Earlier this year I experimented with creating a visual novel. I have a lot of experience with the genre, but like many people once you start with something you tend to collect a lot of things similar. Woodworkers buy chainsaws when they only really plan to make a bird house. Hobbyist mechanics buy extra project cars when the one they are working on doesn't have an engine or brakes yet. I picked up a slew of visual novels as research for how to create visual novels.
Currently I've sputtered out on my next game, so I decided to start knocking out the visual novels I picked up for some inspiration. I picked up Danganronpa and beat it. Still no real inspiration though, so my next game of choice would be √Letter. Pqube had gone on to push the re-release as "the best-selling interactive mystery visual novel" with a movie on the way, so I had high expectations. After a few hours, I completed one route of √Letter and felt so strongly about it I I had to say something. That's why I'm here.
√Letter is a game that was released worldwide in 2016 on PSV and PS4. It was released in 2017 on PC. The re-release was in 2019 in the form of √Letter: Last Answer. I say all this because I'm going to have so many spoilers with this rant. If you haven't found the time to pick up a copy and play it yourself, now is your opportunity to do so.
For those sticking around and those that don't care about spoilers, I'll be taking you through the common route. The common route is named so because it is the one that doesn't involve a guide. Many visual novels contain multiple routes. It just makes sense to include these in a game where interactivity is so limited. If none of the player's choices matter towards the ending, the player will feel cheated for having decided to make them so adding multiple endings makes sense. It also greatly increases replayability.
Some games stick to a straight forward scenario where if you pay attention to one girl, you wind up with that girl. Sometimes there will be curveballs like bad ends or death flags. These are routes that abruptly change to hinder your standard thought trajectory. Usually they are done for comedy or shock. The idea of which is generally to hit the player over the head for making the wrong choices so that player can reload the save and make the right ones.
This isn't always the case, but we're not focusing on those games. √Letter has 5 routes according to the achievement's list. As the achievement profile indicates, the common route is indeed the route that most people commonly take in √Letter. It lived up to the moniker. The reason I bring this up is because this route is so bad that it actually hinders the player wanting to follow the other routes. So let's talk about the Airplane Stationery route.
√Letter is a murder mystery story. Fumino Aya wrote a series of letters 15 years ago to the male player protagonist (to be named by you). Upon rediscovering these letters, one sticks out as sealed and having not been processed through the post. This is a confession letter.
"I killed someone. I must atone for my sins. We won't speak again. Farewell."
Having time to take a bit of a break, the player is then sent on a journey to find Fumino Aya and see what exactly happened in the Shimane prefecture. As the player soon discovers, Fumino Aya's house burnt down after the protagonist starts writing with his pen pal. The mother died and the father has since moved out of town. More importantly, Fumino Aya died over 20 years ago.
Yup, the math isn't adding up. So now that things have taken a turn, the player is tasked with tracking down the 7 classmates that Fumino Aya wrote specifically about in her letters.
Discovering these classmates proves difficult as they all have moved on from the incident. Many of whom want to leave it all in the past and refuse to acknowledge the truth. So like a poor man's Ace Attorney, you investigate each of Aya's friends in an attempt to expose them for who they really are. Literally. You need to get a character to admit they are indeed the "Bitch" that Aya wrote about in one letter so they can then help you find the "Shorty" she talked about in her next letter. They'll reveal a small truth about how they weren't really kind to their so called friend and then the player will reveal the nice letter full of kind words Aya wrote about them. Tears ensue.
Eventually once the player (now affectionately referred to as Max because of his use of the word Max as a positive affirmation in the letters) is able to unravel the truth of all 7 characters, he can announce the reality of what went down with Fumino Aya the day she killed someone. The day all 7 characters fear they must relive. The day "Fatty" was so traumatized by that he can't even look at red liquids anymore.
That day was when Fumino Aya faked her suicide in front of everyone to kill the character "Fumino Aya" she was pretending to be. The Fumino Aya in your letters was actually their classmate named Shiori. The reason she adopted this moniker is a bit odd.
One day the real Fumino Aya's father stumbled across Shiori at her school and asked the group to visit his wife who was traumatized with her daughter's untimely death. They got to talking and Fumino Aya's mother became convinced that Shiori was her dead daughter. After a discussion, Shiori was persuaded to visit the mother as Fumino Aya in exchange for tutoring from the father. Then the mother of Fumino Aya dies in a fire and Fumino is so overcome with guilt she chooses to murder her character.
She fake slits her wrists in a classroom with her friends gathered (complete with fake blood). Then gets up and walks out. Eventually she graduates and leaves town.
So there you have it. Shiori's alive! The tragic murder mystery is solved without a single murder!
Now off to meet your pen pal. Four-eyes knows where her adoptive father figure lives so let's ask him.
Actually, no. Apparently the always standoffish Four-eyes has decided that all this digging around in his past must be leading to a dark place as he's embezzled 3,000,000 Yen (roughly $25,000 in 2014 the year this game exists in) over his life, so he decides to jump off the lighthouse. The TV host, stage mom, coach, chef, and museum curator can only pony up 2,000,000 Yen ($17,000 in 2014) leaving you the mysterious stranger who has only been in town for a week to cough up the rest.
Having little to no money on you (seeing as how this is basically the player's vacation trip), you have to spend the day trying to unload a trinket you picked up during your journey to the local weirdos that might want it. They give you 900,000 Yen ($7,500) and you in turn have to pick up the last 100,000 Yen ($500) out of your own pocket. Finally you've saved the town, saved the town fool, and found the final piece to your puzzle.
You visit Fumino Aya's father with the gang in tow and he let's you know where Shiori is. She's on a plane to Africa. You just missed her. Really, if only you had been here yesterday, the whole gang could have had a nice conversation. She even left them all a letter thanking them for all the good times in high school.
Finally, he tells the player that Shiori had always wanted to meet you. Ok now. Bye.
So the player goes home, does his own thing, and his mother then gives him a letter she received in the mail addressed to him from Shiori. Apparently, Shiori found out he had visited and decided to write to him on a return visit to Japan. She's going to stick around Africa a while, but she just wanted to send a final note.
"It's sad, but it seems like my relation to you will end as an illusionary pen pal."
"Good bye. Take care of yourself."
Long credit sequence. Make yourself a sandwich. Come back to see what you unlocked after the gut punch of getting dumped.
Go to check the gallery. Can't access anything. Throw the controller in to the screen.
As you can see, the common route ends in frustration. It's simply set up that way from the very beginning. You are given the choice of naming your character and given options that would lead you to a personalized route. The name though is meaningless as you become Max by the story's end. The idea was to give the choices a personal feel by introducing them to the player at the beginning of the chapter making it so you the player felt like your choice might lead somewhere. Unfortunately often times they are so specific to the route that it becomes painfully obvious by chapter 3 that answering option A in each letter leads to Ending A. If you think I'm making this up, here's a walkthrough of how to reach each ending in √Letter.
Pick the first choice in all the letters -> ending 1
Pick the second choice in all the letters -> ending 2
Pick the third choice in all the letters -> ending 3
Once you beat the game you unlock the ability to obtain 2 more endings. So as you can guess:
1st reply - Ending A
2nd reply - Ending B
3rd reply - Ending C
4th reply - Ending D
5th reply - Ending E
The only unmechanical choice ever given in the game is during the investigation. Since these characters are annoying, the only option for revisiting the game is to skip all the dialog.
The characters you are interviewing generally are unlikable because they are withholding a secret from you and when pressed will lie, obfuscate, and ignore you. Why? That's because you are trying to reveal their big secret. Unfortunately all this BS is because that secret pertains to how they had issues of self loathing from being around Shiori that may or may not have manifested in harmless events that didn't seem to affect her all that much. Apparently even Kadokawa Games understands they may have had issues with characterization.
Here's a fun tidbit that I found in a Siliconera article about the game's sequel from Hifumi Kouno who replaced √Letter's director:
"Kouno acknowledged that Max in Root Letter wasn’t the most likable character, so he took steps to distance this character a little bit." It went on as Kouno addressed the elephant in the room "the main character was too unlikable and was constantly always by himself, meaning that there were a lot of monologues. This limited the writing."
Sadly Kadokawa Games are dumping all of this on Max. The issue was fundamentally that Max waltzes into town and uncovers the dark secret that friends grew apart because of their own self loathing that they felt. They would rather lie, steal, and murder Max than face the fact that as adults they should come to terms with their personal identity issues from high school.
Max thinking to himself while exploring a town he's not familiar and meeting people that refused to talk with him isn't where the story went awry. The execution of who he talked to and what it led to was the issue.
This route is so disappointing and I have no idea how the other routes are supposed to go, but my willingness to visit them just isn't there. The game is structurally sound and for all intents and purposes lives up to the 6.0 here on Destructoid. My issue however lies with how the common route is set up on paper to make you want to replay it when in reality it does the exact opposite.
In writing this I had to reminisce and can say that the story is actually a great idea about a group of friends who drift apart and come to grips with why they have done so through an outside instigator. The problem is that instigator has to literally scream it (it's a mini-game) at those grown ass adults who can't get over their past insecurities. They then admit that they screwed up by spreading rumors she cheated on a test 15 years ago or some equally banal nonsense and pass the buck on to the next person, who repeats this cycle until no one is left and they all have a come to Jesus meeting. That final gathering is where they reveal their friend orchestrated a fake suicide attempt and left the group to have them all wallow in sadness for 15 years.
That's actually a satisfying ending. It has closure and is basically Shiori telling us all that she's done with their bullshit which you as the player can understand after hours of dealing with it.
Except that's not how it ends. It ends with one of the characters embezzling funds from his work and sticking you with a chunk of the bill. It ends with Shiori thanking these jerks for the time she spent with them as she leaves for Africa. She's a better person than I am.
Shame I didn't get to actually meet her. I'm okay with that though.