can have multiple endings.
In Root Letter you are a 33 year old man who has returned to the Shimane prefecture in the hopes of finding a penpal you used to write to in high school called Aya Fumino. You recall that she stopped writing to you for some reason, and on digging out her old letters to you, you discover one that had been unopened, in which she says she has killed someone. Keen to get to the bottom of the mystery, your quest is to track down the classmates Aya mentioned in her letters to you to get the truth. Luckily they all had distinctive nicknames such as Fatty, Bestie, Shorty, Bitch, Snappy and Four Eyes and Aya’s letters provide clues to their past that help you figure out where they might have ended up.
At the beginning of each chapter of the game you take out one of Aya’s old letters to read, in each one she discusses a different one of her classmates. After reading her letter, you recall your own response and at the end of the letter the game gives you the option to decide what you wrote for part of the letter – the choice you make will affect the ending you get in the final chapter of the game.
Most of the gameplay is you travelling around Shimane to talk to people and pick up items along the way. You can then use this knowledge, and the items to win an “investigation” at the end of the chapter and uncover one of Aya’s classmates. The investigations are the most fun part of the game because you have to say the right thing or use the right evidence in the right order, and if you get it wrong too many times then you have to redo the investigation from the beginning.
During the investigation you can also use “Max mode” (your character’s nickname is Max) to choose from a selection of sayings across a moving meter to get the reaction you need from the person in question. If you pick the wrong answer the person you are talking to will be unimpressed and you have to try again.
One of the things I really enjoyed about this game is that the Shimane prefecture in the game is heavily based on real life with many of the real locations beautifully rendered in the photo realist style that anime scenery is renowned for. The game itself also fills you in with little titbits of information along the way so if you’re keen to visit Japan it’s a really fun virtual tour.
My expectations for the game would be that it centred heavily on high school age characters, which isn’t the case as you meet the classmates all grown up. The cutesy cover art also duped me into thinking it would be a sweet emotional game. I was surprised that there’s actually a lot of humour and wit. The character you play as, Takayuki, has a really dry, sarcastic sense of humour, which really works well to keep the game engaging and entertaining during the slower moments when you’re just pressing one button repeatedly to move through a lot of dialogue.
Although Root Letter wasn’t what I expected I really enjoyed this game. The soundtrack has a relaxing, serene quality that complements the stunning landscape art beautifully. The characters usually subvert expectations and make for entertaining and often suspenseful investigation gameplay as they constantly clam up when it comes to Aya, deepening the mystery and creating an increasingly compelling story. The only major downside to this game is that the five alternate endings only come into play in the last chapter of the game, which means that the rest of the game hints at all five endings throughout which can make the gameplay feel a little confusing and nonsensical as it tries to maintain an ambiguous element by mentioning all the different themes. If you’re willing to overlook this you can still enjoy the mystery though.
Root Letter is available now for PS4 and PSVita. You can also buy a special edition of the game which includes an artbook containing the beautiful landscape art featured in the game.