Root Letter is a rather unusual sort of adventure game. Players are revisiting the hometown of their penpal, a young woman who disappeared fifteen years before. While you’re playing to find out what happened to Aya Fumino, a young woman who briefly appeared in your life and made a huge difference, you’re also exploring the Shimane Prefecture’s capital. In visiting locations around the town, you’re getting to know the town just as well as you will the people there, perhaps even better.
This is due, in part, to the nature of Root Letter. Kadokawa Games created this game while working closely with Shimane prefecture officials. This is a cross-promotional affair. While the developer is telling us a very clear story, they’re also attempting to make Matsue appear as enticing as possible. The funny thing is, they do it in a subtle sort of way that doesn’t shove the involvement down your throat. It just happens to be part of the overall ambiance.
It all begins with a guidebook. Really. There’s an ever present option to consult with a guidebook you acquire immediately after arriving in Matsue. There is an entry for every location you visit in Root Letter, because each place is based upon an actual, real world location. The Shimane Art Museum, which you’ll see shortly after arriving in the city, is a real place on the south side of Matsue. The S.S. Swan is reminiscent of the sightseeing boats traveling on Lake Shinji. The Yaegaki Shrine, where you’ll draw fortunes and acquire important items, appears in the Yamata-no-Orochi legend and looks the same in-game as it does at the Visit Matsue website. Visiting a place based on another, as the Matsue Oba High School is on the Shimane Prefectural Matsue Minami High School in Yakumodai, Matsue City, gives information on the real place.
Building on this is Root Letter’s artwork. As the PlayStation Blog showed earlier this year, each place is based exactly on another place. The background designs are directly inspired by actual locations. The Matsue Kyomise Shopping District, along the Kyobashi-gawa River, is one of the best examples. Not only do the images shared by Kadokawa Games and PQube show the similarity, but any website with a picture of the space, like Hello Japan, offers a near perfect depiction of the area in the game. Everything looks and feels the same, lending authenticity to a game that can occasionally go off the rails.
The other incidentals help to improve immersion. While Kamiari-an, the restaurant you’ll often visit in Root Letter, is a more unique location, elements of it reference parts of Shimane’s culture. Its name references Kamiari zuki, the Month of the Gods. In the lunar calendar’s 10th month, the gods allegedly all come to Izumo, Shimane Prefecture. Festivals are held during this time. But, even more important, it’s an opportunity to see gorgeous pictures of Japanese food and learn more about them. For example, your first treat is the Yamata no Orochi soba, named for the eight-headed and eight-tailed dragon Susanoo faced. Each meal is a culinary and history lesson, making each filler visit a delight.
Meanwhile, the constant appearances of Shimanekko calls to mind the cuteness we’ve come to expect from Japan. Shimane Prefecture has its own yuru-chara to promote the region. While Shimanekko isn’t as famous as Kumamoto’s Kumamon or Funabashi’s Funassyi, it is a recognizable character. Seeing the actual mascot appear in appropriate locations, as well as its likeness on the S.S. Swan and other places, is a reminder of the pervasiveness of such characters in regions of Japan.
While all of this can seem like a bombardment of information here, it doesn’t feel like it in Root Letter. It’s handled and employed rather tactfully. Instead of coming across as a constant commercial for Matsue, it feels more like an accurate depiction of a real location. I’d say it even made the exploration more interesting for me, as it made even mundane locations seem intriguing. I’d find myself consulting the guidebook even when it wasn’t necessary, because I genuinely wanted to know more about the shrines and spaces along the way.
Root Letter is available for the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. Siliconera will be live streaming the first two hours of the game at 12pm PT/2pm CT/3pm ET on December 21, 2016.