The Letter Review
Posted by Dave Letcavage
Return to sender
In The Letter, players take on the role of Michael Kennedy as he investigates the mysterious disappearance of his father. Through a series of hidden letters left by his dad – these are actually labelled “Hidden Letter” despite their pronounced placements in the landscape – Michael receives clues which he follows in his determination to find the truth. What comes next is advertised as being a mix of adventure and horror, but we think that description is deceiving. For one, calling it an adventure suggests that you’re embarking on some sort of remarkable or daring escapade that builds up to something. Even though it may sound like The Letter fits the bill, in actuality, it doesn't. And with a complete lack of suspense, no ominous imagery and literally zero scares, there’s even less of a reason for the word "horror" to be uttered. So what kind of game is The Letter? Quite frankly, it's an awful one.
Right from the start it's abundantly clear how rough The Letter is going to be. The title screen – with its generic text, lack of a menu and a blurry image of an envelope – isn't concerned with first impressions, and that’s never a good sign. Instead of a tutorial or proper introduction to the controls, button mapping details are presented on the GamePad and this is the only point they can be viewed. Calling the presentation and interface minimalistic would be an understatement, especially when you consider that the game can't even be paused. There’s no HUD or on-screen text to assist you, and outside the occasional button-prompt alert when loading, the GamePad isn’t used in any meaningful way. To start, you’re plopped into a room with your flashlight focused on a message on a wall that simply says, "Find the Letter."
The gameplay is as primitive and bland as can be; you move around, pick up objects of interest, jump, and toggle the flashlight on and off. Essentially, using the joysticks for movement and pressing the A-button to interact is the extent of what will need to be managed. There isn't any platforming or puzzle solving, and the environments exist only to provide a space for the player to walk and scavenge through. Considering the Y-axis is inverted, and there are no options or menus of any kind, movement itself can be a chore. If a majority of players don’t prefer inverted controls in their first-person games — which seems to be the norm — then The Letter has already alienated most of its potential audience by not presenting a choice; since walking aimlessly is pretty much the best way to sum up the gameplay as a whole, this glaring blunder is even more perplexing.
In each area you’re left to explore without a clear understanding of what it is you’re supposed to be doing. There might be a message written on a wall or sign that tells you to find something – a letter, a key, a clue — but there aren't any tutorials or guides to establish the rules of this process. Is there a sequence of interactions that will cause a cabinet to open, or are there any weird tricks with the flashlight that will uncover hidden messages? Turns out, it’s nothing like that. All that’s required is that you wander through the environment until coming across something that you can pick up, and then you pick it up – that’s it. Since there are no indicators or button prompts to alert you that you've stumbled upon an item of interest, be prepared to hit the action button when approaching anything that’s small and not a patch of grass. Once you've collected all objects or unlocked a door, it’s onto the next area.
There are five areas in total, three of which are extremely small, and none of them carry any sense of purpose outside of putting distance between the player and their objective. It’s a bunch of generic stuff scattered throughout bland spaces, and nothing serves to provide context to the circumstances, nor is it pleasant on the eyes in any way. Fuzzy low-res textures, a stuttering frame rate and little detail of any kind make it feel like you’re venturing through an amateur project for a game design course. As a whole, it’s so unattractive that we never had even the faintest compulsion to explore; we just wanted to find what was necessary and move on. There are no enemies, no ways to take damage or get killed, and absolutely zero signs of life; The Letter is remarkable in that it is potentially the only horror game with a complete absence of looming danger.
The Letter attempts to lure you through the non-existent gameplay and carelessly-constructed environments by introducing the notion of a murder mystery, but it won't take long to realise that the plot is also entirely devoid of substance. Those that brave the monotony with the hope that the climax will provide meaning to their invested time will be completely let down with how it all comes together, or doesn't, as is actually the case. Not only does the story close with a cheap twist that’s taught to be avoided in Creative Writing 101, it literally proves that everything leading up to that moment meant nothing. Our first playthrough was completed in about a half hour and, once you know where the items are located, a replay can be wrapped in less than five minutes. At least The Letter has the good manners to keep things short.
The Letter isn’t just paper thin, it’s a half-formed thought scribbled almost illegibly across a post-it note. With a plot that never goes anywhere, gameplay that’s practically non-existent and cringe-worthy production values, we can’t help but wonder how this even made it onto the Wii U eShop. It functions, but it’s so disjointed, underdeveloped and brief that there’s no reason to give it your attention. Warn your friends, write it off, and then move on.