“Root Letter is sets up a great mystery, but fails to deliver an earned and satisfactory ending.”
Hey guys, it’s Kiki here back on the Buttonsmashers with a review of Root Letter. Before I begin my in-depth review, I want to be very clear about spoilers ahead. The ending, the choices, and character reveals will be discussed to provide an extensive review of the game. Please continue at your own risk.
Right off the bat, I do have to give credit where credit is due; and that is to the art work of the game. Being a fan of manga and anime, I was instantly attracted to Root Letter. There are multiple locations to visit in the world of Matsue, which is the city to which the story takes place. There are traditional parks and temples, styled noodle restaurants, and local shopping plazas that are social hot spots for the citizens. On top of the gorgeous scenery throughout the game, the characters and NPCs are all unique to one another, ensuring that none blend together or are re-used. I admire this fact, considering often games recycle character models to reduce time and energy to create new ones.
Root Letter is a visual novel game, so not much can be said with the game play. It is a simple point and click game, relying heavily on the story to drive its success rather than the mechanics. With that in mind, the dialogue is fairly on point. Each character has unique speech and reacts differently to you which makes it easy to follow along. Other than a few words incorrectly spelled from its Japanese-to-English translation, I felt everything flowed wonderfully. The game does try to utilize detective skills; making the player search the screen for clues or to interact with objects. Although this feature was fine, I found in some areas of the game it was troublesome. In particular I remember a scene at which I was at a train station and I was supposed to find a path to a boat. I searched the screen for several minutes, interacting with the only objects I could to no avail. Eventually I went on a clicking spree, clicking everything on the screen and then going to the menu only to find that it was a random selection in the menu that drove the story forward. Because there were no clues or hints to signal this, it was by luck that I pressed it and carried forward. Moments like this took away from the flow of the story, but weren’t damning enough to cause a negative impact.
Because the game play is simplistic, the biggest area of this review will focus on the story. Overall, I found the story to be interesting enough, however, the lack of sincerity in the main characters and the unsatisfactory finale made everything fall flat. To summarize the story, our main protagonist is a man that goes by the name Max. In his high school days, he communicated with a girl named Aya Fumino through a series of letters. When the letters came to a halt, he concluded their friendship over. Fifteen years later while moving, Max stumbles upon the letters, only to have his curiosity peaked as to what happened to her. After looking through some things, an unopened letter is discovered that reads: “I killed someone. I must atone for my sins. We won’t speak again. Farewell.” This drives Max to want to find Aya and possibly try to help her. When Max begins to interview Aya’s classmates to find Aya, he is thrown into a maze of deception among them. Each one is continuously resistant to Max, causing him to go to extreme lengths to coerce them into helping. It isn’t until each friend is interviewed and exposed, is the truth of Aya’s fate revealed.
This is where the story begins to go south. The first issue with the “seven classmates” is the sheer number of them. The seven friends go by the following nicknames: Four Eyes, Monkey, Bitch, Snappy, Shorty, Fatty and Bestie. The cycle of investigation is the same with each one: some sort of weakness is discovered, and Max utilizes this to expose and manipulate them into talking about Aya. Although this is fine for a mystery story, it becomes repetitive due to the number of friends. Not only that, because of the number of them, there was a sincere disconnect between the player and the game. It was hard to focus in on one particular character to show any care or concern at all. Sure their backstory helped a little, but again, the next chapter focused on the next friend, so it was easy to forget the previous. Of the seven friends, at least two of them could have been cut from the story completely. Those two friends going by the nicknames Bitch and Four-eyes. Their stories are the least disconnected from Aya; even when they are fully exposed, it can be assumed that Aya wasn’t that close with the two at all, just acting more as acquaintances than true friends. After completing the game, I ran some paths in my head and figured if they were cut from the game entirely, not much would change. In my personal opinion towards the matter of number of characters, I have to say I felt as if they only included so many characters to extend the overall length of the game. Having more friends, meant having more chapters.
Of the characters, I will show my personal biases and talk about my favorite which was the character named Shorty. Shorty, or Nozu Shota, is a bartender you meet in the first chapter of the game. When you ask him about Aya, he is quick tempered and completely shuts off from you. Of all the characters you meet in the game, Nozu is the most consistent when it comes to appearances and reveals. The first two chapter you meet him in the bar he works at, and later he begins to stalk you to try and scare you away. When you do finally confront Nozu, it is revealed that he was once in love with Aya, and when his family business crashed and he became depressed, he made eager and “non consensual” advances towards Aya. With the embarrassment of his family under his belt, he then adds guilt due to his shame for what he did to Aya. So when you, Max, come into the city and begin questioning about Aya, his reasoning for being hostile and confrontational towards you are justified and make sense. There is motivation behind his actions, which gives Nozu a realism that the rest of the characters do not have. When you compare Nozu’s story to any of the others, he is the only one who has any true reason to hide Aya from you. An example is Murakami Misaki, who is nicknamed Snappy in the game. She is a news reporter who strives for truth and facts. However, when confronted about Aya, she instantly reports it as a demon, or a youkai. But when her past is revealed, there is no reasoning as to why she is hiding Aya, or why she lied to you. Max asks her about it at the end, and her only response is “Would you want that to be known?” Which doesn’t give any real or believable reasoning at all. Truth be told, all of the friends, with the exception of Nozu, infuriated me. Their complete and utter disconnect for Aya, and for the reality of her past, is an outrage. Again, other than Nozu, they give no real reason other than arrogance and bullying (to some level) as to why they are hiding Aya from you. When reflecting on the characters as a whole, the only one I believed truly did care for Aya, was in fact Nozu.
The last thing I would like to discuss is the ending. Before I carry forward, please be reminded that there will be spoilers. The end of the game can be put simply as this: Aya was never truly Aya, but a girl named Shiori. Shiori was approached by a professor named Dr. Fumino who asked Shiori to pretend to be his deceased daughter, Aya Fumino, for his mentally unstable wife. Shiori becomes obsessed with being Aya, and begins dressing like her, grows her hair out like her, and begins addressing herself as Aya. When her friends confront her about it, they begin to believe a relationship between Shiori and the professor is taken place. Before these rumors can flourish, Shiori “kills off” Aya by faking a suicide in a classroom and stating that “Aya is no more” to which she claims to become Shiori again. The entire situation is skewed and confusing, but was fine. When the chapters of the game are experienced, this revelation makes sense to some level. However, knowing that Shiori is now alive, players (including myself) are now eager to meet her. The seven friends and Max travel to the nursing home to see Dr. Fumino and finally to see Shiori. But low and behold, when they arrive, the professor tells the group that Shiori just left a day prior to go to Africa.
And that’s it. The credits roll and the game is over.
To say I was infuriated, disappointed… angry… was an understatement. The entire story sets up so many possibilities and so many directions, that the final conclusion is meant to be explosive. Max has spent ten days in an unknown city, interrogating selfish and arrogant classmates of a girl he is genuinely concerned about, only to be told at the end “You’re too late. Better luck next time” which is a huge slap in the face for anyone. Myself, as the gamer, felt such a betrayal that I had to sit and stare at my television screen to process what had happened. As the credits rolled, I felt such a heavy weight, that I couldn’t quite understand. Only, after the credits rolled, a short part plays to which Shiori finally sends you another letter. Her final letter, summed up, says: “Sorry I missed you. I did cherish our letters we exchanged in school. This is where our friendship ends. Good luck to you”. Which was only another slap in the face. Everything Max did, whether I agreed with his decisions or not, was simply forgotten and taken advantage of… not only by the seven selfish friends, but also by the girl he was fighting for the entire time. No one showed him any type of gratitude or understanding for his actions. At the end, I was left thinking “What was the point? What was the purpose of the eight hours I just spent, hunting a girl that rejected me in the end anyway!?” The only redeeming quality about the atrocity that was called the ending, was that a notice shows up on the screen saying that four additional endings can be unlocked, and two alternate paths of the game can be completed. It was comforting to know that other endings could be achieved, but it didn’t make up for anger and resentment towards the original ending. Even though I interpreted Max as fairly arrogant, impulsive and manipulative… I understood that his genuine care and love for Aya was his driving factor and to be so coldly shut off from both the friends and Aya herself, was horrible.
With all of that in mind, I do have a final conclusion. Overall, the game was enjoyable to some level. The characters, despite being unnecessarily numerous, did well to be unique and diverse. Each one was entertaining in their own regards, which drove the story forward. Along with that, the artwork was stunning. I loved venturing to each new location to see the artwork and design of the city. The music was mellow and lovely, but did get tiresome after awhile. And despite how much I disagreed with the ending, it was comforting to know that alternatives were available, to achieve a more satisfactory level of accomplishment. Like I said in my video review (viewed at the top of the article) whether or not you enjoy the game, I believe will depend heavily on what final ending you achieve, and the choices and decisions you make to bring that ending to life.
A copy of Root Letter was provided by PQube for this review.