拝啓 この手紙読んでいるあなたは どこで何をしているのだろう 十五の僕には誰にも話せない 悩みの種があるのです
「紙 ～拝啓 十五の君へ～」 （アンジェラ・アキ）
Greetings. You, who are reading this letter, where are you and what are you doing now?
I am fifteen, and I have worries I can't talk about to anyone.
If I write a letter to my future self, I'm sure I can confide it all to myself.
"Letter ~ Greetings To A Fifteen Year Old You~" (Angela Aki)
I wonder if, and how the concept of pen pals has changed the last ten, fifteen years, with e-mail and nowadays smartphone apps making asynchronous communication move closer back to synchronous communication...
While cleaning out his old room in his parental home, 33-year old Takanori, nickname Max, finds a box with old letters. Fifteen years ago, in his senior year in high school, he had a penpal called Fumino Aya. She lived faraway in Matsue, capital city of the Shimane prefecture and was like him in her senior year. Their correspondence suddenly stopped after ten letters, but Max discovers an eleventh, unopened letter inside the box. The letter however contains a surprising confession: Fumino Aya wrote in her last letter that she had killed a person and that she would need to pay for her sin. Feeling guilty about only reading this letter now, Max decides to go to Matsue to find out about this ghost from the past. And ghosts are what he finds, because he discovers that there had been a Fumino Aya living in Matsue, but that she had died 25 years ago! So who was his penpal? The only way to find Aya is through her classmates she mentioned in her letters by nickname, but things don't go easy for Max in the 2016 videogame √Letter (PS4/Vita).
√Letter, pronounced Root Letter, is the first game in the Kadokawa Game Mystery series. Follow-up titles have not been announced yet at the time this review is written, but the Kadokawa Game Mystery series uses a so-called star system. Characters are treated like actors in live-action productions, and will appear in various titles in different roles. In √Letter for example, Fumino Aya is played by the fictional actress AYA, and she will presumably also play different roles in future games.
The game is a very old school command-style adventure game, with some minor visual novel elements. In the game, you will be moving around Matsue in search of Aya's old classmates, in the hope of finding out who your penpal was and what happened to her and who she killed. Each chapters starts with the protagonist reading one of Aya's old letters, where she talks about her life and her friends. Using the hints in these lettters, you try to identify her friends and have them tell you the truth. Problem is these friends are obviously hiding something and you need to prove who they are and their link to Aya in order to proceed. As the story goes on, you uncover the truth behind Fumino Aya.
As an adventure game, √Letter is nothing special. In fact, it is very, very classic in set-up and even feels outdated. Talk to a character at A, get told you need to go to B, do an action there, go to C. It is a one way road, and the only diversions on the way are the confrontations with Aya's friends at the end of each chapter, when you need to prove their identity. These segments however are incredibly badly designed, being more vague than should be. But they also feature a "Think" option that in turns tells you the answer, giving you the choice of either guessing without a clue, or being told what to do. These secions also feature a strange timing-based dialogue-gimmick that is supposed to represent tension or something but fails horribly. The game adds some minor visual novel design choices, as it features multiple endings which depend on the choices you make throughout the game. You read one of Aya's letters at the start of each chapter, and you 'reminisce' on what your reply was to each letter of hers. The kind of replies you choose throughout the game decide which of the five endings you will get.The endings are all varied, with a completely different tone to them (from horror to thriller), but only one of them can be considered the 'true ending.'
The game was made with cooperation of the Shimane prefecture. Most of the locations featured in the game are real, and there is even an in-game travel guide explaining these locations. Because of that, √Letter does reminds of travel or topographical mystery ficton.
So I have to admit that √Letter was quite a disappointment as a game, but the story itself was entertaining. The story moves at a slow pace, and suspension of disbelief is kinda needed (it takes Max just a few days to locate Aya's friends based on their nicknames?), but overall, the mystery surrounding Aya really did get me curious. In terms of mystery fiction, there are two mysteries: the overall story of who Max' penpal Fumino Aya is and what happened to her, and the minor mysteries of having to find Aya's friends and proving who they are. While none of these mysteries are really asking the player to think and deduce on their own (the game doesn't even allow for that), but the presentation does make you want to dig deeper in everyone, even if some of the "twists" are rather obvious. Depending on which ending you got, the story can also turn into supernatural horror or even science-fiction, though the true ending is a realistic one.
What was especially well done was the characterization. Each character is shown twice to the player: once through the eyes of Aya, fifteen years ago, and the way they have become now. Usually, there is a gap between what Aya's friends wanted to become when they were young, and what they actually did become in the present day. Both their younger and their adult sides get the proper attention and because of that √Letter feels like a mix between the teenage school drama and a 'normal' adult drama, with people looking back at their lives and rethinking what has happened to them. People who like Solanin for example might find √Letter interesting. I think also that readers who can appreciate the human drama in Higashino Keigo's works will be pleasantly surprised.
I think you can already guess from the above, but I do think that √Letter did not need to be a game. It could have worked as good, perhaps even better in a different medium, like a TV series. The game features some very nice character and art designs by Minoboshi Tarou (Love Plus) and a soundtrack which is a bit limited, but has some great themes. But these are elements that are not game-exclusive. Only the concept of multiple endings is game-like, but even though only the true ending can be considered a satisfying end to the story, so even then it appears this could've worked in all other mediums.
Overall, I'd say that √Letter is a game that could've been much more. The story and the concept behind the game are good, but the translation to a game-format is simply too bare-bones, making the game slower, and perhaps more boring than should've been. I had a reasonably fun time with it, but I can definitely imagine people being less forgiving than me with this game. So it's off for a somewhat troublesome start for the Kadokawa Game Mystery series, though I hope they will release more.
Original Japanese title(s): 『√Letter』