During a trip to Salt Lake City, I picked up a physical copy of “Root Film” at a GameStop. Every now and then I’ll take a chance on a game that looks fairly unimpressive, and “Root Film” was one such purchase. Vaguely catching my eye between releases I’d actually heard of was this profoundly generic visual novel, peeking out at the bottom rack on the wall. With only an interesting name and the mystique of being completely unknown, it lured me in — and I frankly can’t complain.
For about the first half of its runtime, “Root Film” is an amorphous mass of fairly banal Ace Attorney-esque adventure fare. The illustrations and soundtrack are good, if a bit generic, and plots sort of come and go in a haze of typicality. The full voice-acting and decent sound effects are a plus. The major cross-examination puzzles — downplayed as they are — involve little to no actual deduction, border on being impossible to fail, and bear a more-than-passing similarity to Justice For All’s Psyche-Locks, with the major change being the replacement of physical evidence with verbal. As I spent time visiting and revisiting each location and arbitrarily interacting with everyone and everything, being essentially dragged by the hand through a tourism-association-sponsored ad, I wondered when it was going to end.
Then the second half happened.
“Root Film” doesn’t turn into some divine gift to visual novels halfway through. In large part, it doesn’t even really change. What it does do is become far more interesting; it “clicks.”
Throughout the first half of “Root Film,” there were no hooks or stakes. Without the excessive character or novelty of games like “Ace Attorney,” “Professor Layton,” the “Zero Escape” trilogy, “Danganronpa” or “The Silver Case,” what little appeal it had fell flat due to my lack of investment. However, from Yagumo Part 3 onward, the narrative picked up the pace in a major way. Little story beats that seemed inconsequential earlier turned out to be setups for a cavalcade of twists and turns. The reveals later on recontextualized whole prior chapters, giving the story a much-needed kick in the pants. After Yagumo Part 3, I didn’t care that I had to aimlessly meander; after Yagumo Part 3, I didn’t care that character art and music got reused ad nauseam. If they weren’t so absurdly common and intrusive (there’s a whole dialogue about “domestic vessles”), I doubt I would’ve even cared about the typos littering the script. All it took was some payoff for me to finally value the characters and setting with the groundwork laid. I could finally get through the tour-like structure and enjoy it, could finally see that with Root Film Kadokawa created a living model of Shimane rife with bizarre little exchanges and moments, a surprisingly more grounded but nonetheless campy take on the now-classic visual novel format.
Its translation, albeit in desperate need of an editor, does this vision justice, as do virtually all its aspects. The apparent roughness around “Root Film”’s edges usually isn’t accidental — as someone who’s actually worked on a visual novel, it juggles multiple goals and obligations well, and feels like a more naturalistic approach to its genre. Sitting on a shelf next to whole trilogies of respected competition at the same or lower prices with nary a promotion in sight, “Root Film” has its work cut out for it if it wants to convince. So far, it hasn’t succeeded, and that’s more than a little sad, because it was never meant to do the same things as its contemporaries. “Root Film” is silently removed from the expectations placed on it, and I’m glad I saw it through to the end. It’s a tad on the light side for a $40 digital/$50 physical game, but it’s comfortably placed in its own niche and well worth it if you’re patient.
Gaget is a student in Fairbanks public schools, and has developed a number of free games. He is a neutral game reviewer.
If You Play
Platform: PS4, Switch
Price: $50 (physical), $40 (digital)
Internet Usage (accounts for download size): 4.8 GB
ESRB Rating: M
Release Date: March 19, 2021
Genre: Adventure/Visual Novel
Developer: Kadokawa Games