Before Root Film, I had no stake in Kadokawa’s “Root” series. Root Letter came out in 2016, and despite low sales in Japan apparently did surprisingly well in the West. I never played it, but I’ve been interested for the longest time. When Root Film was announced in 2018, revealed to have no connection to Root Letter, I was pretty excited. A murder mystery game with a filmmaking twist? Sign me up. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places, but I feel we really don’t get too many murder mystery games anymore. Most of the time any games in this genre that release tend to be visual novels, something I have absolutely no qualms with. While Root Film might not be the most ambitious murder mystery visual novel I’ve played, it succeeds in being a fresh enough beginner-friendly take on this genre.
There are two stories you’ll bounce between in Root Film: Amateur Director Max and Young Actress Riho. Each chapter of their stories plays out like an episode of a fun crime show. Our protagonist and their friends visit a new location, meet a fun cast of mysterious people, someone dies, and they have to figure out who killed them and how. Along the way, you’ll see their two ongoing narratives build upon themselves gradually. Hell, each chapter goes as far as to have a credits scene to reinforce its TV inspirations (I have no actual proof for this, but it seems pretty obvious when you start playing it).
Those wanting a dark crime drama might want to look elsewhere however, since the writing often aims to be comedic. It knows when to take itself seriously, and remains grounded most of the time, but I think your enjoyment of this game will heavily depend on your expectations. This is more of a Psych than a Law and Order. Solving the mystery is certainly enjoyable, but the characters and their banter are where the game truly shines. The localization reads wonderfully, with only a handful of noticeable typos here and there. The dialogue flows incredibly well, and for a game where you’re going to spend most of your time reading that’s pretty important.
From a gameplay perspective, Root Film is a pretty simplistic game. This isn’t entirely a flaw, but I think more gameplay variety could have gone a long way. Exploration is set up via a map of the district your group is currently visiting. You’re able to visit a variety of locations at any time, but your progression is always going to be linear. Finding where to go is fun, but I don’t think this is the kind of game that works well for long play sessions.
Each area you visit is based on filtered photographs taken of the real world, and on top of these are the character sprites. The aesthetic for this game is striking and looks great. While well-drawn backgrounds in visual novels are always nice, over the years I’ve grown especially found of games that use real photographs instead. I have no preference between the two, but this is something I will always appreciate. While it’s likely done as a way to save money, it gives me a sense of comfort while playing that’s hard to replicate.
When it comes to interacting with these environments from a gameplay perspective, I felt a bit underwhelmed. Every part you can interact with is laid out to you by a giant yellow square. A lot of the fun of exploring crime scenes for clues is lost when you’re told exactly where to look, and I think this sets the tone relatively early on that this is the kind of mystery you watch instead of actively take part in. For some, this will be a deal-breaker but I didn’t mind too much.
What did bother me though was the progression. Several times it grew annoying that the answer to move on to the next part of the story involved me going back to an area I had just left. Instead of one long conversation, you have to see it segmented into two. This is a minor annoyance, but I found that it stacked up over time.
The mysteries themselves, while all starting with very engaging premises, tend to be rather predictable. I was able to figure out the Whodunnit early on almost every time, but it’s worth noting that the Howdunnit kept me on my toes. It’s genuinely fun to see the characters piece together the solution to these mysteries, and I think Root Film has enough self-awareness about itself for this to work. You have to suspend your disbelief a bit (for example, the police give these random people a lot of leeway to do whatever they want in these active crime scenes), but if you can do that you’ll be sure to find a lot to love.
The highlights of the crime-solving for me came in Max’s route. With him being a director, he frequently needs to figure out how a piece of footage could be falsified, requiring him to scrub through videos. This uses the same exact gameplay style as looking at normal environments, but the reframing made it infinitely more fun.
While exploring, your protagonists will pick up on statements and clues with the Synethesia mechanic. The information they see will appear to them visually, and add it to a list. These are best used during the Max Mode segments, where Max or Riho will have to go one on one with another character to prove their statements wrong and find the truth. These big showdowns aren’t too difficult, but I think they stick the landing thanks to the excellent presentation.
The game is entirely voice acted, and the performances are all great. The whole game really leans into the “Film” aesthetic, with the UI being based on film reels and the like. Little details like this really stood out to me and heightened my experience overall. The music is reminiscent of many older crime dramas, and, as someone who grew up with them, I found myself instantly able to immerse myself in the world.
The Nintendo Switch version is completely solid. I played entirely on my Switch Lite to recreate the nostalgic experience of playing a visual novel on my PlayStation Vita, and found it to be a great way to play the game. If I were to list a nitpick, it would be that some camera transitions seem to slow down the framerate and I wish the text size was a bit bigger.
Root Film is the kind of game you recommend to a friend who is wanting to get into visual novels. It was hard not to compare it to its peers, but I think some of that is a bit fair. It felt like an earnest attempt at a love letter to a subgenre of visual novels. The attempt was surely appreciated, and makes it impossible for me to dislike the game in its entirety. On its own, I feel the game is just short of greatness, but that in no way makes it bad or even mediocre. The presentation and characters carry the experience, and the game made me laugh out loud more times than I could count. I wish there could have been some more complexity in the game’s writing, but so often do visual novel writers fail when it comes to penning good dialogue for the characters. I’d be more than interested in checking out a third possible game in this series if we’re lucky enough to see one.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by PQube