You can name your character whatever you want but his nickname is Max. Max is sorting out his room when he discovers some letters from a pen pal he had fifteen years ago. He notices one letter he never opened for whatever reason and takes a look. There his pen pal states that she’s killed someone and that was her final letter. As he is currently between jobs he decides to take a trip to meet his old pen pal for the first time.
It’s an intriguing set up. Upon arriving at the address from which the letters were sent the house is no longer there, so all Max has to go on is the friends that are mentioned, by nickname, in the letters. Finding those friends and trying to convince them to tell you where your pen pal is takes up the majority of the game, for some mysterious reason they all seem to be reluctant to tell you anything about her.
Being a visual novel there is a lot of text to read through so you’ll spend a lot of time pressing X to progress the dialogue. The majority is voice acted but only in Japanese. Root Letter has a little more to it than that though, you have multiple actions you can take when not in a conversation. You can ‘Check’ the area which brings up a magnifying glass that acts as a mouse pointer for you to highlight certain objects, you can look at your ‘Guidebook’ to learn a little more about the area you’re in, you can ‘Ask’ questions if there is somebody else present or show them an item from you ‘Inventory’ or you can ‘Move’ to another location.
You will have to use each of these actions at specific points to progress the story and although it’s only really the illusion of interaction it’s still welcome. I’ve played a few visual novels where you barely do anything so even if there is only one thing you can do to progress and the game basically tells you what that is just having to use a tiny amount of brain power makes a big difference.
Another area where Root Letter is better than other visual novels I’ve played is in the length of the chapters. Each chapter is probably just shy of an hour, so you’re not locked into chapters of epic length and have natural break points come around with reasonable regularity. I actually played for long periods thanks to this as you always felt like you were making progress with the story and so I wanted to see what happened next.
The other major interaction you have is when you’re trying to get information out of people. Here you get an almost Ace Attorney style of gameplay where you can make five mistakes before failing and having to start the section over. Depending on what you’re trying to get out of the person you either have to pick the right question to ask or show them the correct piece of evidence. Get it wrong and you get another shot but lose a life, get it right and it moves onto the next part of the investigation.
At certain points the game will automatically go into ‘Max Mode’ which basically equates to a pulsing bar which counts as a different response depending on how full it gets. It’s obvious this is supposed to take the place of an ‘Objection!’ moment in Ace Attorney but it just doesn’t work.
The bar pulses at such a speed that you’re not really taking in what the options you can pick are, if you wait too long and try to take in what the options are then the game fails you and you have to start Max Mode again, choosing the wrong option doesn’t cost you anything and you just go back into Max Mode so there’s no risk and a lot of the options are just incredibly similar so figuring out which one the game feels is correct is just trial and error. Every time it came up I wished I just had a list of responses to choose from so I could make an informed decision rather than tapping X depending on a meter like in a golf game.
If you are stuck at any point then there is a ‘Think’ option which will sometimes just tell you exactly where you need to go and will sometimes only give you a hint. At times it feels necessary as you have no idea where the game wants you to go or what you’re supposed to be quizzing someone about so it’s nice to have it so you don’t have to aimlessly wander through all the games locations hoping to trigger something.
There are quite a few different areas to visit and although they’re all just a background picture there is a decent amount of variety and the graphics are actually very nice. The character art is well drawn with the main cast getting a few different frames to cycle through and the backgrounds look great with a painterly look with some atmospheric effects over the top like dust particles catching the light and such bringing the scene to life. The music can be a little repetitive with the same track being played for the majority of the game however.
There are ten chapters so the first run through the game took me just under ten hours but there are multiple endings to experience. At the beginning of each chapter Max will read one of the old letters and remember what he wrote in response, at the end you get to reply to a question with an answer of your choosing and this decides which ending you get. Upon completion you unlock more responses to the letters to choose from, opening up more possible endings and you can skip through the earlier chapters where you’ve seen all there is to see which is a nice touch.
Root Letter is one of the better traditional visual novels I’ve played. It moves at a fair pace with chapters of a good length that respects the players time. There are plenty of different characters that you’ll encounter over and over and see grow through the story and the main thread itself is intriguing and had me making a few different predictions over the course of the game.
The interactions are sign posted and so there is only really an illusion of player control but the attempt is appreciated to break up the button pushing through dialogue boxes. If you’re mildly tempted to dip your toes into this genre then I think you could do a lot worse than to start with Root Letter.