Root Letter: Last Answer review — Another trip to Matsue City

The original Root Letter is a remarkable game. I said as much when I reviewed it back in 2017, and everything I said then remains true today. It’s a stunning piece of digital tourism that takes players to a meticulous re-creation of a part of Japan that most foreign visitors would never have heard of, let alone visited, with a gripping mystery story hook to carry you through. 

Root Letter: Last Answer is an updated re-release that adds some new epilogues (which are nice to see, but not game-changing), but its most significant addition is Drama Mode. In this mode, all the hand-drawn artwork is replaced with photos—photos of real locations in Shimane Prefecture (where the game takes place) for the backgrounds and scenery, and photos of actors for character portraits for special scenes.

It’s jarring, at first. Live action anything in a videogame always takes some getting used to, and all the more when it’s set against stylized text boxes and other UI elements typical of a visual novel. If you’ve played the original Root Letter, Drama Mode feels like even more of an abrupt turnaround; the original’s soft, serene art style carried was gorgeous, and carried so much of the nostalgic tone of the game.

But playing a few hours, I came to appreciate Drama Mode’s new look. One of Root Letter‘s best features is how well it depicts Matsue City—the story and characters may be fictitious, but it’s all set in a real place, with every scene based on a real-life place and every piece of background artwork being a stunning 1:1 re-creation of what it’s depicting. Last Answer‘s Drama Mode takes that to another level, by taking what is essentially a photo album from Shimane Prefacture and building a game around it.

This also lends itself to the inevitable comparisons between the original Root Letter artworks and the real-world photos they’re based on. People (including the development and marketing teams) were already sharing such comparisons with some of the key scenes, like Matsue Castle and Kyomisu Shopping District, but now you can do an almost side-by-side comparison of any scene in the game (I say “almost” because changing between the two styles is a slightly tedious process of exiting to the main menu, changing the art style there, and then reloading a save).

More liberties are taken, necessarily, with most of the characters. It’s difficult to find actors that look exactly like characters that originated in an artist’s imagination, and then to get them to deliver exactly the same expression and emotion in exactly the same way as the hand-drawn portraits did. Even so, Drama Mode’s cast all do a great job of bringing the same energy to each shot in their own way, finding just the right balance between capturing the original and adding their own personality to make each scene believable. (There are a couple of characters, though, who look identical to their artistic counterparts—to the point that I suspect those characters were originally based on real Matsue locals, who then served as subjects for the Drama Mode photos.)

On balance, I still prefer the original artwork, overall. Even in a scene where the photo and its artistic rendition are a direct match, the soft lines and slightly muted colours of the hand-drawn version really entrench the bittersweet tone that is one of Root Letter‘s biggest strengths. The photos have an element of that, but not to the same degree, and while they’re arguably better from a purely touristic point of view, I think the original art did the digital tourism job just fine.

Beyond that, Root Letter: Last Answer is fundamentally the same game as the original, and that’s a good thing indeed. It tells the story of Takayuki Nakamura, a guy from Tokyo who, on a whim spurred on by looking through letters from an old penpal, Aya Fumino, decides to go visit her in Matsue. Once he arrives, though, he learns that the Aya he thought he’d been exchanging letters with all those years ago had actually died long before, leading him on a journey to unravel the truth about Aya’s disappearance and the letters she sent to Takayuki.

The further down the rabbit hole you get, the more compelling this mystery becomes, and it lends itself to some light investigative gameplay elements that separate Root Letter from a pure visual novel. They’re not especially challenging, but they don’t really exist to stretch your puzzle-solving abilities to the limits; rather, they’re another way of interacting with the setting and its people, and in that they work well. The characters themselves are a curious bunch, ranging from an energetic school baseball coach, to a suave barkeeper, to a flirtatious museum curator. They all have plenty of secrets hidden away, as you’d expect.

But, again, the real star here is Matsue itself. Takayuki’s investigation necessarily involves a lot of sightseeing, and through that, Root Letter takes you on a journey through a charming little city—one that’s full of its own character, and shows a different side of Japan than the typical tourist destinations. An old castle sits in contrast to an ultra-modern art gallery; the gorgeous Lake Shinji serves as the backdrop to many a destination; the local mascot character, Shimanekko, is depicted all over the place.

To play Root Letter is to take a journey to Matsue—so it was in the original release, and so it is with Root Letter: Last Answer. Drama Mode is a curious idea that puts a different spin on the whole game, and puts the real-life Matsue even more in the spotlight, but the gorgeous artwork from the original release is still included if you prefer that. There’s probably not enough new stuff here to warrant buying Last Answer if you already have the original, but if you haven’t played Root Letter before—and you really should—then this version is the way to go.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.