Road Not Taken is certainly a curious game, upon its launch you’re not asked to start a new game, or given any significant guidance in regards to why, and what your purpose is. Although it’s not long before it’s assumed this may be by the games townsfolk, who seemingly recognise you as ranger and in turn send you off into the forest to save the lost children. It would seem that this is an annual affair in town, children go into the woods seeking berries – an apparently vital resource – and each year a number of these children find difficulty in returning. “We lose a few every year” the mayor proclaims ever so matter-of-factly, all the while prompting you to attempt to save all of them.
Once you journey into the forest it becomes easy to understand why the Mayor and townsfolk depend on you to save the children, for your staff grants you a special ability, to lift, carry and throw and adjacent objects. Which, trust me is an incredibly useful skill when you exist in a tile-based universe cluttered with all manner of junk to block one’s path. The aim of the game then, it to use this ability to progress through the forest each year, and return the lost children to their mothers or to the Mayor. This in essence is a simple task, simply throw a child into a parent (or vice versa) and the child is rescued, what presents more puzzling a problem however are the obscure criteria you need to satisfy in order to travel from room to room of the forest. For instance one pathway may require you have 4 trees connected together, or 7 blocks of ice.
This may sound as if it were a simple task, but with over 150 unique items that inhabit the forest, each with various quirks, qualities, and unique potential for combining with other objects, you have an organic puzzle game that can provide a considerable challenge. For instance ice-cubes transpose cause the object they collide with to slide towards you, moles transpose with objects they collide into, owls follow you around, bears move left and right as you move, wood can be combined in order to create a fire. These intricacies weave together in order to craft an environment which must be intelligently manipulated, and manoeuvred within in order to save the children.
All the while you must take stock of your ‘energy’ reserve, which depletes as you carry objects, and if reduced to zero causes your character to perish at which point you must start the game over. This may all sound convoluted, and that’s perhaps because it is. It’s complex, hard to follow and whilst I could argue its mechanics are poorly presented; I would rather emphasize how enjoyable I found it to discover the games inner workings alone. However it certainly renders the experience one that has a very particular target audience, one that enjoys both puzzle games, gruelling difficulty and being heavily punished for failure.
Stacked on top of this is a sort-of meta-game with the towns NPCs, where you must gain (or in some cases lose) their affections in order to be granted various rewards. These rewards act as sort of perks, enabling you to tweak the procedurally generated elements of the forest, for instance one may say -1 kids, so when the next forest is generated their will be one less child to find making your task easier. Another may be titled +10 energy from honey, which makes it easier to retain your energy levels when you can craft honey within a level. This certainly adds another layer to the already deep systems that comprise this games mechanics, but it can be tedious to have to repeat these segments over and over upon death, nonetheless it is enjoyable to follow through with the outcomes of these NPC relationships. Particularly as the NPCs can form relationships with your character as the game progresses, even leading to marriage and subsequent co-habitation which grants additional rewards.
Whilst all this complexity will be appreciated by some and certainly grants the game depth, unfortunately sometimes the interwoven variables and procedurally generated elements result in something which is a little more frustrating than it is rewarding. Entering a room where you have little option but to immediately walk into a Dark Spirit (for instance) is just plain unfair, yet on my play-through did occur on more than one occasion. It’s true, however that the game never truly produces scenarios that are entirely inescapable, but it does produce those that are genuinely tedious, rather than puzzling to resolve. The aforementioned Dark Spirit scenario for example could be resolved by carrying an Ancient Mortar from a previous room.
Furthermore once completed the games payoff is a little underwhelming, and whilst the entire time the goal had been set to survive 15 years, whilst saving the children. Once the game is completed it simply begins over again, from there it’s not like other Rogue-likes where additional, and harder goals are still present. Yes, perhaps you could try and do a perfect run, saving all of the children, but it isn’t evident that there’s any reward for doing so. So quite what you’re supposed to do from here is left to collecting entries in the ‘book of secrets’. Not something with any real promise or reward, to be frank, however it did take some 6-8 hours to complete for the first time, so it isn’t to say the game is short on content at all. Just that ones your journeys over, it may not be one you want to start all over again.
Mechanics aside, the games visual and auditory presentation is absolutely stellar. Providing a minimal but charming art-style, with each individual object and NPC conveying a unique sense of character. This is alongside with similarly minimal soundtrack, which immediately captivates the somewhat bleak nature and tone of the game which ultimately tells a tale of mortality. Echoing back to Robert Frost’s poem that the game references the game will force you to question the possibilities of the decisions you didn’t make, as well as question those you have. Road Not Taken not only visually pleasing but an intelligent and perhaps thought provoking experience. It should be noted that if you are to enjoy this game, it requires an investment, you have to not only willing to expend the time and mental resources to understand its mechanics, but indeed do the same to understand the games narrative purpose.
Road Not Taken is a a more than competent puzzler that packs a lot of charm, however with seemingly such a niche audience one wonders whether the game to some extent misses the mark. Nevertheless relative to what it seems to try to achieve – to be a thought provoking puzzle game – it does a fantastic job. The game’s mechanics are genuinely engaging and it’s satisfying to play a puzzle game that’s less scripted and in turn has solutions that are more of your own invention; rendering the outcome more satisfying, and creative. It’s biggest weakness then is its lack of post-game content, the only reason to continue playing once the credits have rolled is purely out of enjoyment, for some that may be enough, but for others this will indeed signify the end of the road.