Do you have a niggling doubt about something you experienced as a child? Something unresolved or unexplained? Perhaps we all have a faint memory that haunts us; a gentle denial that we think we’ll never have to face up to. Have you a tingle in your spine? A skeleton in your closet, a secret sin you’ve convinced yourself you’re innocent of? If you play Root Letter: Last Answer, you’ll realise that your guilty old itch is better left alone. Because it’s boring.
Root Letter is a visual novel that hit PS4 and Vita in 2016, later finding its way to other platforms. It got OK reviews and a bit of a following. Kudos, then, to Kadokawa Games for backing a fairly cult property with an ambitious remake. Root Letter: Last Answer hits Switch with every single scene and character reimagined in a live-action “Drama Mode”, with the option to swap in and out of the original artwork as you play.
The game opens with a young professional, whom you can name, coming across some old letters from a high school penpal. He wonders what became of the girl he wrote to, so he sets out to visit her at the other end of Japan. Reading the letters on the plane, they have a puzzling quality – something doesn’t quite click – and when he arrives at her address, the house is no longer there. It’s immediately striking just how exactly the new photo backdrops of Drama Mode match the original hand-drawn art. This eerie opening scarily foreshadows what’s to come, but not in terms of the story – it’s just that the clunky, joyless rigmarole of changing in and out of drama mode is exactly the kind of thing you’re going to have to get used to.
The game plays like many other visual novels: there are action commands on a menu (Move, Check, Ask, Think, etc.) and you need to search static scenes with a cursor, select dialogue options and piece together clues. Now seems like the right time to get into what we might generously call the game’s “quirks”.
For instance, when you’re scouring the screen for interactive elements, the crucial item you’re looking for may be directly adjacent to a useless item and not clearly distinct from it. On top of that, Root Letter doesn’t let you use the touchscreen to point at things, which is one of the features that makes the Switch so great for visual novels; it’s especially counterintuitive when you frequently need to operate an onscreen smartphone. You can practically hear Kadokawa Games laughing at you as you thud around the phone’s touchscreen with a D-pad.
But while the rough edges on the controls are irritating, Root Letter’s writing, acting, story design, localisation and production values are all far worse. The experience is best conveyed by illustration. Consider this scene: you have cornered one of your penpal’s old school friends, who now works at the civic hall. You press him for information on his high school, but for some reason, he doesn’t want to share. Bizarrely, Max (the name of your character regardless of what you entered as your name at the start of the game!) basically resorts to bullying him. Let’s watch:
Max needs to prove that Tanaka is clever (long story) but he denies it. Max goes with a reverse psychology approach: “You’re not smart at all”. He says that about 50 times in a spiralling dialogue before declaring “I’ll use Max Mode”. Suddenly, a throbbing power gauge surrounds Tanaka’s face, filling and emptying like the saddest ever golf game, and you have to stop it next to the phrase you want to say next. There is no way to know which phrase is correct.
“You’re a DAMN FOOL!” cries Max. Tanaka explodes in fury. Talking of non-sequiturs, Max then notices that Tanaka’s hair looks funny. Since the start of the conversation, the actor has been wearing a pound shop wig and we have had the dialogue option “Tanaka’s wig”. Until now, selecting that option was punished with a lost life, potentially resetting the “investigation”. In fact, selecting it now also loses you a life. You need to let Max run around the idea in his head several times before he realises “That must be a wig!” Now, cautiously, you select the wig option.
And what does Max do the second you mention the wig? He reaches out to grab it, of course! What a psycho. The whole game he’s like this – it’s like going everywhere with an embarrassingly socially inept friend. Tanaka freaks out, justifiably, but Max recovers very smoothly: “I was just going to wipe your sweat. Don’t be mad.” Best. Excuse. Ever.
As a result – taking as our segue the running theme of non-sequiturs – Tanaka’s tie falls off. Falls off. Wasn’t it tied on? Clue’s in the – oh, never mind. “You now have Tanaka’s tie.” And then, with startling perspicacity, Detective Max Holmes deduces: “He seems upset.”
All the while, Tanaka, having inexplicably pretended not to have glasses, is wearing the stupidest possible jam-jar clown goggles, the actor gurning for every penny of his paycheque. He honestly looks like he’s going to do himself a mischief with these fishhook lip flinches and gutter-ditch frowns. He could win the rosette in some yokel church fête village thickhead competition. Or, you know, successfully audition for a bit-part in a godawful remake of a visual novel.
Next, we find out why his tie fell off: we need to present it to him as evidence that he likes cats. For no reason worth remembering, he denies liking cats. Private Dick Max argues that in fact, Goofy does like cats. “Oh yeah? Prove I like cats!” Of course it would be too samey if “Tanaka’s tie” was a dialogue option just the same as “Tanaka’s badge” and “Tanaka’s wig”, so the solution to this puzzle – which apparently we’re supposed to think this is – is to use the menu to select Item > Tie instead of Ask > Tie. For variety.
We’ll leave that scene behind – as we are privileged to be able to do since we’re not playing the game – and move onto overall production quality. The majority of the story takes place in sadly-not-quite-laughably dull settings: the Civic Division of the Ward Office on a cloudy day; the unornamented pond of a shrine garden on a cloudy day; an empty, wet shopping street on a cloudy day. Why would Kadokawa choose to photograph all their backdrops on a cloudy day? And how did they manage to take photos that so closely resemble the original artwork?
Here’s a hypothesis that would resolve both these mysteries: suppose the original artwork was based on photos of real places. Those source photos were kept and someone had the brainwave to resurrect them for this new edition of the game – “‘Drama mode,’ we’ll call it!” However, since the photos were only ever intended to be traced over with sunny drawings, no consideration was given to how drab the places actually looked – the magic would come in the illustration. So if it seems like they weren’t trying with the photos, it’s because they actually weren’t trying. In one photo there are two random passersby who were painted out of the original artwork. In drama mode, they’re still standing there, oblivious to the game, irrelevant to the story, and completely unaccounted for when examining the scene.
Impressed? Well, if slapdash is what you like then has Kadokawa got a treat for you! The original game has a schtick where character drawings swoop across the screen anime-style with parallax animations and diagonal frames slicing peeks of their faces. This looks daft for a supposed drama, but that’s not the problem. The original took its character drawings and zoomed tight on their mouths to emphasise key dialogue. Drama mode appears to inherit the exact same zoom and crop, but with photos of actors instead of the character drawings. That means the tight zoom is frequently on an inexplicable slice of neck: someone’s talking to you and suddenly the game shows you a close-up of their shoulder and collarbone. Could this drama mode be implemented any more lazily?
Yes! How about if you had a drawing that was not based on a photo, then mocked up a photo with some CG models and stuff so it was similar enough to replace it? That’ll do the job just fine. Of course, you would make sure that any interactive parts of the scene that are crucial to progressing were still present and mapped to the selectable hotspots. Otherwise, the player would be required to scan the screen with the D-pad, looking for invisible interactive elements that hang in thin air and overlap one another with nothing to indicate where one ends and another begins. Of course, you would make sure of that. You would, wouldn’t you? Maybe you would. But that’s why you’ll never make it as a developer of third-rate visual novel re-releases.
If you’re new to visual novels, and curious, then go somewhere else first; Root Letter: Last Answer could put you off the genre for life. But if you’re a visual novel fan, you’ve played all the other interesting ones on the Switch and you absolutely cannot wait for another – and if you’ve considered maybe just going outside or watching TV or lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling and you still can’t wait for another – then you could take a look at Root Letter and just hope you find it so bad it’s good.