If you think back to your school days, we're sure there are plenty of things you'd rather forget. An awkward fumble behind some bike sheds, an embarrassing crush or a stupid nickname (which was Hadders, for the record) to name just a few - and let's not forget the thick black gothic eyeliner and cringe-worthy music concerts we performed in, once upon a time. Now we look back on them, they're all harmless memories - but what if there was something much more sinister that you'd rather not think about ever again? And what if some guy were to start asking all kinds of awkward questions, digging up a past you'd rather forget? Such is the story behind Root Letter - the breakthrough visual novel adventure from Kadokawa games, and a somewhat sinister school-time mystery.
Root Letter follows the tale of Takayuki, a thirty plus year old guy who, when clearing out his room at his parents' house, discovers an unopened letter from an old penpal he had fifteen years ago - a young girl by the name of Aya Fumino. However, what he finds inside aren't the day to day musings and gossip of a happy-go-lucky teenage girl, but instead, a bone-chilling admission of guilt: "I killed someone. I must atone for my sins. We won't speak again. Farewell.".
His curiosity piqued, and having been reminded of the feelings he once had for her, Takayuki decides to head to her home town of Matsue in an attempt to track down his old penpal, and find out what this final letter actually means. Which totally doesn't make him seem like a creepy stalker at all…
Once in Matsue, he finds only more questions rather than answers - apparently, a fire has burned her house to the ground, a haunted vacant lot is all that's left where it once stood, and there's no Aya to be seen. In order to get the bottom of the mystery, he needs to track down the seven friends she talks about in her letters, and persuade them to talk...
The only problem is, Aya didn't exactly make tracking them down very easy, as she only ever refers to her friends by their high school nicknames. Only by sifting through her letters for clues and talking to various Matsue inhabitants will you be able to piece together the identities of her seven friends - flatteringly referred to as Four-Eyes, Monkey, Fatty, Bitch, Snappy, Shorty and Bestie - who'll hopefully be able to lead you to your long lost penpal. However, everyone you talk to seems to have a different tale to tell, from denying she ever existed, to mutterings about aliens and meddlesome yo-kai spirits, and even a few disturbing local legends, which muddy the waters even further.
Each chapter starts with the protagonist, who often goes by his childhood nickname of 'Max' (because he always gives it his all, of course), opening and rereading a different one of Aya's letters. Every one printed on a different set of suitably girly stationary, the letters reminisce about Aya's friends in turn, giving you some clues as to the identity of the person in question - for example, we learn that Four-Eyes was the top student in the class at Matsue Oba High School, and loved cats, while Monkey was a sporty student and "pillar of the baseball team". Such clues will eventually lead you to find the identities of all seven of Aya's friends, although the getting them to divulge any information is easier said than done.
With Aya's friends steadfastedly denying any connection to her, you'll first need to gather proof, to back them into a corner before you can make much headway - and this is where the more point-and-click/adventure game style elements come in. Various commands, likely familiar to anyone who played the Monkey Islands and Simon the Sorcerers of old, line the right hand side of the screen, and you'll need to use a combination of them all to progress through the story.
Whether you're choosing to move from place to place via the map, talking to people to fish for information, or examining your surroundings for clues, knowing where and what to do next does require a bit of logical thinking - although not quite the warped 'logic' of the filling a toilet with custard and an octopus in order to steal a belt buckle, thankfully. We're talking more along the lines of realising you need to use strawberry jam for fake blood, knowing who to ask about obscure local pop artists or noticing a bouquet of flowers left on an empty lot.
The little things you notice, discover or pick up along your way really come into their own once you've cornered one of the classmates and need to force them into talking about Aya. Here, the game transitions into an 'Investigation' section, somewhat similar to Phoenix Wright's courtroom dramas, where you need to use everything you've uncovered to see through their lies, prove them wrong and strong arm them into telling you what you want to know. With a finite number of 'lives', you can only make a handful of mistakes before you cock up too much and your interogatee walks off and you have to start over - so being able to follow the game's logic here is key. Fortunately, what you need to do is rarely too obscure, and you'll mostly find yourself using a cat-print tie to prove someone's love of cats, showing a photo of a speed-eating record to prove someone's full name or using a newsletter's tiny print to prove someone does have poor eyesight.
When it comes to getting what he wants out of people, our main guy has one more trick up his sleeve, too - his Max Mode skill. Triggered during important scenes, where saying the right thing will be the final nail in your interrogation coffin, during Max Mode, you need to stop a charging meter at the right point to pick the response you want. Automatically cycling through four or five different responses, you need to be pretty speedy sometimes to stop it on the correct answer - although it's not always obvious what the "correct" answer is, either - in order to corner the person you're investigating and get them to admit key pieces of information. Fortunately, Max Mode mess ups don't count towards your five lives in the investigation, so you can just go through trying every one, trial and error style, should you find yourself a bit stumped with the selection.
Like many visual novel-type games, Root Letter has several different endings to play through, each of which reveals a little more about what exactly happened to your penpal - and only by replaying the game, and seeing all of the endings will you be able to piece together the full picture.
Which ending you get is largely dependant on the responses you choose to each of Aya's letters, when the protagonist reads them at the start of each chapter - choosing different combinations of answers will send you down different routes in the final chapters of the game. For each letter, you'll have a choice of six (or ten, once you've finished the game once) different responses to Aya's questions, and you'll need to put together your own two part response. For example, her first letter asks Max what he likes to do on his days off, and he can choose to tell her he spends his days reading, visiting shrines or going to events - followed by one of three questions of his own, asking Aya if she likes to read, whether she's interested in folklore or if she's into sports. Depending on the responses you choose, the story will branch into one of five different endings.
Unfortunately, Root Letter does have a few issues that can make your time in Matsue a bit trickier at times. Occasional typos and text being cut off the screen do happen, whether it's a middle-aged woman telling you "No, no. Definitely not. Because I first saw it before the house bur" (she means burned down) or a rather angry character who accuses you of being a stalker, threatens to report you to the police and tells you to "Say away from me!" - as if her main issue with Max is one of flying spittle. We've also not been able to find an easy way to re-read Aya's letters outside of the official reminiscing sections, which can be an issue when the protagonist declares that he should visit somewhere she mentioned in a letter, without mentioning it by name. However, such issues are relatively few and far between, and do little to mar the whole experience.
All in all though, Root Letter is a nice tale of friendship, love and loss, and the twists and turns in Aya's story are sure to keep you playing and replaying to discover the truth. Its well-written characters with believable personalities - some nice, some not so nice - all wrapped up in an intriguing murder mystery story, with multiple endings that layer together into a more complete picture of a long-lost penpal. If visual novels are your jam, the world of Aya Fumino's Matsue is definitely worth a visit!