Ever since Eastasiasoft and Ratalaika entered the fray with their flurries of Visual Novels, most of which come promoting an easy completion for your efforts – or lack thereof – it seems the idea of Visual Novels has left obscurity amongst the gaming masses and has become more of a widely acknowledged form of gaming. You don’t really tend to ‘play’ much of these story efforts, instead, it usually boils down to a few choice options within the storytelling side of things, whilst some of the more refined efforts might try another occasional trick here and there to get you involved a little more than simply pressing A to scroll through the next line of text. The most recent effort to arrive on Xbox comes in the form of a tale of horror with The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel now available on Xbox Consoles, but can it be the game that really sells the appeal of Visual Novels to the gaming masses?
Another game from the previously mentioned Eastasiasoft, as well as Ying Yang Mobile, The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel is a story that quite clearly takes heavy inspiration from well-known Asian horror films such as The Grudge or The Ring.
The game starts with a letter, before putting players into the fight for survival with control of seven different characters, each of which has unique motives and personalities and are being handled through branching narrative choices that comprise the story within the curse-afflicted Ermengarde Mansion that they all find themselves tangled up in.
The story takes place within the UK. You see Ermengarde mansion is up for sale, and rumour has it the place is haunted. Working as a realtor on the property is Isabella Santos, a woman working to send money back to her family who lives away in the Philippines.
Now whilst we’ve all seen those cringey emails, text messages and social media posts that demand we ‘resend to five people by midnight or else you’ll have bad luck’ it’s fair to say the story within The Letter looks to take a horrific spin on this early on when Isabella stumbles across a letter whilst looking for her colleague and co-worker Rose.
When Rose suddenly goes missing, a quick check of the attic in Ermengarde mansion sees a letter found, this letter, written in blood has a short and sharp message, “Help me” is repeated over and over, followed by the chilling message telling her to send it five people “or else”.
Standing in for emotional support for Isabella are friends Ash – a detective inspector, Zach – an ambitious aspiring film director and Becca – a local schoolteacher, and it’s these poor souls that makeup part of the five people that Isabella unknowingly entangles into the tale.
Not long after finding the letter, Isabella quickly becomes a haunted being with hallucinations terrifying her at every opportunity, but when couple Hannah and Luke enter the fray, buying up the sizeable Ermengarde home, Isabella finds she’s just introduced more people to the horrifying ordeal she’s going through. You see Rose has been murdered. The ‘Anslem Killer’ has brutally killer her, and now the ghost haunting Isabella has a full party of people to target.
Now, whilst that may sound a bit much for your typical visual novel, it has to be said that The Letter – A Horror Visual Novel comes with a little more content than most with players able to find no less than 700,000 words, 80 backdrops, 100 CGs, and 50 epilogue variations, which is no small feat for such a title, and it has to be said that this game has certainly handled that vast sum of content fairly well.
The game comes with a fully voiced cast too, which is a pleasant surprise given many other similar titles often require the player to read on throughout. It has to be said that the voice acting is certainly a plausible effort too, with characters brimming with personality, emotion and expression throughout, whilst even the ghost in this tale comes with a memorable voice effort thanks to having a strikingly freaky resemblance to horror icon The Grudge, even down to the finer details such as that horrifying clicking noise that fans of horror will know all too well.
Unlike other visual novels, The Letter has somewhat broken progression with the game’s chapters taking place at different times. To combat this and keep things on the right track, players are given a journal that can be checked regularly and will update things in chronological order to keep the correct order of things clear without affecting the flow of each scene. Despite events in each scene often swapping around in terms of chronological orders, I never failed to understand the timeline of each event which can only mean the journal idea works as intended, and on top of being a neat little feature, it also has further uses with clues also stored within it to aid players also.
Now as mentioned before, there is a full voice cast that will read through each and every line of dialogue, but that doesn’t mean you have any less to do as the player with vital choices to be made throughout the game that actually have a meaningful impact on specific outcomes. For example, there are certain actions which can straight up lead to the death of another character, and should you not be paying attention, it’s all too easy to choose the wrong thing and witness the horror unfold quicker than expected, whilst there is also a full relationship feature with meters that track relationship status between characters which is in-turn directly affected by the narrative choices you make and drives story developments.
Another interactive aspect of The Letter that is also entirely optional within both the settings of the game and through an in-game skip option whilst playing are mini-games. Should you decide to take part in these, then success is the only option to progress, and whilst none of the games are difficult, it is certainly a nice and refreshing change to see them included with many games usually sticking to text-only adventures. The mini-games on offer are QTE based and they include one that requires you to take a photo of the haunting ghost responsible for the horror being experienced which will first need searching for, as well as another which requires you to press the correct button as she appears on your screen to banish her, whilst another will see you spam a set button as fast as possible in a bid to close elevator doors before the ever-encroaching ghost crawls down the hallway towards you. They are basic in execution, but it’s an effort we rarely see in the genre, and it’s one I can’t praise enough given the usual cannon fodder that has been filling the genre in recent times.
In general, there is very little for me to complain about with this game as each area seems to have been given a good amount of care and attention to detail, however the one niggle I did have throughout was the slow pacing of it all. Whilst the voice acting makes it a lot less harrowing to sit through, without direct gameplay that’s actively requiring input, it can be a big ask to sit through several hours of content without getting itchy feet and The Letter – A Horror Visual Novel is certainly a game that will take you several hours, especially when you start factoring in the different dialogue options and potential paths that can be taken.
I don’t want to sit here and find complaint with what is, without a doubt, the best visual novel we’ve seen yet and it’s not hard to find a reason to get back onto a positive note which comes in the form of the game’s visuals. With vibrancy and a true sense of eeriness throughout this tale, what we have here is a game that actually delivers on the horror setting incredibly well, despite having little more than animations and essentially a storyboard to do the bidding for it. Something which isn’t even managed all too often with many well-known and readily available horror-based comics. Yet everything here from the well-drawn characters to the detailed and picturesque environments is pretty spot on.
Overall, if you are looking for a game that can provide a high-quality storytelling experience, whilst remaining engaging throughout, then there will be few better than The Letter – A Horror Visual Novel. Sure, you can blast through it with skip-text options and auto-play if you’re just here for the Gamerscore, but if you want to make the most of that money spent, then this is not a game that will disappoint. It brings classic horror to a complete narrative adventure, and it does it in a way that even few books manage to achieve. This is the first time a visual novel has left me anything but resenting its existence, and somehow this one even manages to be impressive. Hopefully, we see more horror visual novels given this same development effort.Become a Patron!
This game was reviewed based on Xbox One review code, using an Xbox Series S|X console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.