As the debut effort from a relatively small indie studio, The Letter is more than a little impressive: a lengthy visual novel that unfolds through the perspectives of seven different characters, their stories all interwoven through a branching structure that gets increasingly more complex the deeper you go. Even if you set aside the story itself for a moment, the logistics of how many different variables, world states, decision points, and relationship values The Letter juggles and seamlessly weaves around would be a remarkable feat even for a far more experienced team. For a young studio’s first commercial project—as this was when it first came out on PC in 2017—delivering on that sort of scope borders on miraculous, but YangYang Mobile knocked it out of the park.
At the centre of it all is Ermengarde Mansion, an old manor in the English countryside rumoured to be haunted. When Isabella Santos, a real estate agent trying to sell the place, stumbles upon a creepy letter—“Help Me Help Me Help Me …” written all over it in blood, and a warning to pass it on to five other people to avoid certain doom—she unwittingly brings hell down on herself, her closest friends, and the mansion’s buyers. As is so often the case in horror, there’s more truth to the haunting rumours than folks want to believe.
From that jump, The Letter unravels a tale that shifts from vaguely creepy to downright unsettling. It has its jump scares and shocking moments, but it’s not a game that’s just fishing for a reaction—rather, it knows the value of good character development and downtime in crafting impactful horror. Each character’s chapter is an exploration of their personalities, their backgrounds, their motivations, and their struggles, provoking thought and building an emotional foundation. From that base, the moments of horror leave their mark, Ermengarde’s curse reflecting each individual’s fears and traumas, while an omnipresent dread bubbles away in the background during those “quieter”—not necessarily less dramatic or eventful, but less horrific—moments.
It draws clear inspiration from Asian horror cinema, and Ju-on in particular comes to mind when you think of a generations’-long curse tied to the tragic history of a building. It doesn’t have quite the same impact as Takashi Shimizu’s classic—that’d be a tough ask of anyone—but it’s a more than solid effort at a genre and narrative that’s much harder to do well than first seems.
As The Letter delves into each character’s background, it also touches on a wide variety of themes: racism, immigration, corruption, wealth disparity, religious dogma, homophobia. While not a deep dive into any of the above, they’re apparent enough to inspire thought and reflection, and to add weight to the game’s most dramatic revelations. At heart, everything comes down to power imbalances and the injustices that come with; between the main cast and the gruesome truths hidden within Ermengarde, The Letter holds a mirror to some of the worst aspects of society.
Fantastic artwork helps to build that mood, with hand-drawn CGs as the particular highlight. The Letter’s story is an evocative one, and these scenes—from heartfelt exchanges between close friends to gruesome horrors, from animalistic passion to moments of welcome levity amid the chaos—bring those extremes to life brilliantly. The character designs are nice, too, lightly animated in Live2D style, and excellent voice performances bring plenty of emotion to a dramatic script.
But as I said at the beginning, it’s the branching structure that really ties everything together. The story splits and reconverges often, both directly off the back of dialogue choices and as a result of the lasting effects of those. There’s nothing unusual about that, but The Letter’s way of compounding those effects is remarkable—the first chapter has just a handful of different branches, but by the time you get to the final one, the ongoing consequences of so many previous decisions create dozens of different routes to a handful of different endings (and a whole lot of different epilogue variations).
What’s impressive here isn’t the sheer volume of stuff, but the way everything intertwines and remains coherent despite there being so many variables at play. Even just at the most extreme end, every one of the main seven can live or die, so the simple question of “who’s still alive” has so many possible answers, and world states to go with them. Other little decisions come into the picture too, as do the relationships between the cast. How the writers managed to wrangle such an unwieldy number of threads and still keep everything flowing smoothly is beyond me—even just looking at the in-game path flowcharts is overwhelming, let alone actually piecing them together.
The trade-off is that pacing can suffer a little, at times—never anything egregious, but the odd late-game scene can feel a little drawn out as it accommodates a mountain of previous choices. With as many moving parts as The Letter has, I’m pleasantly surprised that this isn’t more of an issue than it is, but those moments are noticeable and mildly distracting when they do crop up. The writing, while evocative and compelling for the most part, suffers from occasional grammatical errors and little oddities (“Still, a laughter escapes me”). Again, it’s nothing major, but enough to interrupt reading flow from time to time.
(As a brief aside, there’s not a lot to say about the Switch version of The Letter. It’s a good port with no real issues, and I know I’m not alone in finding handheld mode to be an ideal way of reading visual novels—more comfortable than on a TV or monitor, but with a bigger screen than a typical mobile. And if it opens the door for more people who’d otherwise miss out to catch it, all the better.)
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The Letter is an accomplished visual novel: a riveting tale of curses, ghosts, and tragedy, drawing on the traditions of Asian horror cinema and built upon an inconceivably complex web of branching, intertwined narrative threads. That’s a hell of a feat for anyone, let alone as the first project for a young indie studio.
The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel
Developer: YangYang Mobile
Genre: Visual novel, horror
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.