Root Letter

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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.

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All of Aya’s stationery is totally adorable
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Try your hand at virtual snail mail

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.

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Max mode is one of the more dynamic features of the game

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.

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Matsue Castle in the game…
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…and Matsue Castle in real life

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.

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Takayuki is cocky at the best of times

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.

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Until Dawn

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Ten teenagers are enjoying a fun getaway at the Washington’s lodge, and decide to play a particularly cruel prank on one of the girls, Hannah. When she runs out into the woods humiliated, her sister Beth goes after her and they go missing. Their distraught brother Josh decides to bring the group back to the lodge a year later in the hopes of healing and reuniting everyone in their grief, but there’s something sinister in the woods…

So begins the interactive horror game Until Dawn. The aim of the game is typical of most horror stories – to make it to the end with as many of your teenagers still alive as possible. Each chapter of the game counts down the remaining hours “until dawn”, when the game will end. You can play as all of the teenagers throughout the game, each with distinct personalities (the jock, the bitchy one, the moral one, the nerd) and differing relationships to each other.

You can monitor how your character's personality and relationships change throughout the game
Your character’s personality and relationships change throughout the game dependent on the choices you make

Until Dawn works as a choice based adventure game. You can decide how your characters should treat each other and how much they should tell each other with each decision. This has a knock-on effect to the kind of relationships they have with each other and their own personalities which creates the long term and sometimes tragic consequences. During the more active game play in which your characters are exploring their surroundings you can also decide whether to run or hide when necessary or which route to take. Sometimes these decisions are timed as your character needs to make a quick decision and you might have as little as five seconds to pick an option that could mean life or death for your character.

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There’s not always an obvious choice in this game

Until Dawn works well as a horror game because it serves up equal parts intellect and quick reflexes. As well as hunting for clues to help you figure out what is going on in the woods and what really happened to Hannah and Beth, you have to think really carefully about the long term effects your choices could have on each teen and everyone’s survival. The game also encourages you to think about turning horror tropes on their head – do you want to befriend nature or destroy it? Should you risk separating from the group? Is it best to kill someone to save someone else? You have to keep your wits about you at all times, so if you enjoy the horror genre you’ll really enjoy being able to make these choices yourself. It’s a refreshing change from just killing monsters as you go along which some of the more traditional horror games offer.

The reflex quick time event moments also work well to really keep you on edge at all times – you never know when one will pop up so you always need to be completely focused. There are plenty of jump scares (and yes, I jumped at all of them) and they can often be followed by a quick time event in which you need to quickly press a button or make a choice to help ensure your character lives to the next chapter. It’s frustrating but also more realistic to the danger the game aims to portray that one wrong decision or missed button press can mean your character’s death just as easily as making poor long term decisions can. The game play also includes moments in which you have to keep the controller as still as possible to keep characters safe which is a lot harder than it sounds when you’re tense with fear, but all adds to the suspense.

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Sensor style gameplay puts the characters’ lives in your hands

Between each chapter are scenes in which a psychiatrist talks to a hidden character in his office. The psychiatrist repeatedly discusses with the hidden character the “game” she/he is playing and the effects it is having, which I thought was a fun little breaking of the fourth wall. The psychiatrist encourages “you” to pick answers for things which scare you the most, and which characters in the game you prefer, which each have small effects on future gameplay (although not on who lives or dies).

Until Dawn is a great game that builds tension well with atmospheric music, dark visuals and jump scares galore. It forces you to live with your choices through auto saves, there’s no way to “redo” a choice without restarting the game, so you have to carry on even when you’re annoyed about making a wrong choice or missing a crucial button press. This makes for a much more compelling and honest horror survival game. Although the characters weren’t always as interesting and sympathetic as they could have been and some of the movement is a little clunky, this is still a definite play for anyone who enjoys choice based games. With so many variants and endings you can easily play it again and again. Just don’t play it on your own in the dark…

Life is Strange

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Square Enix has always excelled at story focused games and Life is Strange is no exception. Max Caulfield is a photography student at the prestigious Blackwell Academy. After a bizarre vision, Max discovers she can rewind time. She first uses this ability to save a girl from being shot, a girl who turns out to be her best friend Chloe she’s been estranged from for five years. During their estrangement Chloe has been hanging with another girl called Rachel Amber, but Rachel has gone missing.

The game works as an interactive, open-ended novel. As Max, you travel round the campus and surrounding areas of Arcadia, speaking to classmates and other citizens of the town. The primary goal is to find out what happened to Rachel, but unfolding dramas and events seem to be connected and form a much larger picture which you have to get to the bottom of. Even small choices like whether or not to sign a petition or take a phone call have an impact on the storyline, and every time you make a decision that has consequences you are alerted to this. The game allows you to rewind and change a decision immediately if you don’t like the way its immediate effects play out.

Be careful what you say...it could have consequences
Be careful what you say…it could have consequences

Although the gameplay is not generally dynamic – you walk around, speak to people, interact with objects and rewind time where needed, the story is hugely ambiguous. There are five episodes in total and it becomes clear from episode one that many threads are connected, so speaking to one character about a drama might actually shed some light on another character and give a clearer idea of the overall picture.

The most fascinating aspect of the game is that there are often no clear choices. Unlike Catherine, in which your answers are unambiguous and will move you along on a good/bad scale accordingly, it is not always clear how your actions are going to impact others in the long term. There is no way of knowing how far reaching even a seemingly small action could be. The Chaos Theory is referenced in Life is Strange when Max sees a butterfly at the start of the game and a butterfly will appear in the top left corner whenever a change is made, maintaining the notion of the butterfly effect in that we have no way of knowing how our actions will affect others in the long term.

Life is Strange features a strong host of female characters and the style of the gameplay is very much geared towards those who enjoy social and drama based stories. Issues such as privacy, gun use, drug use, mental health and environmentalism are examined and used to support the game’s message that our actions and decisions often have a much bigger impact on the world around us than we realise. The game also throws in a relationship subplot, giving you the option to make Max lean towards either Warren or Chloe in a romantic way.

I really enjoyed the number of female friendships in this game
Max and Chloe’s relationship forms the core of the game

The indie soundtrack and the soft, dreamy aesthetic help the emotion of the game stand out. Whilst the dialogue can be grating and cheesy, throwing in a heavy dose of how adults seem to think modern teens speak, such as “go fuck your selfie” the voice cast is strong and this is a really enjoyable and interesting choice based game.

Life is Strange is available on multiple platforms now.

Catherine

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A “multi-platformer horror romance” – Catherine sounds like an interesting game already. Our protagonist is one Vincent Brooks, a man in his early thirties working a dull office job and not really finding any direction in life. His long-time girlfriend, the smart and sophisticated Katherine, is beginning to get restless, which isn’t too surprising – the game refers to them having been together around seven years, and they still aren’t living together.

With Katherine pushing for a commitment from Vincent, he isn’t sure which way to turn, even less so when he begins to have strange nightmares which spill over into the real world as he wakes up next to a busty flirty blonde named Catherine he has no recollection of bedding.

The multi-platform levels are certainly fun, with multiple difficulty levels to choose from. There are enough unpredictable elements with ice blocks, bomb blocks, enemies, and a loose sense of a time limit to keep things interesting. You also have a mini boss at the end of each set of levels, with a ghoulish figure that represents Vincent’s primary worry at that stage of the game. These bosses each have slightly different strengths designed to keep you from finishing the level, but some might find levels a bit repetitive all the same.

This game is best for those who love a strong storyline, as the joy comes in choosing which path you want to take – your long time love Katherine, or the seductive and mysterious Catherine. Alongside the multi-platform levels, you can interact with characters during the day in the appropriately named Stray Sheep bar, making choices that will steer the game. These choices are as simple as how you phrase texts to Katherine and Catherine, or what responses you give when speaking to your friends in the bar, which really emphasises the overarching message of the game that even our seemingly small actions are shaping our lives all the time.

If you like a clever, thought provoking game that considers the question when and if we should settle down, with neat classical music touches and quirky anime graphics, Catherine is the game to pick up. If you have the patience to keep battling through the levels you can get all the endings too, including the supernatural twist.