A Field of Stars
Like any other form of media, the video game field has produced its fair number of celebrities. I’m not talking about fictional characters that have become celebrities of their own kind, but rather the actual people behind the creation of games.
While most may not have the general recognition across the globe like some movie actors and actresses have, there are quite a few that just about everyone that has dabbled in the gaming sphere is bound to know. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of all your childhood memories, and especially known for Mario. John Romero, who promised to “make us his bitch” with the infamous Daikatana. Hideo Kojima, famous for the mind-bending Metal Gear Solid series and his recent troubles with Konami. Of course, the list could go on and on.
Then we have the celebrities who are are somewhat less-known, due to being a bit more of an auteur creator (like Goichi Suda, a.k.a. Suda51), or only really gaining attention in certain regions. With the major divide in the gaming world between Japan and the west, there’s bound to be a number that are familiar to one region, yet practically unknown in another.
The game we are looking at today features two such creators, who are much more well-known to certain degrees in Japan than they are in the west. Kotaro Uchikoshi and Takumi Nakazawa gained some fame in Japan during their time with the developer KID, during which they co-wrote the Infinity series of visual novels. One entry in the series, Ever17 (which we have written about in the past), made its way to America as a very niche release, but aside from that, their works mostly remained on the other side of the Pacific.
Uchikoshi’s name has started to become a bit more familiar in the west amongst certain fandoms due to his work on the Zero Escape series (Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors; Virtue’s Last Reward; and the upcoming Zero Time Dilemma). Nakazawa, though, has yet to gain much ground outside of his native Japan.
Today, we are looking at a visual novel directed by Nakazawa, and the first official English release of one of his works since Ever17.
Root Double -Before Crime * After Days- Xtend Edition was developed by Regista and Yeti, translated by Lemnisca Translations, and published in the west by Sekai Project. The game was released on April 27th, 2016, for the PC via Steam.
Root Double takes place in the year 2030, at a time where telepathic powers have been scientifically proven to exist. The power has been named “Before Communication,” or BC for short, and those that are able to use it (a very small portion of the population) are able to send messages and feelings through telepathy into the minds of others. In an area of Japan known as Rokumei City, many users of BC (“Communicators”) have gathered to live together and assist with research into these abilities.
Located in Rokumei City is the 6th Laboratory of Atomic and Biological Organization, or LABO for short. As the name suggests, the facility exists to research atomic power and biology, and is a highly secure building due to the fact that it houses a nuclear reactor. Unfortunately, on September 16th, 2030, a series of explosions occurs in the building.
The city’s highly-trained rescue squad, Sirius, is called in to help evacuate scientists stuck in LABO due to the explosions and resulting fires. However, just as evacuation is wrapping up, a “Case N” is declared in the building – a nuclear reactor meltdown. The basement levels where the reactor is located are automatically sealed off, trapping nine people in the facility. With radiation levels quickly rising and fires still racking the building, these nine people must find a way to survive and escape LABO.
Root Double‘s story is told from two different perspectives, each with their own story route in the game. The first route, entitled “Root After,” follows Watase Kasasagi, a man in his mid-30s and a squad leader in Sirius. After entering the basements of LABO, Watase is knocked unconscious, and awakes to a locked down building and a case of amnesia. The story of this route follows the attempted survival and escape of those trapped in the facility, and leans heavily on action and drama.
The second route, “Root Before,” follows Natsuhiko Tenkawa, a high school student and Communicator who finds himself in LABO on the day of the incident, only to end up trapped in the building with the others. This route focuses on Natsuhiko’s life in the week leading up to the incident, and provides more backstory on BC and Rokumei City, presented in more of a slice-of-life style.
While they are both a part of the same full story, each of the two routes provide vastly different story experiences. As I mentioned, Root After is where all of the action is, and it presents the central story of Root Double. Most of the main players are introduced in this route, although there isn’t much in the way of character development here. The entirety of this route takes place over the span of a few hours in-game, and as such, what you see is really what you get when it comes to the characters. Root After’s main strength lies in introducing you to the world of the game and presenting the events and actions that shape the rest of the story.
Root Before takes place in the week leading up to the LABO incident, and is much more focused on character and setting development. Much of this route focuses only on Natsuhiko and two of his friends, but through them and their school life, we are introduced to the background and workings of Rokumei City, Communicators, and BC. The weakness in this route, though, is that much of it functions like an info-dump. In between scenes of Natsuhiko’s daily life, there are multi-paragraph-long descriptions of every little detail involved in the game’s setting, which can quickly become tiring considering this route can run about 10 hours to read.
Once you reach the best ending of both of these routes, you are presented with two more: “Root Current” and “Root Double”. Describing these routes would dive into spoiler territory, but in general terms, Root Current feels like a mostly useless padding of game time, while Root Double is where the real meat of the game is, with all of the mysteries of the previous routes answered.
In general, Root Double is very wordy in its narrative. The writing spares no expense in making sure you know exactly what’s going on, what everything means, and everything you would care to know about the characters and their motivations. In some cases, like the aforementioned info-dumping in Root Before, this writing style is somewhat detrimental. To look on the bright side, though, containing that nitpick to one route allows the rest to have greater flow and stay constantly interesting. While the beginning of the Root Double route is a bit slow to launch, the rest of the story overall moves at a decently fast pace, but not so much that it sacrifices detail.
The characters themselves are incredibly well-written with many layers of depth, but only when you take the entire story into account. Within individual routes, some may come across as shallow, or may have no focus at all. Watase, one of the main characters, has to be the best written one, in my opinion. Despite the whole cliche amnesia thing going on, he has some of the greatest depth amongst the cast, and the amnesia trope is used amazingly well in his development.
Remarkable on the other side of the spectrum, though, are the characters Keiji Ukita (a scientist at LABO) and Ena Tsubakiyama (Natsuhiko’s teacher), who both are relatively lacking in this department. While they do receive enough development to explain their thoughts and actions throughout the story, compared to the rest of the cast, it’s disappointing lacking.
Of final remark is the system that Root Double uses for its narrative choices. As a pure visual novel, you are given choices throughout the story to take the narrative in multiple different directions. Instead of making dialogue choices per usual, this game uses what it calls the “Senses Sympathy System.” When a narrative juncture comes up, you are given the ability to adjust a graph with points for each of the nine main characters. Your choice on these points represents the way you feel about each character, or the amount of trust you put in them, including the character you are playing as. Your decisions in this system affect the direction the narrative takes.
While the Senses Sympathy System is a creative way to change up visual novel structure, it is somewhat unwieldy at best. While there are multiple points you can adjust each character to, the only ones that really matter are “full trust,” “no trust,” or “neutral.” The vast majority of story junctions change little to nothing about the plot aside from a few lines, and some of the more story-critical ones are difficult to figure out and require saving and experimenting with the graph to get the right outcome. The system is an interesting experiment, but is a bit of a disappointment when it comes to the story experience.
The Light of the Flames
Root Double presents a somewhat subdued art style, which is rather appropriate considering the weight of the story. While obviously done in an anime style, the characters are designed in a realistic manner (minus the hair colors…one character having green hair really stands out), colors are rather soft and occasionally tend toward the drab side of the spectrum, and there is a lot of good shadow work on the character sprites. The sprites themselves are nicely expressive, offering a number of different poses and expressions. Unfortunately, they seem to be lacking some more…darker…expressions for the much more serious moments of the narrative.
Background art is hit-or-miss depending on the current setting of the story. Most of the game takes places inside the labs of LABO, which is filled with sterile hallways, office spaces, and a few laboratories. The scenes in the various hallways and gathering spaces of the facility can become repetitive, and sometimes its hard to tell where exactly a scene is taking place in the story due to so much of it looking the same. Outside of LABO, though, the selection of environments is much more varied. There are a great number of locations explored within Rokumei City, each with their own style and character, and these have quite a lot of detail going on in the art.
The CG art scenes overall are fairly spectacular, offering a huge amount more detail, and the fact that there are a surprising amount of them in Root Double helps to even out the repetitiveness of the backgrounds in LABO. A few of them, though, have somewhat awkward designs of the characters (particularly ones featuring Watase).
Voices in Your Head
I, unfortunately, did not find the soundtrack of Root Double to be all that remarkable. Much of the soundtrack features synthesized sounds and drum machines, which fit with the heavy sci-fi lean of the game. However, most of the tracks are either very subdued, or very repetitive, and overall lacking depth. There is a standout track, though: “The Brave Decision,” a fast-paced piano and synth rock piece that adds excellently to the atmosphere whenever it is played.
The game also features full voice acting in Japanese. Every dialogue line is voiced, included the character you’re currently playing as, which adds up to a massive amount of voice acting considering this game’s 30-40 hour narrative. Now, some may shout “HERESY” when I say this, but I usually tend to shut off voice acting in visual novels, as I read much faster than the voiceovers. I keep them on when reviewing them, of course (as they’re a major part of the experience), and in the case of Root Double, I am especially glad I did. The actors and actresses behind the characters give amazing performances, and they really help to enforce the emotion behind major moments of the story. Aside from the character Yuuri’s soft-spoken performance eventually becoming grating over the long runtime, every other performance in this game is noteworthy.
And You Will Know True Malice
Overall, Root Double gives us a dramatic and gripping, if occasionally quite long-winded, story with great graphical and acting presentation to match. In nearly every session I had with this game, I had to force myself to stop playing due to the need to attend to real life…it’s very hard to stop reading this once you’ve started. Despite some narrative issues in the Root Before route, the story is well thought-out and incredibly detailed, with a cast of deep and likable characters.
When I first heard about this game, I was initially turned off simply because of the title. I mean, seriously: Root Double -Before Crime * After Days- Xtend Edition. It looks like someone pulled random words out of a dictionary and tried to make a cool phrase with them. However, finding out that Takumi Nakazawa was the director behind the game led me to giving it a second look, and I am very glad that I did. Also, the title does actually get explained through the game, and the BC/AD part of it plays a major role.
If you’re looking to pour a bunch of time into a good story, I would highly recommend Root Double. Info-dumping and disappointing soundtrack aside, it’s an experience that I’m not soon to forget, and it is greatly worth your time.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review copy provided by Sekai Project for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.