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Review: Root Letter

0

P.S. Are you a ghost?

At first, Root Letter (stylized as “√Letter”) appears to try to hook players with the thought of solving a crime. A murder mystery is afoot, and it’s up to me, the player, to solve it. But actually playing the game makes me feel less like Sherlock Holmes cracking open a tough whodunit, and more like an eccentric, slightly obnoxious Lonely Planet writer backpacking his way across a lesser-known section of Japan.

I can’t say definitively whether the rather laid-back mood of this visual novel was all due to Kadokawa Games’ intentions, but oddly enough, it still works out.

Root Letter (PS4 [Reviewed], PS Vita)
Developer: Kadokawa Games
Publisher: PQube
Released: November 8, 2016 (NA)
MSRP: $59.99 (PS4), $39.99 (Vita)

Indeed, what could have been a tense thriller is rendered in a haze of breezy nostalgia by Root Letter’s able presentation. Leveraging involvement of key members from Konami’s Love Plus team (i.e. the team that’s come closer than anyone else in gaming to creating an actual, true-to-the-words “dating sim”), everything in Root Letter is rendered in bright, shiny colors and intricate detail. What might otherwise be a grimly intriguing hook feels more like a pleasant lark.

If anything, this slightly absurd atmosphere helps the narrative along, which begins as your character, a thirty-something salaryman with a default name of “Takayuki,” prepares to move house in anticipation of a promotion. You come across a series of letters from one Aya Fumino, an old pen-pal flame from fifteen years ago. The letters lead to a bout of romantic reminiscence, until the discovery of a final, curiously unread missive, containing a shocking confession: Aya cuts off your correspondence, claiming to have killed someone.

It’s heavy stuff, and enough for the young guy to put his whole life on hold and jet off to Aya’s hometown of Matsue, a lakeside city in Japan’s western Shimane prefecture. All this to find someone he’s never met personally and ask her about a murder she may or may not have committed back when Y2K was still a thing. His only clues are the letters she wrote, and the friends she described within them, who all, luckily enough, still live in town and are open to being interrogated regarding her whereabouts by a complete stranger.

Indeed, Takayuki's main task for much of the game is tracking down each of these old friends and grilling them on just who Aya Fumino is, and later, why she and her actions were such a big deal back in high school. The game is divided into chapters, and most of the meaningful choice in the narrative takes place between chapters, as Aya's letters are recounted and players try to decide how they (or rather, Takayuki), responded to her postscript questions. Their choices can affect events in subsequent chapters, and ultimately, influence which of a handful of endings players will see.

It's a novel hook, and frankly, one that deserves better than it gets in Root Letter, whose narrative suffers for its unevenness and a localization that borders on wretched. The story shifts in tone wildly, its otherwise grounded cold case-style mystery contrasting against characterization that at times approaches the cartoonish exaggeration of the Ace Attorney series. That kind of cartoonishness isn't the problem, though. It's the inconsistency. Whereas Ace Attorney is reliably bonkers from end to end, Root Letter tries to mix in the anime wackos with characters that are more realistic in carriage and personality. It's a tough balance to strike, and unfortunately, the writing isn't up to the task, ending up making the "colorful" characters seem insane and the realistic ones seem boring.

It's hard to tell just which tone the game was going for, especially given the huge amount of local flavor infused in it. Matsue is, as it turns out, a real city in Japan, and much of the background artwork in Root Letter is referenced from actual locations, including existing establishments like well-known bars and restaurants. While this style of "product placement" might come off as crass in other games, the aura of verisimilitude adds to Root Letter's charm. One could even imagine using the game to inform an itinerary for visiting the city one day. Then again, all this grounding in reality makes the bizarre characterizations stand out even more. 

The localization also tends to make things worse (and occasionally "better"). The translation is straightforward and largely correct, but numerous typos, awkward and circular phrasing, and other issues make it look like the script was barely given any editing before being implemented in the game. Sometimes this can make for some unintentional hilarity, but it reflects poorly on the game itself.

Less-discerning players with a tolerance for bad localizations, or maybe Matsue residents, will find a pleasant diversion in Root Letter, but for everyone else, it's difficult to recommend, especially at its current price tag.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

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Root Letter reviewed by Josh Tolentino

6

ALL RIGHT

Slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy it a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.
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Josh Tolentino
Josh TolentinoAnime Editor   gamer profile

When not posting about Japanese games or Star Trek, Josh serves as Managing Editor for Japanator, Dtoid's sister site for the best in anime, manga, and cool news from Glorious Nippon. Disclosure... more + disclosures


 


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