Its unwieldy title doesn’t really do Root Double -Before Crime * After Days- Xtend Edition justice. It’s a game that’s been kicking around for a few years now, but its name isn’t something that ever caught my attention enough to look into it further. Which is a shame, because, as I’ve finally discovered thanks to the Switch release, Root Double is a hell of a ride, and a neat twist on the visual novel formula that is absolutely compelling.
Set in 2030, Root Double opens with a bang—literally. An explosion at a nuclear research facility sparks chaos that only gets worse when the core goes into meltdown, triggering a lockdown as part of a safety procedure to avoid a nuclear fallout. But that means a handful of staff, rescue workers, and even school kids who’d snuck into the place are now trapped inside, and though this is a future where an anti-radiation drug (“AD”) is a thing, each dose only lasts an hour, supplies are low, and the group of survivors has to somehow hold out for nine hours before the lockdown ends and they’re able to get out. Oh, and there’s a murderer on the loose.
That’s just how Root Double starts. From the already high stakes of that setup, the story ends up going in all sorts of directions, to the point that I really had no idea what was going to happen next and every new development came as a genuine surprise. Secrets and conspiracies abound, creating an ever more intriguing web of competing truths. I can’t remember the last time I played something so unpredictable.
But more than that, it makes this whole rollercoaster work. When a plot twist exists solely for the purpose of being a surprise, that hollowness always shows through and undermines the very impact the moment is supposed to have, but that’s never an issue in Root Double. Every new development, every new direction the story takes builds on what came before in a meaningful way, in turn making the unfolding story one that’s hard to put down.
Much of that connection comes from the characters, a particularly compelling bunch. Two different protagonists offer unique perspectives, both in what they witness and how they react: rescue squad captain Watase Kasasagi is normally stern and analytical, but comes across as naive thanks to a bout of amnesia, in stark contrast to the quiet, empathetic high schooler Natsuhiko Tenkawa. The other survivors they encounter span a full spectrum of personality types—quite literally, in that they’re explicitly based on the archetypes in the Enneagram of Personality—with plenty of depth and complexity across the board.
Through this intriguing cast and the whirlwind after whirlwind that they’re dragged into, Root Double delves into some interesting topics. Trust is a big one, particularly in the context of a group of people with wildly different personalities where said trust is crucial for survival but hard to earn and easily lost. Discrimination, scientific ethics, and parapsychology are recurring themes, for reasons best not spoiled here.
Underscoring all of this is the “Senses Sympathy System”, or SSS, the driving force of Root Double‘s branching narrative. Rather than the standard dialogue choices typically seen in visual novels, branches in Root Double depend on your “sense” of each character—”sense” here being deliberately vague, but some combination of trust, fondness, feeling like you can rely on them, and gut feeling. At key points in the story, you can manually adjust your sense of each character, and how these line up—both in absolute terms, and in relation to one another—determines which branch the story goes down.
On the surface, it sounds like just a different interface for the same core branching-narrative system, but I can’t overstate the way that this system recontextualizes something mechanically simple as a dialogue choice. Rather than simply being presented a set of choices to pick from on face value, it takes you a step back and asks you to determine how the different relationships between the cast, and their own personalities, feed into the decisions they make and how things play out. Even if, under the hood, the game is still branching based on a choice between A and B, the SSS system asks you to try figure out what A and B are, and how your “sense” of each character determines which one gets picked.
This also adds an interesting dimension to bad endings, of which Root Double has many. When you get a game over, it’s not just the result of a picking the wrong thing from a handful of options, but a reflection of some poor judgement of character—maybe an unreasonably inflated sense of your own self made you try to play the hero and get yourself killed; maybe your lack of faith in someone else meant they weren’t able to do what they needed to do in a crucial moment. Fortunately, a generous auto-save system means you never have to replay too much when you do get a bad ending, and a hint system offers clues to avoiding that ending next time (though you can turn this off, if you want to).
A top-notch English script and stellar artwork ties everything together. The writing in Root Double is sharp and engaging, with plenty of attention to how each character’s unique personality comes through in their dialogue and a focus making each line feel natural and flow smoothly into the next. The character designs are striking and expressive, and an abundance of stunning CGs underscores the tension, drama, and humanity that pervades the story from start to finish.
Root Double -Before Crime * After Days- Xtend Edition is a riveting visual novel that’s finally found a new home on Nintendo Switch. Its story of disaster and a desperate fight for survival is compelling right from the get go, but it’s the roller coaster that follows, and the fascinating exploration of the psychology of trust that goes with it, that really makes this a game that’s hard to put down until the credits roll.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.