I’ve always been a big fan of choosing my own adventure. I remember fondly reading the Goosebumps series of such novels. “Reader beware; you choose your scare” it read, the warning inviting me into the world. Just as soon I turned to page 78 and found out I’d been devoured by some monster or other would I flip back to page 1 and begin again. I’m not sure that I ever got a particularly good ending, or even if such endings existed.
In my adult life, storytelling games. While I have played very few of the famous Japanese visual novels like Clannad, Stein’s Gate, and Fate/Stay Night, I have tried my hand at Analogue: A Hate Story, a fair few of the Telltale series, two of the “Choice of” games (I adored Choice of Robots; it actually brought me to tears), a Korean visual novel which I can’t remember the name of, and a few others; that is to say, I do have some level of experience in reading/playing/watching/enjoying these digital stories.
One such game that caught my eye recently was “The Letter”, a horror visual novel by Yangyang Mobile, a Filipino company. Beautiful animations and artwork, an awesome opening trailer, the promise of choices really mattering, and I was sold. After confirming that the game didn’t contain any surprise adult scenes or other such content, I bit the bullet and bought the game.
And I now firmly believe that not only is “The Letter” the best visual novel I’ve ever played, it’s also radically revitalised my interest in the medium and the horror genre.
Throughout the letter, you take on the role of seven different characters whose fates are intertwined. Each chapter of the game sees you play out the events of the story through the eyes of somebody new. Sometimes, you’ll replay some of the old events in a slightly different perspective; most of the time, however, you’ll be living through the fallout of the previous chapter(s).
The plot revolves around the mysterious curse of Ermengarde Mansion. Isabella, a Filipina real estate agent and the first of the seven characters you’ll control, is trying to organise its sale. After turning up late to the mansion, she can’t seem to locate her sales partner anywhere in the mansion. One thing leads to another, and she stumbles upon a mysterious letter. And so begins the horror…
Every choice you make in the game will matter to some extent, some more than others. Your decisions will determine the fate of every character in the game. Will friends still remain friends at the end? Will a marriage fall apart, or remain strong? Will everyone survive? Will the curse be broken? Everything comes down to the decisions you make. Everyone CAN survive, but is everyone supposed to?
Is The Letter A Game?
The Letter is a true visual novel in that it contains few actual game elements. Apart from optional quicktime events (love that they’re optional), you’re going to be reading and watching for the entirety of the “game”. Which is perfect, because very few storytelling games I’ve played actually include gameplay elements that enhance the experience.
Think of it as reading a choose your own adventure book. With pictures. And voice acting. And animations. And music. And an incredibly large amount of text.
What’s So Great About It?
Everything! The voice acting is superb. The music in every scene is spot on. The visuals are beautifully evocative. Most importantly, however, are the characters. Isabella, Ashton, Zachary, Rebecca, Hannah, Luke and Maryanne are all oh so very human. They each have their personal battles, motivations, and very unique personalities. After just one chapter, I was completely hooked.
The game itself is mildly scary (I’m a bit of a wimp, and I was able to play all the way through it late at night). Most (but not all) of the scares are telegraphed; there are only a handful of what I would classify as jump scares littered throughout. I’m not usually a fan of these due to their generally gratuitous use, but they were so infrequent that I was not constantly on edge, which in turn made when they did occur much more satisfying.
Instead, the true horror of the game comes from the investment you have in the lives of the characters you’re reading about, and the looming threat to their lives. You’re constantly concerned for them, especially with the knowledge that each and every one of them can perish before the game is over. And as more and more people succumb to the fate of the curse, you’ll see the characters you love wrestle with fear, guilt, anger, and sadness.
What’s more, The Letter is not all doom and gloom. There are times where you will have small moments of reprieve, times where the friends are able to enjoy one another’s company, the innocence of a child will make you say “Aw”, or where a warm embrace is shared between lovers. It is this dichotomy between the horror and moments of warmth that resonated so well with me. Rest assured, the game CAN get horrific, despite not being “scary”. Let me assure you that I don’t think I’ll be forgetting seeing the tragic way in which my beloved characters are brutally killed off anytime soon.
Honestly, very few. Some people claim the plot is a little tropey (though as I’m not a huge fan of horror, I noticed this far less). There are also more than occasional minor grammar errors, which are slowly being updated. Sometimes, a line of dialogue is conspicuously unvoiced, or doesn’t quite match what is written in the text. Again, all of these issues are being ironed out over time, and apart from one that I encountered in my first playthrough, none of them are close to being immersion breaking.
Upon reflecting on the game some more, the one issue I do have with the game is that there are a few unresolved questions I had at the end of the game. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about them without entering MASSIVE spoiler territory. Yangyang Mobile have discussed the possibility of making a prequel, which would perhaps allow an avenue to answer a lot of these.
Now That We’re Done Here…
If you’re at all interested in visual novels, do yourself a favour and go buy The Letter. Not only is it the best visual novel I’ve ever read, it’s also one of my all time favourite works of fiction. I can’t remember the last time I was so invested in a story that I wanted to talk about it to everyone I could. I’m writing this article because I want to spread the message about it as much as I can!
I also think that Yangyang Mobile, for their first visual novel ever, have done an absolutely stellar job. They ticked all the right boxes for a player like me, didn’t fall into common visual novel pitfalls (there’s a lot of sexualisation in visual novels; none of it here), made relatable, human characters, included multiple user-friendly enhancements, and created a memorable world due to their combination of art, voice-acting, music, and writing. A true masterpiece!
The Letter is available now on Steam – http://store.steampowered.com/app/460430/The_Letter__Horror_Visual_Novel/