I was surprised when reading about Root Film last month, a game about a director and his crew working on a thriller film project in the Japanese province of Shimane. Rarely in games do we experience the point of view from filmmakers, since gamemakers like to emphasize their own medium over film to avoid comparisons. However, with Root Film I found it impossible to avoid a singular thought over and over again: “Why is this a videogame and not a miniseries?” Because while the core story being told in Root Film is pretty engaging, the entire experience falls short when giving control to the player.
Root Film is a visual novel to its core, but sprinkled with what I can best describe as “Ace Attorney-lite.” You follow Studio Yagumo, led by the main protagonist Rintaro, who is signed on as one of three directors to help with a reboot of a strange cancelled mystery drama series. The original series was shut down ten years ago and all parties involved disappeared, leaving no record or footage of what happened during production. While Studio Yagumo prepares for production on this new series, Rintaro finds out more and more about what happened a decade earlier. Along the way he is aided by his assistant Aine Magari, his cameraman Kanade, and their actress Hitoha. However, Rintaro is not the only protagonist in Root Film. You’ll also play as Riho, an up-and-coming actress who stumbles across her own murder mysteries with her manager Manabe. While these stories are presented separately, they are connected in more ways than you might expect.
The story in Root Film is actually pretty solid. While the mysteries aren’t mind boggling, the twists along the way really kept me engaged in the story. The game is a visual novel, meaning that most of the game you’ll be looking at portraits of the characters in a variety of backgrounds. While visually I didn’t find this to be anything special, they did help set the tone of voice and present the characters in their surroundings. The game is completely voiced in Japanese and the cast does a good job of expressing a wide array of emotions. While I have little to no understanding of Japanese speech, I could clearly understand how these characters felt at all times. The leads of Rintaro, Hitoha, and Magari are really endearing and have a good chemistry and dynamic going on. I enjoyed being part of their conversations and seeing the roles play out.
Unfortunately, the story and the characters were really all that kept me returning to Root Film because the gameplay is rough to say the least. I made the Ace Attorney comparison earlier, but that would be giving Root Film too much credit. You travel around the Shimane prefecture to collect information from witnesses about the different cases; certain keyphrases may light up and become part of your evidence to confront suspects about their actions. Presenting the right information will get you close to the truth, but presenting the wrong information may lead you astray. Whereas the mysteries of the Ace Attorney series keep evolving due to finding new clues during investigation and during the courtroom battles, Root Film is laughably easy during these segments. I never once felt like I didn’t know what I needed to present and the game, pretty clearly, never even presents other possible suspects or outcomes. It’s a shame because this is one of the few times where there is actual gameplay and the chapters reach their climax. For most of the game you are selecting places to visit on a map and deciding whom to talk to. Often you need to talk to the same person, on the same screen, multiple times to advance the dialogue, which becomes tedious and repetitive very quickly. Add to that a dull and minimalistic soundtrack and there is very little to distract you while pressing the A-button to advance dialogue boxes.
The lack of polish really was what killed my enjoyment with Root Film. You’d think a visual novel where you only incidentally make a choice wouldn’t have bad controls, but the selection buttons are so precise it’s almost impossible to select a specific place to visit or a spot to investigate. Half the time my cursor missed the right, pre-selected, square and I was forced to read repeating dialogue. This lack of attention was even worse when I stumbled upon multiple spelling errors in the text and at one point even found a bit of Japanese text that was supposed to explain to me that I needed to play another chapter before proceeding with the main storyline. Moments like these broke my immersion and left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s already hard to stare at static screens for hours on end, but when the core text is full of errors it’s even harder to focus on the story. It almost feels like the creators really wanted this story to be either a manga or an animated series. The potential is absolutely there in the story but from a gameplay perspective I never felt like I was discovering information or confronting a criminal with hard evidence.
Root Film is a story first and foremost. Admittedly, this is a pretty good story with fun twists and some memorable characters. I would have loved to have experienced it in literally any form other than a video game. The gameplay is dull and rarely gives the player any urgency or control over what’s happening. Visually the game is fine but rarely does it do anything that makes it truly stand out. Animating the characters or key scenes would’ve worked wonders, especially with the filmmaking theme. But combined with the frustrating controls and repetitive music, Root Film becomes a drag to play through. I sincerely hope that this story will be adapted into other forms, because there is a lot of potential here. A video game simply shouldn’t have made the cut.