Last Updated on November 5, 2020 by Bruno Lauris
Warning! Some spoilers ahead for the game.
What is “The Letter“ about?
The Letter is a visual novel horror game created by the Filipino developer Yangyang Mobile after the game was successfully crowdfunded on Kickstarter for $33,946 by 518 backers in 2015.
The concept of the game is simple. A vengeful ghost has left a chain letter for our main characters to find in the attic of a mansion that is on sale. The letter is written in blood with the words “Help Me” all over the page.
The letter ends with a treat, telling the reader to show the letter to five other people… “or else”…
Our job after finding the letter is to figure out what is behind all the supernatural happenings. Plus, we have to protect not only our own life but the lives of our closest friend`s from the killer ghost.
What do you do in the game?
Since this game is a visual novel it means that as players we are expected to read a novel’s worth of text in the game. Make binary choices that affect the in-game plot. Plus, in some instances, we have to repeatedly mash a button to evade the antagonist.
This is the whole “gameplay”.
It is 90% reading and 10% button-pressing. Simple.
Spoilers! The game`s mystery explained:
The value proposition of a visual novel game most of the time is the story. The awesome ending that you as the player reached. The deep characters you met along the way.
If the payoff of the story is not satisfactory, then the players are going to feel betrayed. Why? Because they had to waste a lot of their time only to reach that disappointing payoff.
In my opinion, “The Letter”`s payoff is not worth all the amount of text that I had to read. While playing as trope characters and replaying scenes that I had already seen over and over again.
By replaying the game many times (more like saving and re-loading) I was able to piece out how the ghost that antagonized everyone in the game came to be. I would like to share what I was able to uncover with you so that you could understand why I think this game has such a weak payoff and is not worth the hustle.
If you do not wish to get major spoilers for “The Letter” game skip this part and go to the next section of this article.
The antagonist`s “backstory”
The mansion, in which one of our main characters found the letter, used to belong to the Lady Charlotte Ermengarde. She was a founding member of the Luxbourne City where all the action in the game takes place. She was well respected in the community. Because she accomplished amazing deeds like freeing a poor Japanese slave girl, Takako, from a slavering and making the girl her maid.
At first life for Takako was a happy one. Yet, things went downhill for her fast. After she caught her fair lady cheating with her fiancé`s, Eduard Ermengarde’s, cousin, the lady wanted to punish her.
Charlotte ordered her men to capture Takako and torture her by raping her while Charlotte watched and mocked the girl by calling her a slave.
When the lady`s fiancé Eduard discovered this, he was disgusted and left her.
For this “betrail” Charlotte then had Eduard murdered as she forced Takako to watch. Plus, she killed Takako’s cat… for extra sadness points.
To make matters worse, Takako ended up getting framed by Charlotte and as punishment, she was burned at the stakes as a witch.
This ended up making Takako into an undead spirit that desired for revenge. Takako started to haunt the lady as a ghost and drove her to commit suicide.
Yet, the unexpected happened and for some reason, Takako`s ghost “form” fused with the lady`s spirit.
This transformed the ghost of Takako into a deranged monster that weeps in misery, hunts and kills people, and feels so possessive of Eduard Godfrey that it`s sole purpose has become to entrap Luke Wright, who looks like the fiance Eduard, inside the house in order to… either be together with him (Takako) or to torture him to death (Lady)… depending on how you play the game.
In short, Charlotte’s infidelity was the cause of this whole mess.
So… I had to go through all that text reading etc. only to end up with a trope story like that. I was not satisfied.
Sure, there are other mysteries/hooks to uncover. Some of them are actually interesting and drove me to go deeper into the story, but it never goes beyond a text to read. There almost never is a real chance to use what you know to affect the story`s more interesting aspects in a satisfactory ending. Unless all you want to do in a visual novel game is to “ship” characters and the such.
Continuing on I am going to mention some aspects of the game that are noteworthy and review them.
1. The characters are tropes, but well-executed ones:
The game is divided into 7 chapters and in every chapter, we take the role of a certain main character. This gives us the chance to experiencing the same events from another character`s point of view. Each unique point of view allows us to gain clues that we would not have been able to uncover otherwise. Why? Because each character has access to resources that the other does not.
Isabella allows us to explore the manor and its connections with the BR company, and she helps us to understand the supernatural nature of the ghost`s curse.
Hannah gives us insight into how the former lady of the manor is connected to the ghost.
Zack gives us insight into what the ghost actually wants.
Marianne gives un insight into the truth of the chain letter curse.
Rebecca gives us insight into the hidden truths surrounding the manor`s history.
Ash gives us the chance to connect all the clues we have into one concise narrative. Because he is the one who checks on everyone and has the idea of confronting the ghost at the end.
Luke is the one who gets to decide how this story will end. A lot is based on the other chars as well, but it is Luke who in the end has the last word on how everything will go down.
I think that one scene from the game represents the strengths of the characters very well.
Ash, Zack, and Isabella are in a room. When you get to Ashe`s chapter and get to play with him you know what all three of the characters are thinking in the scene. Ash is thinking about eating a “fucking pie”. Zack is like “I am alone in this world and my only friend is this bottle of pills”. Yet, Isabella is freaking out about the fact that she has seen a ghost.
The characters have unique POVs, wants needs and methods of how to accomplish stuff. The game gets really deep into these characters.
The characters are tropes of the horror genre.
We have the investigator wonder boy Ash, skeptical academic Rebeca. Superstitious Isabella, the best friend we don’t wish to die Zack and so on.
This makes the game very predictable and makes the characters seem one dimensional. Since, as tropes of the genre, they are compelled to commit the same illogical actions that many other trope chars do in the genre:
- Rationalizing away stuff that is actually happening in front of their eyes;
- Not communicating stuff that actually matters;
- Not reacting to stuff that is weird, dangerous, etc.
Sure, people do tend to rationalize stuff away, not notice stuff, etc., but there are limits to that. I suffer from depression and no matter how much I try to deal with it myself even I m able to notice when I need to ask for help.
What makes it even worse is the fact that your enjoyment of the chars will depend on how you play the game. Why? Because your choices affect so much in the game. For example, Luke can be played as a loving husband who is worried about being a father or you can play him as a psychopath.
2. The antagonist is also a trope, but again… visually well executed:
Without spoiling much… the antagonist of the game is a vengeful yandere ghost. Nothing original but visually she is well executed.
Her flesh is decaying and flayed to the point you can see her brain. Her toenails are gone and she drags her left foot when she walks.
The antagonist has a constant presence. You never know what she is going to do or be next… or when is it going to happen. This was possible thanks to the fact that the ghost plays on the fears and insecurities of everyone to drive them to insanity. Plus, she is a ghost, she can do whatever she wants.
Her presence, of course, is best illustrated by the stunning artwork in the game. The weird sounds she omits, the animations of her movement and face, etc.
She is a vengeful ghost. There has been no real effort to add or subvert this trope in the game. And the same way the characters do weird illogical stuff for the sake of the plot so does the ghost.
There are also many inconsistencies with her being a ghost — her powers, her motives, etc.
Why not kill everyone early on? Why waste time with the other chars and not only concentrate on Luke? Why and how is she able to do what she does? There are many questions but not a lot of satisfying answers.
3. The plot or story is predictable, but has some interesting moments;
The plot brings up interesting questions in the game that I wanted to find answers to.
How will the other characters continue on if a certain character succumbs to the ghost? Who is the ghost? Can I romance that character? Can I save all the characters?
What kept me playing the game, for the most part, was the wish to see how my choices would be able to influence the story. Because early on you learn that choices matter.
Each character has unique choices to make. These choices will not only determine the concrete chapter`s ending but also the endings of chapters yet to come.
These story-related questions and my ability to influence the answers by making choices in the game were what drove me to play and finish the game.
Sadly, It did not pay off.
Although the choices mattered they were predictable.
You only get two options to choose from every time you have to make a choice. Meaning that the choices are binary. It’s the same problem that the “Persona” series suffers from.
For example, in the “Persona” games many times you have to give a character a pep talk by choosing the best thing to say from two lines of dialogue options. You can either say “shut up, I hate you” or “I am here for you. Do you wish to tell me what is going on?”
Gee, there is no way I could determine which one of these two options should I pick if I wish to make that character feel better.
Yes. Yes, you can. The same is in “The Letter”.
When you get to see the choices you can most of the time predict how the other characters are going to react to your choice.
But the other problem. That might be even a bigger one. Is the amount of text you need to go through only to get to the choices at all.
Re-reading the same dialogues and re-visiting the same situations over and over again isn`t that fun. Each chapter suffers from too much exposition and internal dialogue.
I came close to giving up on the game because of this type of back-and-forth pacing.
The skip function does not solve the problem. It only lessens the effect of this negative aspect. There are better solutions.
- Less exposition aka less text;
- More unique situations in every chapter;
- Less re-playing of the same situations only form a different POV.
4. The unlocks (endings, romances, memory fragments, etc.) are cool, but the thing you have to do to reach them is b******
If all the other negative aspects can be seen as positives depending on what type of gamer you are. For example, a lot of text in the game is not a bad thing if you enjoy reading. Trope characters are not bad if you have never seen these tropes or ghost stories in general. But this… This, in context with all the other things I have mentioned, almost made me quit the game completely.
I guess that the good part is that there are different things to unlock. Romance options, illustrations. Endings and memory fragments that help to understand the antagonist` backstory.
If all you want to do is to play the game once, then this negative aspect is not going to be so worrisome to you. Yet, if you like to understand everything about a story. If you are a “completionist” who needs to reach every ending etc. then you will not enjoy this part of the game.
1. The story of the ghost is uncovered slowly by unlocking memory fragments that become available only when you allow a character to die. That means that you have to kill every single one of the characters to get the full story. Plus, you have to get to the very last chapter to even see those fragments. This is not effective.
As a side note: I have to mention that bits of information cannot be stumbled upon if certain characters die.
This is a cheap way to force players to replay the game over and over again. Only to peace out a mystery that, frankly, is not THAT interesting.
2. The true ending can be reached only if you allow very certain things to happen in the game. Certain chars need to die, certain things need to be said and certain branching paths need to be explored. I would even say that the “true ending” does not really make sense because to reach the true ending you have to: Kill all the characters and unlock all the memory fragments and Re-play the game and make certain choices that lead to the true ending,
Unless you are using a guide or replaying the game over and over again you will not naturally stumble upon these things. They are contrived plot points that have to be reached.
5. Were there any horrific moments in the game?
Well… Yes… there were. What sold some of the “creepy” moments for me was the production quality. I loved the “creepy” illustrations. I loved the sounds the antagonist made when she appeared. The soundtrack, in general, is good.
99% of the game is a relationship simulator. Horror is sparse, and the ghost doesn’t seem to follow any proper or interesting conventions. It only functions a plot device to progress the lackluster story along.
As I explained, most of the “horror” is in the visuals or audio, but to get to see those cool sensory elements, you have to go through loads and loads of exposition. That is not good since that forces you out of the atmosphere. The tension… if there was any… dissipates. You start to feel safe since you know while you are reading nothing bad can happen to you.
Notice how I also said “cool” visuals. Yes, If you only see the illustrations alone then they seem cool. They only become a wee bit sad or “horrific” if you have read loads of text and know the context behind them.
I also have to mention that the only way to experience some of the more graphic events is if you deliberately allow the characters to die. If you try to make the best choices that give the most positive results, you won’t get to see any of those “cool” images.
Sure, the visuals can be graphic, with blood and decay portrayed in them. Yet, that on its own does not make an amazing “horror” experience. At least not for me.
If you love visual novel games you will love this game.
Since the visuals (and other sensory details) are well done and interesting. A lot of work has also been put into the writing and the development of the characters. The choices matter thanks to a branching story and relationship system.
Yet, if you are a person/gamer who needs interesting gameplay mechanics to enjoy a game. Mor than only a few ways to interact with the game, then this might not be the best game for you.
Yet, I would have to ask, why did you think that you will be able to find complex mechanics in a visual novel game in the first place? Since most of them don’t have complex systems in them… This one does not as well.
Also, if you are a seasoned horror fan, then the characters and the story is going to be too predictable. Because everything is based on tropes and cliches you will have seen before. Tropes are not bad on their own. Yet, when you don’t add anything new to the formula or change it up, then it is a negative… unless you have never seen or heard a ghost story.
In short. I have very mixed feelings about this game.
But… even then I still enjoy playing indie or a smaller studio made games like this more than most of the AAA games that are coming out right now. Because indie games do take the process of designing a game more seriously. Thanks to that the result of the design process is at least some compelling and well-made elements of a game that are enjoyable.
Praise needs to be given where it is due. For “The Letter” the strengths are the visuals, the soundtrack. Interesting story hooks, branching story paths, and relatable characters.