Root Letter is the first title in the Kadokawa Game Mystery series with contributions from key staff who worked on Konami’s LovePlus series, like character designer Mino Taro. When it was first announced, I was drawn in by the gorgeous art and knew I needed to play it. Other than its art, Root Letter also interested me with this line:
“I’ve killed someone. This is farewell… goodbye.”
Any who read it would surely be gripped by curiosity and, like me, decide to give the game a chance. This was reflected in the sales. Root Letter sold over 200,000 copies, and the head of marketing at PQube describes it as a "phenomenal" success.
Unfortunately, for all the excitement and intrigue the game generated from the art, summary, and trailers, Root Letter disappointed me. As someone who has played a number of visual novels, Root Letter is merely serviceable, failing in both story and its attempt at a mystery.
For the uninitiated, a visual novel is a game with static graphics, most often using anime-style art, with minimal gameplay, consisting predominantly of narration. Many visual novels have multiple endings that are determined by the choices of the player, and Root Letter is no different in this regard. For the sake of making this review less confusing, I will be referring to Root Letter as a game throughout the review rather than a visual novel.
The story puts you in the shoes of an adult man in his thirties who discovers old letters from his pen pal he regularly wrote to fifteen years before. He finds an unopened letter with no post mark and, to his horror, discovers it contains a confession where she claims to have killed someone. His curiosity bubbles over and sends him packing to Matsue, the town which his pen pal, Aya Fumino, lived in.
The first chapter is a glance into what you can expect from the rest of the game. Throughout the story the main character is propelled from place to place only by vague reasons that make absolutely no sense, playing detective and being a nuisance to the Matsue community.
The premise of Root Letter is promising, but it's badly executed and poorly written. One example of this is the reason the main character sets out to search for his pen pal. His motivation for doing so is laughable. He decides to search for her because he was curious, not even bothering to form any sort of plan and just ups and leaves for Matsue. It’s an extremely lazy attempt to justify why he sets off on a wild goose chase that had me scratching my head.
From there, it’s just a series of poor coincidences and random discoveries that pushes the story forward. The pacing is choppy, with the main character going from place to place with no rhyme or reason other than the game needing him to be there. This pace hinders the atmosphere of mystery and anticipation Root Letter is aiming for.
As the man attempts to solve the mystery he'll run around Matsue and confront people who vaguely resemble the friends Aya talked about in her letters, and he wonders why his attempts to wheedle information out of them ends in hostility. The main character lacks tact and comes off as a wannabe detective, constantly relying on brute force and wild guesses. There was even a scene where he walks into a high school, searches the premises, and is surprised that the staff and security haul him in for questioning.
Root Letter feels like the writer scribbled down a bunch of vaguely interesting ideas and strung them together, lacking the coherence a proper story should have. I could only play it in short bursts because my attention would inevitably drift away, bored out of my mind as I read painful lines like:
"I made a reservation at the Matsue Inn."
"I have arrived at the Inn."
“This must be the Matsue Inn which I made a reservation at.”
Thankfully, Root Letter doesn’t last longer than ten hours, because I doubt I’d have completed it if it were any longer.
Root Letter’s characters fall into one of two categories: interesting and thoughtful or plain obnoxious. You’re given some backstory on each character as the game progresses and how their relationship with Aya Fumino shaped them, and for the most part, they are decently written. Being able to compare the characters’ past and present selves made the game interesting. There’s something bittersweet about seeing how far they’ve come, or how far they strayed from their dreams.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the main character. He’s bland and uninteresting. The only trait resembling characterization is his obsession with his pen pal, Aya. What Root Letter is doing is giving us a blank canvas to project ourselves onto. This is a common tactic in visual novels as it gets the player to feel more invested in the story.
However, the failing of Root Letter is that it forgets the player has no control over the actions of the main character. The only thing you have a bearing on is how he replies to Aya’s letters, which determines which of the five endings you’ll end up with. This is a problem because when the main character does something thoroughly unlikable, doing something you wouldn’t, it creates a dissonance between the player and the game.
Root Letter’s only saving grace is its art. Each location in Matsue is beautifully drawn and brought to life, the clean and crisp backgrounds giving players plenty of things to appreciate while searching for clues. Characters are also tastefully designed and gorgeous to look at, with none looking similar to the other. The game could have been much more, but ends up falling short because of bad writing.
Overall, Root Letter isn’t the worst visual novel I’ve played and there are people who played and liked it. But I can’t recommend it unless it’s on sale, simply because there are better ones out there to spend your time on.
Final review score is out of 10.