I was intrigued by Root Letter as soon as I saw it being compared to the Phoenix Wright games. As a visual novel that prides itself on its similarities to such an awesome series, how well does it live up to its promise?
You play as Nakamura Takayuki, a thirty-something living in Tokyo who one day finds himself sentimental and thinking back to his teenage years when he corresponded with his pen pal in rural Matsue city. The girl who he wrote to is Aya Fumino, a promising young lady that was liked by everyone but one day found herself writing her last letter to Takayuki stating that she killed someone. Takayuki decides to travel to Matsue and find out what she meant in this letter and why she suddenly stopped sending him new ones. Each of Aya's letters focused on a friend of hers in high school and as you investigate her story, you'll meet up with every one of them. Finding the now-grown students and getting them to reveal their identity isn't an easy task, however. You'll have to gather clues and talk to other classmates to get enough evidence to prove to each person you know who they are. The fact that they are all so secretive about their identity keeps you guessing as to what could have possibly happened to Aya for them to want to forget about her altogether.
Root Letter's presentation is top-notch. There are so many charming details that will often show you how much painstaking effort went into the visuals. You'll visit dozens of locations in the city of Matsue, each with their own distinct style. Although the topic of the story might sound a little dreary, the various settings do great jobs of staying bright and inviting, making you wish you could really visit Matsue. You travel through a menu and look at 2D backdrops as you talk to characters in the same vein as other visual novels. Each of the characters has their own unique look and when you finally uncover their original high school identity, it's great to see how little details of their appearance stayed with them as they aged. The soundtrack is done extremely well, too. When you're cruising around town, you'll be accompanied by a soft piano that ebbs and flows in its intensity which always keeps it interesting. When you're on to something, it will change again to match the mood and when you confront a character, it becomes much more dramatic.
Seeing as Root Letter is a visual novel, you'll spend most of your time reading text and selecting where to go next. Thankfully, the dialogue is often interesting and does a great job of slowly letting the mystery unfold while at the same time uncovering layers of each character's personal story. However, there were a few moments where I felt like I was playing a stupid teenage boy who never grew up and didn't learn how to talk to women but those were few and far between. It feels like it's mandatory in most Japanese games to have an awkward male character who has never been kissed and it's unfortunate that this character is the protagonist in Root Letter. Each student that you meet with was referenced in Aya's letters with a specific nickname and it's up to you to match that nickname to the real person. Some of these nicknames just seem out of place and make me wonder if they were lost in translation. The worst of all being a girl who talked a lot being referred to as "Bitch". Takayuki refers to her as "Bitch" so casually that it just seems weird.
The interactive parts of Root Letter are done well. When you think you know the identity of a character, you'll start investigation mode where you must force them to admit who they are by pushing their buttons with personal questions and presenting evidence. They'll fight you tooth and nail before they eventually submit. The clues to present are always relevant and require some thought. The order in which to present them can get a little frustrating. When you're not sure what to do next at any point in the story, you can choose to "Think" which will give you a clue. Sometimes, the clues are too vague and you'll find yourself just presenting everything in your inventory, hoping for them to react in a revealing way.
Seeing as I'm a huge fan of the Ace Attorney series, I was hoping for more interactivity in Root Letter. I think if the number of investigation opportunities was doubled then it would have been perfect. The fact that Root Letter has five different endings to unlock makes me want to keep playing, but knowing that most of the replay time will be spent reading the same stuff kind of puts me off. Nevertheless, if you're a huge novel fan and a completionist, I can imagine replaying it to be quite rewarding.
Root Letter is an intriguing title with an interesting story that manages to stay engaging throughout. Although a couple of weird Japanisms occasionally get in the way, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys visual novels and detective games.
- + Unique and engaging story that remains interesting from start to finish
- + Charming graphics and audio
- + Investigation mode is well done
- - Protagonist can get under your skin
- - Some text feels lost in translation
- - Not enough interactive gameplay