Good narrative depth

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Game Time

Root Letter: Last Answer
Nintendo Switch

Takayuki Nakamura is in his early thirties. He’s between jobs in Tokyo, and a scheduled house renovation compels him to do some cleaning. As he rummages through things in storage, he comes across a set of letters dating back 15 years. He recalls putting out an ad in a magazine for a pen pal, and then getting a response all the way from Shimane Prefecture. His subsequent back and forth with Aya Fumino was what enabled him to survive senior year in high school, he notes. And, across the miles, he believed he found love. Unfortunately, his 10th letter wound up unanswered, and it was all that became of their long-distance friendship. Or so he thought.

Evidently, Nakamura received an 11th missive — one he notices isn’t postmarked. And as he finds it, the old memories give way to shock. He opens and reads it for the first time. “I killed someone. I must atone for my sins,” it said. “We won’t speak again. Farewell.” As a wave of emotions rush in, he decides to take a trip to Matsue in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery. What happened? He takes stock of all that he knows about Fumino, and, despite acknowledging the modicum of information he possesses, is determined to press on. He owes it to her. He owes it to himself.

And so begins Root Letter: Last Answer, a reissue of a visual novel that claimed a cult following when it was released on the PlayStation Vita and PS4 three years ago. Taking off from its well-laid premise, gamers are tasked to gather information about her and how she went about her secondary education beginning with clues she left in her letters. The interface is simple, if functional; through context-driven commands, they are able to examine surroundings, engage in conversations, and ultimately piece together a puzzle that touches on school and secrets, food and fallacies, ghosts and growth, life and love.

As with most other offerings in the genre, Root Letter: Last Answer’s visuals are largely static. Accompanied by thematically appropriate music and outstanding Japanese voiceovers, they provide gamers with lush and intricately drawn backdrops that lend flavor to the proceedings. Even as Fumino’s past becomes more evident through engagements with the circle of friends she named in her writings, so, too, does Matsue’s present. Filled with details that go beyond fictional confines, the storytelling is steeped in culture; developer Kadokawa Games imbibes its creation with stunningly precise local flavor.

As a remake, Root Letter: Last Answer hews closely to its source material. In fact, it can be navigated exactly the way the original was presented — with detailed and intricately designed artwork highlighting the association of those behind it with the popular and long-running LovePlus dating-sim series. At the same time, it provides gamers with an alternative; it likewise offers a live-action redesign slated to add heft to the presentation. Among others, the characters of Bestie, Shorty, Monkey, Fatty, Snappy, Four-Eyes, and Bitch are fleshed out even more, literally and figuratively.




Be that as it may, Root Letter: Last Answer thrives because of the depth of its narrative. Twists and turns abound, with gamers able to squeeze the truth out of Nakamura’s interactions through the presentation of previously gathered evidence. There are 10 chapters to be negotiated, each based on one letter Fumino wrote, backstopped by four newly produced epilogues. However, the unfolding of the last two sections will vary depending on choices made en route. By extension, so, too, will the ending — and because five all told are in store, replay value is enhanced.

For the most part, Root Letter: Last Answer pulls its weight. It takes its time peeling off its various layers, unfolding the stories it and, just as importantly, its locations in a pace suited to taste. Not all instances present the power of choice; in fact, few do. Then again, the skillful manner in which it weaves its tales makes its largely linear journey just as fulfilling as its unique denouements. And, significantly, it can be even better; tasked with its localization for Western audiences, PQube occasionally stumbles on the translation and typography. They’re nothing a mere software update can’t fix. That said, they’ve been around since the release of the original version, as much an indication as any that improvements in this regard aren’t forthcoming.

Depending on leanings, gamers can find Root Letter: Last Answer’s live-action Drama Mode to be either gimmicky or inspired. The effort is acknowledged all the same; Kadokawa Games assembles a cast of 90 actors for the purpose. And, in the final analysis, there can be no denying the title’s worth. It’s a fit for the Nintendo Switch, in particular; not too taxing on the hardware, it can be enjoyed in handheld mode, on the go and in spurts, sans any slowdowns or letdowns. In other words, it’s precisely what an ideal VN is, and — clocking in at an aggregate 30 hours or so — a worthy addition to the library of gamers partial to the genre.

THE GOOD:

• Immersive narrative

• Steeped In culture

• Outstanding visuals and sounds

• Live-action Drama Mode

• Four new epilogues

• Great for on-the-go gaming

THE BAD:

• Essentially a remake

• Even the typographical errors are retained

• Pace can be slow

• Occasionally repetitive

RATING: 8.5/10

POSTSCRIPT: Exception begins innocuously enough: An old woman not quite adept with modern technology whiles away some idle time in front of her laptop. Unfamiliar with the pitfalls of Cyberspace, she clicks on a link that offers a freebie; instead, it unleashes malware threatening to take over her computer system. Taking off from the premise, gamers assume control of software designed to combat the infestation. The result is a fast-paced — make that extremely fast-paced — romp through 128 levels requiring precision movement laced with occasional strikes against enemies on the prowl.

Significantly, Exception allows gamers to skip the adequate, if unnecessary, setup and go straight to the action. And, in this regard, developer Traxmaster Software delivers. The presentation is somewhat minimalist, but deliberately kinetic. In fact, the action platformer benefits immensely from its decision to keep the principal protagonist in the center of the screen at all times; however direction the character “moves” is reflected by the environment’s dynamism. Hitting an object en route results in a change in perspective and configuration. Quick thinking and rapid reflexes are thus imperative.

Each stage in Exception is short (lasting well under a minute), with a timer ensuring its speedy traversal. Rewards by way of stars are earned depending on the rapidity with which it is completed; a maximum of four is at stake in every turn, and are then accumulated for the generation of new abilities. Moreover, character momentum is carried over to the next level, thus incentivizing tactical transitions. The completion of collectibles and attainment of top ranks in online leaderboards enhance replay value.

Absent the pursuit of psychic income, Exception is good for at least a handful of hours of fun. It’s certainly a worthy addition to the Nintendo Switch’s already-loaded library given the hybrid console’s pronounced bias for on-the-go gaming. Its abstract retro-inspired aesthetic and synthwave music keep the adrenaline pumping, and the solid interface makes route optimization amid a bevy of hurdles attainable. All told, it’s worth every penny of its $14.99 tag. Recommended. (8/10)

Kickstarter-funded Hyper Light Drifter has made its way to the iOS platform, and owners of Apple devices will be glad to know the two-dimensional action role-playing game manages to retain all the attributes that made it a critical and commercial hit, and then some. The mobile port of developers Heart Machine and Abylight Studios’ homage to the 16-bit era of gaming includes content hitherto touted as exclusive to the Nintendo Switch. Given the hybrid console’s on-the-go leanings, it’s no surprise, to be sure. Nonetheless, it adds no small measure of value to the already feature-packed offering.

Envisioned to be a cross between Diablo and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Hyper Light Drifter starts with a premise from which an overarching narrative evoking Studio Ghibli masterpieces is pieced together over time. Gamers get to control a technology-savvy journeyman compelled to traverse vast wastelands in search of a remedy for his illness. En route, he finds the driver of his exploration dovetailing with a higher purpose: survival is at stake, but not just his. Meanwhile, subsistence requires continual combat against increasingly powerful enemies; thusly, expansion of skills and equipment become as crucial as employment of proper tactics at the right times.

Gameplay is nothing short of outstanding. Hyper Light Drifter employs an interface that locates the floating stick on the left and action buttons around the remainder of the screen, and, for the most part, it works, enabling free range of motion and rapid reactions to stimuli. Even as customized mapping would have been a plus, the default set gets the job done. Once in a while, moving a hand across the screen to initiate an action is required — thus presenting a potential handicap during periods of frenetic combat.

Parenthetically, Hyper Light Drifter has Made-for-iOS controller support, which makes progress even easier. On the flipside, it’s better paired with an iPad Pro than with an iPhone; for obvious reasons, the latter’s mobility advantages, not to mention capacity to provide haptic feedback, are effectively curtailed in tabletop mode. That said, input lag is nonexistent either way. If there’s any technical stumble, it’s in the absence of cloud saves. Additionally, movement is less than smooth; stutters would be evident on occasion, and even when the screen doesn’t seem to be busy enough to tax the hardware.

Still and all, Hyper Light Drifter more than earns its $4.99 price tag. Armed with a story that’s like a gift needing to be unwrapped slowly to appreciate the contents, as well as with RPG elements that keep gamers immersed throughout, it engages in every sense of the word. Fewer 10 hours are better spent. (8.5/10)

When news of Dead Cells being ported to iOS devices first hit the grapevine, mobile gamers were skeptical. They had reason to be; after all, France-based developer Motion Twin’s intellectual property is already extremely hard to beat on eighth-generation consoles. The notion of doing so with virtual controls on the touchscreen proves even more daunting and makes the exercise decidedly Sisyphean. Even though only those who have been living under a rock all this time don’t know that death is a requisite to finishing the roguelike-Matroidvania offering, acceptance figures to become infinitely harder when technical issues are considered as well.

The good news is that Dead Cells excels on iOS. In fact, publisher Playdigious has done such a yeoman’s job of translating it for Apple devices that even the most critical quarters in the intrinsically finicky community will be hard-pressed to find fault with it. Even with all the action required, gamers will encounter little to no trouble navigating the Prisoner — a blob-like mass of cells able to possess bodies — through dungeon after dungeon en route to the castle’s throne room, where the king and his right hand need to be defeated.

Combat is complex and difficult in and of itself, and often requires gamers to learn the characteristics of their enemies to progress. In this regard, death is inevitable, and the running count of “cells” collected from dead bodies — which can be used to secure power-ups at the end of completed sections — will then revert to zero. Thankfully, the interface is so smooth that it doesn’t add to the hurdles. It likewise helps that buttons can be mapped according to personal preference. The screen real estate subject to constant pressing has likewise been maximized with the transfer of informational visuals to the top; inputs are thus registered without fail and delay.

Needless to say, Dead Cells is best appreciated on a large screen, and with the benefit of tactile feedback. Parenthetically, it gives the most bang for the buck via an iPad Pro and a console controller in hand. That said, the iPhone affords gamers the privilege of playing it on the go — and how. It’s the best of the year by far. Highly recommended. (9/10)

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