If you’ve got a horror story to tell, a visual novel wouldn’t be your ideal first stop. Other media are just set up to do it better. Horror movies are rollercoasters, strapping you in and forcing you through its rising dread and horrific payoffs. Horror novels root around in your imagination, creating things that aren’t there. And horror games immerse you in the setting, making it clear that these things are happening to you. A horror visual novel has none of these things. They tend to be too stop-start to be a rollercoaster, too visual to manipulate your imagination, too disconnected to be immersive.
The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel sets out to prove our assumptions wrong. It wants to convince us that a creeping dread absolutely is possible within the confines of a visual novel. Rather than be the poor cousin to all these other, proven horrors, it wants to take all their best bits. Visual novels are, after all, in the centre of that Venn diagram of movies, novels and games, so why can’t it have all their benefits?
To make this happen, The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel has a big gun: it is the best-looking visual novel that we’ve had the pleasure to play. It’s not even close. Where other visual novels will clearly cut corners, contorting the plot so they can reuse backgrounds, or trying to make do with three character poses, The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel overflows with artwork. There are hundreds of locations, pretty much every speaking character is represented, and they have dozens of poses each. The characters even animate, blinking and lip-syncing to the fully voice-acted dialogue.
With so many individual pieces of art to create, you’d think that The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel would be sketchy, but it’s gorgeous. The style is somewhere between anime and realism, and the characters absolutely sing. There are a few issues when the artist changes – one character, Hannah, looks ever-so-slightly different in her thumbnail, conversation and cutscene states – but this is generally of the highest caliber, and it stays there consistently over the course of its twenty hours.
The artwork gives the storytellers the confidence to linger on its story. It’s the tale of a haunted mansion being renovated and sold by local realtors. They make it available for an open day where one of the agents – Isabella – comes across a hidden room. In it, she finds a letter with the words ‘Help Me’ repeated in blood, alongside a demand that she passes it onto five other people. She has no problem doing so, as the letter tumbles out of her hands not once but twice, exposing it to six other people. It feels like she is doing it on purpose. Each of the victims – including a wealthy couple who purchase the mansion – begin to see visions of a ghost, and those visions become increasingly manifested and deadly.
It’s an extremely familiar story, as the letter is reminiscent of the video in Ringu, and the ghost looks a lot like, well, the ghost from Ringu. The creepy mansion, too, has been a mainstay in horror for as long as the genre has existed. It’s derivative as they come, but hey, it allows the story to do a cartwheel.
The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel takes a leaf out of Pulp Fiction’s book, and decides to view the same events from seven different perspectives. You start with Isabella, a mousy estate agent, watching her unravel over the course of two hours. Once you’ve sealed her fate, you skip back in time to Hannah, one half of the wealthy couple, then Zachary, a photographer, all the way through the seven individuals to the unbearable Luke, the other half of the power-couple. Once you’re done with The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel, you will know its timeline intimately.
We loved and hated The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel in equal measure. It has so many peaks and troughs that we got whiplash.
Something it gets right is the horror. If it set out to prove that visual novels can be a vehicle for psychological horror, then – congratulations – it has achieved its goal. Sporadically, the world of The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel will do a Silent Hill, switching to a blood-soaked alternate version of the world that signals that the ghost is near. It works a treat. You know to pay attention. The soundtrack creaks and hisses, the frame is filled with gore and you start scouting the shadows of the image for the ghost. And then she’s in your face, wide-eyed and toothy, and you’re well within your rights to shudder. The horror sections are the best parts of the game.
But then a trough hits. To try to convey the desperation of your character, The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel drops in QTEs. You might have to muffle your breathing by pressing A as a slider bounces up and down a golf-like power bar. You might have to spam a button to run away. These little Wario Ware-like games are a drag: they are rarely tutorialised, so you have to guess what they want, and they have crazily spiky difficulty. One in an elevator and another in an office are so bizarrely difficult that we had to skip them after a few dozen tries. Credit to The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel for at least including the feature, but you wonder why it was so uneven. Regardless, even when the QTEs felt do-able, they were an unnecessary immersion break.
Seeing the world through different eyes initially feels good. When we moved from Isabella to Hannah, the contrast was stark: it was great to go from poverty to excess, from realism to a kind of fantasy world. As Isabella, you serve Hannah, and then you play Hannah to see the other half of the power dynamic. Situations also become clearer, as you see them from two viewpoints.
But The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel massively overplays the card. It repeats conversations that you’ve already experienced. It takes you to a party that you’ve already been to five times before. It runs out of ways to make these events interesting: you’re not learning anything new about them, and you could probably have guessed how each person was feeling. It makes the second half of the game – the second ten hours, remember – incredibly leaden, and the boredom was real.
While the voice-acting can be good, mostly around the main characters, it can also be awful. It normally correlates with the regional accents. The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel is set in a fictionalised version of England, and ribald cockneys Dick-Van-Dyke their way through the script. An Irish character drops in a bizarre mix of D&D references and Celtic dialect, creating a supremely unbelievable character. A young character is clearly played by someone older pretending to be a kid.
The script is decent, but it’s stretched way too thin. It falls prey to the visual novel problem of bad pacing, letting its characters speak out – slowly and precisely – about their feelings, causing a kind of stasis where nothing happens for long stretches. As the adage goes, you should show not tell, but The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel is a twenty hour confessional, so is very much on the side of ‘tell’. And you can’t help feeling that everything would have been solved if people just talked openly about what was happening to them, rather than trying to suppress and hide it.
In general, for every moment of genuine quality, where you marvel at the art or the script, there is a long, winding path to get there. You’ve been down that path multiple times with other characters, too, so boredom is piggy-backed by repetition. It’s a bad combination.
The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel is a stunning but uneven visual novel. It’s at its best when it plucks at your nerves, threatening scares and layering on tension. It’s at its worst when it shifts attention to your heartstrings, trying to generate some empathy for its large cast. Stretched out for twenty hours and viewed from multiple perspectives, those worst aspects get amplified.
There’s an enjoyable few hours in The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel. In our case, sinking an extra seventeen hours to get to them was too much of an ask.
You can buy The Letter: A Horror Visual Novel from the Xbox Store