It’s always nice to play a game that transports you to someplace new and exciting. Plenty of games offer neatly-packaged, readily available escapism – usually in the form of a simple, fun distraction from the world. It’s far rarer that a game lets you escape to somewhere; to draw a fantasy world or recreate a real-life location so believably that you feel like you’re there. That’s usually the domain of open-world games (and even then, few do it well), but with the right direction, any game can create that sort of experience.
Take Root Letter, for example. It’s a straightforward visual novel – certainly not a genre we’d normally associate with digital tourism. Yet it’s such an authentic, believable recreation of small-town Japan that I came away desperate to go there, and, to some degree, feeling like I already had.
Root Letter begins when Max – the player-named protagonist’s nickname – stumbles upon a collection of old letters he’d shared with a pen pal in his youth. In a spur of the moment decision, he decides to track down his old friend, Aya, in the hopes of reconnecting, so he sets off to her hometown to look her up.
When he gets to Matsue, he learns that the only Aya Fumino known to the locals died 25 years prior – long before they’d ever exchanged letters. Thus, he sets about on an investigation to find out the truth, but his efforts are hampered by a populace that’s reluctant to talk. The mere mention of Aya’s name is enough to send her old classmates running.
As you’d expect from that sort of premise, the bulk of Root Letter revolves around investigation. It’s a bit like Ace Attorney in that regard; you go to different places of interest, look for clues, collect evidence, and talk to people. Then, when you’ve gathered enough information, you can confront Aya’s classmates and force them to talk, eventually piecing together the truth.
It’s for this reason that Root Letter is described as an “adventure game”, and the director actually makes a point of not referring to it as a visual novel. A visual novel is exactly what this game is, though. From a pure game design perspective, the investigative elements are too linear and easy to really scratch that Ace Attorney detective itch. Even the confrontation scenes, “gamey” as they are, tend to be either obvious, or so vague that trial and error is the only way forward. There’s little in the way of genuine problem solving.
But those points are almost moot, because as a visual novel – rather than an adventure game – Root Letter is brilliant. The investigative stuff doesn’t make for great puzzles, but as part of the narrative design, it works wonders. You learn so much about the people of Matsue and the city itself by exploring and investigating, and running all through that is a captivating mystery story and a beautiful experience of digital tourism.
Which brings us back to the comments I made right at the start of this review: Root Letter is home to such a believable vision of Matsue City, even within the confines of a visual novel format, that I feel like I’ve been there and I desperately want to go “back”.
Almost every location you visit is based on a real place in the real-life Matsue. I’m not just talking about the well-known tourist destinations, either; there are bars, restaurants, and even that you’d never recognize unless you’d been there. Thanks to the magic of Google Image Search and Street View, I was able to look up some of Root Letter’s locations; the authenticity and level of detail in the game’s hand-drawn backgrounds is incredible. (Here’s an example PQube used to publicize the game – all the background art is similarly lifelike).
The development team spent a lot of time on location in Matsue to get the feel of Root Letter’s setting just right, and it shows. Even the characters are based on real people from the city, and the writing staff consulted with them to get things like dialectic quirks just right. The end result is a game that brings its setting to life in a way that few others do.
To play Root Letter is to feel like you’re visiting Matsue. With the dreamlike art style and nostalgic narrative themes, it even goes one further, making you feel like you’re returning to a long lost childhood home – even if it’s somewhere you’ve never been. To build such a deep emotional connection with a setting is a rate treat, and that makes Root Letter a game that’s almost mandatory for anyone interested in the artistic potential of games.
Root Letter is developed by Kadokawa Games and published by PQube. It’s available now for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and PS Vita.
A PS Vita press copy was supplied by PQube for this review.