Like any good story, it starts with a death. We don’t know why someone is laying on the street or why people are taking pictures of them with their phones, but the world is dark and getting darker until it all fades to black.
Root Film starts out grim and a little bit frightening, but the shock soon fades and we’re presented with a well-written and presented visual novel that Western fans of the genre have been looking forward to since we found out it was getting an overseas release. The translation is solid, with only a few small typos that pop up. The game is fully voice acted in Japanese and there aren’t any plans to provide an English dub, so players who aren’t fans of subs might fight that a barrier to getting stuck in.
The game is a murder mystery visual novel centred around two people in the film industry. Initially, the player follows Rintaro, a talented but unknown film-director. Soon Riho, a similarly up-and-coming actress and model, becomes available to play as. Both view the Shiname Mystery Drama Project as their big breakthrough in the industry, but first, they need to solve the pesky mysteries that keep popping up around it.
Root Film, like its 2016 predecessor Root Letter, is set in the Shimane prefecture of Japan and seems enough of a love letter to the region that we wonder if the local tourism board helped fund the project. Local festivals and landmarks serve as the backdrop to much of the story and are brought to life with great care and detail.
Much like Root Letter, the setting takes centre stage at times in the story, giving the sense that the game couldn’t be set anywhere else and still feel the same. Local legends are explored without feeling shoehorned into the plot and locations are lovingly recreated using the game’s satisfying if slightly generic art style. Exploration doesn’t feel like a chore, which is good, because there is a lot of it that needs doing to solve each mystery.
Players don’t need to have experience with Root Letter to enjoy Root Film. They are distinct stories with entirely different tones. Root Film leaves the school setting behind and focuses on its adult cast, giving it a more grown-up feel. Fans of Root Letter will notice certain gameplay mechanics that carry over, but the stories are very much stand-alone, making this entry a solid first foray for players in the Kadokawa Mystery Game series.
The gameplay in Root Film will feel familiar to fans of the genre, particularly those of the Ace Attorney series. Each chapter consists of multiple parts, including a prologue and solution, where the characters interact with the locations that filming has brought them to and uncover the secrets hidden just out of sight. As each mystery is wrapped up, the credits roll, adding to the feel of a story set in the film industry.
Like the Ace Attorney games, scenes need to be visited in a specific order to unlock the next bit of the story, but Root Film doesn’t do quite as good a job of signposting players to the next location. Players will need to interact with objects and people multiple times to get the information they need, but the game doesn’t always tell you when you’ve finished in an area. This can cause a lot of backtracking and repeating dialogue until you find the one bit you might have missed.
Throughout the investigation, certain phrases will be highlighted by the characters’ synaesthesia, a trait that allows them to notice words and phrases that are important to their investigation. During parts of each story, these nuggets of information become weapons to be used against those who committed the murder or to unlock the next clue needed to progress. Pick the right one and the suspect’s resolve will wear down. Pick the wrong one and they will close off completely, resulting in a game over.
There are a lot of really nice touches in Root Film. The mysteries are set up to take advantage of the protagonists’ experience in the film industry. Some can only be solved by knowing about how movies are made and using a director’s eye for detail to spot the inconsistencies present. The cast is fun, and the Japanese voice acting is good enough that everyone feels distinct by sound alone. Our favourite was the clever and rebellious Magari, Rintaro’s production assistant and film editor, but players will find someone that resonates with them throughout the story.
Everything is more grounded in Root Film than in some murder mystery visual novels like Ace Attorney or Danganronpa. The stories are based in real-world logic and the characters look and feel like they could exist in the real world, which often makes the murders they commit feel that much grizzlier and unsettling, but players wanting the outlandish character designs or highly-stylised environments might be disappointed in this direction.
At over £40 for the physical version of Root Film, it has a steeper price tag than most visual novel fans are likely to be used to. It will take players around twenty hours to take in both the Riho and Rintaro branches of the story and to see how they come together in the end, so there is certainly enough gameplay here to justify the price.
Root Film builds off of what its predecessor did well while managing to feel very distinct and more grown-up than Root Letter. The Switch version’s portability makes it much easier to get those hours in than the PS4 version, but those who weren’t fans of Root Letter or who are on the fence might want to wait until a sale or pick up the digital version of the game. For fans of murder mysteries, there are plenty of cases to get stuck into and rich locations to explore. We think it is worth the full price but can’t blame people for being put off by the hefty price tag.