I’ll start this review by saying that I was one of the backers for The Letter on Kickstarter back in 2015. It wasn’t a great time for horror fans in the VN world; I’d already replayed Saya no Uta more times than I’d care to admit, and at that point it looked like we’d get a manned mission to Mars before the official translation of all the Higurashi arcs finished. In short, I backed this VN in the hope that I’d at least get something to whet my horror appetite. As it stands, I feel like I got my money’s worth and more.
The Letter starts with a bit of local folklore about a cursed family and their creepy mansion sitting at the edge of town. You begin the story as Isabella, a young, broke, and decidedly unfortunate real estate agent who has to try and sell this mansion to some poor, unsuspecting schmuck. While prepping for an open house, Isabella finds a letter in the attic with “help me” scrawled on it over and over, along with instructions to send it to five people “or else.” Immediately following this she encounters the “or else”, and her life takes a turn for the worse.
From an artistic standpoint, The Letter is fantastic. The sprites in the VN look beautiful, and the transitions between different poses are incredibly smooth. But more than that, Yangyang Mobile actually went to the trouble to animate some of the motions for their characters so that you can see their facial expressions change during a conversation and watch their mouths move when speaking (although the lip-syncing can be hit or miss at times). The sprites will typically bob up and down slightly when they’re on screen; nothing is ever perfectly still, and it makes the VN look more alive (not to mention how much the horror factor is emphasized when you encounter unnatural entities and they’re constantly wriggling, writhing, or drifting into your personal space).
All the details surrounding the characters were lovely as well. The backgrounds were colorful and varied; the coffee shop had moving ceiling fans, the prim and proper mansion bedroom was beautifully contrasted with Isabella’s disaster of an apartment, and the CGs perfectly encapsulate key scenes in a gorgeous style. Honestly though, my favorite art was probably the delectable sprites for food that popped up throughout the game when the characters were eating. Congratulations Yangyang, you’ve taught me about chocolate Filipino porridge as well as bubble and squeak, and now I want to try both.
But more than the art, I was impressed by the sound design. The Letter has fantastic music from start to finish; elegant piano music at parties, gentle ambient tunes at the park or school, and horrifying staccato jabs when the monster is on screen. I never wanted to turn off the music or sound effects as can happen with other VNs; this was just too good. Aside from the music, carefully implemented sound effects made the world feel more alive. Making sure that ice clinks when a neat whiskey is poured or that a voice echoes when calling down a hallway may not seem like much on its own, but being consistent in adding those little touches is so important when you’re trying to build atmosphere in a horror game.
Besides this, The Letter also has voice acting for all the characters, and overall I liked it. The voice acting was pretty good across the board (although I’m not a huge fan of Johannes or his accent); most of the actors did a great job of imparting joy, anger, and especially terror into their lines whenever they spoke. If I’m being honest, part of the reason it took me as much time as it did to finish The Letter was due to the fact that I kept the voice acting on for so much of the story because I liked hearing how the characters spoke to each other.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that I did have a few technical issues while playing. The Letter never crashed or lost my save files (which was apparently an issue with some early versions of the VN), but there were times where the audio for a character wouldn’t play or didn’t match up to what was on the screen. However, Yangyang has been working hard to patch these issues since launch, so I’m hopeful they’ll be ironed out soon.
When it comes to visuals and audio, The Letter is a very strong visual novel. But when you’re dealing with VNs, it doesn’t matter how amazing your art is or how enjoyable the music is if you haven’t created intriguing characters or written an entrancing story to go with them. So, how did the Letter do on those fronts? That was something of a mixed bag.
I’ll begin by saying that I really liked the majority of the characters, but for the same reason that I liked the characters in Neon Genesis Evangelion; namely, because everyone was broken. This isn’t a horror story about some dumb high school or college kids that stumbled into a haunted house on a dare; everyone in The Letter is in their late 20s or early 30s, trying to get through their daily lives while simultaneously carrying enough emotional baggage to require its own room at the Ermengarde mansion. No one in this story is a hero who’s been dying for a chance to step up and prove themselves. When the horror of their predicament sets in (namely, that they’re probably going to be viciously murdered by a monster as a result of seeing a bloody chain letter), everyone knows how messed up the situation is, and it absolutely brings out the worst in them. And these people were not the most stable or well adjusted characters to begin with; of the main cast of seven, two self-medicate with alcohol regularly, one is on sleep medication, and the rest are fantastically good at burying their emotions under internal rocks. They feel like real, flawed human beings who were already in a bad place even before the monster came into their lives, which I love, but if you’re the kind of reader who prefers happy-go-lucky characters that can step up in the face of adversity with relative ease, The Letter isn’t for you.
As for the story, there were elements I liked and elements I could have done without. The Letter is structured like this: there are seven main chapters, and in each chapter you play as a different character over the same two-week period. Your interactions in each chapter will affect your relationships and actions in the subsequent chapters. For example, if I made a choice as Rebecca to leave home early one day, in Ash’s chapter he won’t be able to find her when he goes to her apartment. The Letter actually lets you see how you’ve affected your branching storyline in each chapter so you can see why you’re on this particular path/appreciate how much effort has to go into making branching storylines. This is a concept I really enjoy, though it can be a bit tiring when you get to the end of the game and every other line of dialogue is followed by a notification that the story has updated.
My only issue with this kind of story-telling is how much time it forces you to spend with characters you don’t like. I adored some of the characters like Zach or Hannah, and even Luke’s story drew me in. But Ash was always a so-so person for me, and I was done with Rebecca about five minutes into her holier-than-thou attitude. Part of it might have been their storylines; Rebecca spent most of her time pining over Ash, and about 50% of Ash’s interactions with others involved him being an “Ash-hole” as Isabella would say. But these were also the characters that you played as in the second half of the game, so a lot of the time I knew what was going to happen plot-wise because I’d already gone through these days as the other characters and really just needed a few gaps filled in, rather than allowing myself to become completely immersed in their stories.
On the other hand, structuring a VN like this showcases how each character had their own lives and struggles way before the monster appeared. You can see their flaws, hear about their personal or professional problems (often in great detail), and understand what motivates them and why they react as they do to the monster. I may not have liked Rebecca much, but I can definitely explain why she acted the way she did and what her life was like before she touched the cursed letter. Regardless of my personal feelings (which may or may not have involved a concentrated effort to pick the options guaranteed to make them miserable), I can appreciate the effort that went into flushing out these characters.
As to the overarching story, I enjoyed it. This was a slow-build psychological horror; a lot of the time the characters are just going about their everyday lives and the monster will suddenly appear just long enough to frighten them or lash out, like a particularly rude uninvited house guest. The full scope of the horror doesn’t really show itself until Ash’s and Luke’s chapters, which I won’t spoil here. Trust me though, the payoff was delightful and twisted.
Even though I liked the world and story in which the monster dwelled, the monster herself was unfortunately one of my bigger issues. She terrified me at the beginning of The Letter; everything about her, from her appearance to her facial expressions to her unsettling laughter was incredibly creepy. But by the end of the story, I was asking myself “Why?” a lot of the time. Not why she was doing this at all (the game explained her motivations quite clearly, fear not, in case you couldn’t put it together by the end of Rebecca’s chapter), but rather why she acted the way she did. Why were some characters attacked earlier than others if they’d all seen the letter on the same day? Why did she appear as a bloody woman to some, but twisted herself to have the appearance or voice of someone else for a different victim? What made her decide that this time she’d only appear to scare someone, and the next time she’d try to rip their face off? I’m a fan of monsters with rules; you die in the real world if Freddy murders you in your dreams, Michael Myers tops out at 5 mph, etc. I really couldn’t figure out the rules for the monster in The Letter. I know that’s not an issue for some people, but it was for me.
As an aside, I wasn’t a super big fan of the QTE events that you encounter in The Letter when the monster tries to kill you. Most of them weren’t difficult and you can skip them completely if you desire, so if QTEs are a dealbreaker for you, fear not. I just didn’t like them because there were a few that I outright failed, and got a game over screen followed by a prompt to try again. For me it lessened the fear I felt in the monster’s presence because she couldn’t actually kill me if the story was to progress. Tense moments suddenly became an exercise in futility on her end. On my next playthrough, I’m probably going to shut them off at the beginning to help preserve that horror element a little better.
Finally, I have to mention the problems with syntax and writing. Yangyang Mobile is based out of the Philippines, and English is definitely the second language for the main writer. The writing has lots of tiny hiccups like using the wrong preposition, botching expressions like “there and there” instead of “then and there,” using the contraction “she’s” for “she was” instead of “she is,” and small mistakes of that nature. There’s no point that the story becomes unintelligible; the meaning is always clear. It just occasionally sounds awkward to the ear of a native speaker, especially when you hear the voice actors stumble over wording that they know isn’t quite right. I only point this out because The Letter is not a short read. It definitely puts the novel in visual novel, and the sheer volume of writing naturally increases the number of mistakes you’ll encounter during your reading.
Just to be clear though, these are all very minor complaints in a visual novel that I loved. Any issues I personally had during my playthrough are eclipsed by my enjoyment of the music, art, and interacting with my favorite characters. My first run of the VN clocked in at over 12 hours, and I’ll probably double that after going back to try all the different story combinations I can to get the other endings. I’d strongly recommend this to anyone wanting to try a non-kinetic horror VN that’s not as graphic as some on the market right now. The Letter is a terrifying labor of love, and I’m incredibly grateful that I backed it. The Letter is available on Steam for $20 and worth every penny to a horror fan.