Road Not Taken, which comes to us this month as a Playstation Plus freebie from indie developer Spry Fox, is a puzzle game with a unique flavor; presenting a story with some degree of darkness and melancholy that contrasts heavily with the more cheerful tone the title ostensibly exudes.
Like most puzzle games, Road Not Taken settles you in with a simplistic plot: You are a mysterious, robed ranger who arrives in a village that seems to be regularly plagued with extreme blizzards every single winter. As a result, children often get lost and stricken in the storm. The village’s residents entrust you with going out into the forest to rescue their children and return them to their distraught mothers. You have to do so before you “retire” – which seems to be the game’s way of saying before you die – which will happen in 15 years’ time. This fact alone adds this melancholic feeling not often found in games of this type – knowing precisely when it’ll end – but it manages to somehow blend in well among the oddly-charming characters and round-faced art style.
Each time you venture out into the woods is counted as a single in-game year. The forest is divided into areas that you have to move along in a chessboard-like grid, though you have no restrictions on the directions you can move; save for the obstacles you encounter that block your safe passage. Additionally, you’re required to move objects around in order to reach new areas or successfully reunite the lost children with their parents. As the years go on, each new rescue mission you set out on becomes slightly more difficult as you’re introduced to new and more challenging obstacles. The game also stresses that you’re not to move objects haphazardly as you lose one point of your energy each time you travel with one; instead, you must strategically throw them to get them to where you need them to be much more quickly.
As you progress, the matter of moving the objects themselves also becomes increasingly difficult, as they start to gain restrictions and limitations. You open new areas by pairing items together; for example, by aligning three kinds of trees together, or putting four rocks by each other. However, each new mission gives them specfic quirks you need to work around. This includes objects that can‘t be moved unless another specific object is near them; objects that won’t be usable unless no other objects are near them; and even animals that move each time you do – meaning you need to try to corral them into one spot.
Road Not Taken often feels more like a strategy game than a puzzler, and that’s by no means a bad thing: It’s less so that it’s a puzzle with one solution you need to decipher; rather, the game gives you an attack board, as it were, and you need to plan your route to use items effectively and avoid creatures on the board that can harm you. However, in that same regard, the game can often be unfair. There are many times where you can fail simply because the game gives you no other choice, mostly from useful items seeming to be in disproportionately short supply in the later levels compared to the enemies that were present.
The game will moderately scold you if you don’t rescue all of the children before you get low on health, which is inevitable as it’s sometimes impossible to rescue them all. Whether or not this is because of the unfair placement of enemies, obstacles and useful items or some deeper lesson in the reality of doing good deeds is hard to say. When you do die, your expectation might be that you would be able to pick things up from just before the most recent year you started. But no, you’re forced to start off from the very beginning – at year one – with a fresh new batch of villagers to appease (though their looks and personalities seem to be primarily the same; the only difference being a color swap on their character models).
Road Not Taken also uses an affection meter system. You gain rewards primarily by rescuing children and you can also collect items as you explore the forests outside the village. The primary purpose of these items, it seems, is to share them with the residents of the village. They have different preferences for items; some they are neutral to, some they love, and some they hate (color-coded red for hate, green for like, black for neutral). Giving villagers items they like increases their affection for you, and the more they like the item, the more their affection for you increases. This is another way of obtaining rewards; anything from items to trade with villagers or charms that have different effects that can make the game either easier or more difficult. The higher the affection level gets, the more nature of your relationship with them will change – from simple acquaintances to friends and eventually marriage if you progress far enough. You’re also provided with a house to store the trinkets you earn as rewards in, and you are able to change your equipment at any time during the downtime between the game’s winters.
For fans of games that require a lot of thought, patience and strategy this game certainly delivers. Road Not Taken is a charming game with an appealing art style and pleasantly challenging gameplay, and is good for those looking for something to be able to pick up and play on a whim; though not those who simply expect to be able to breeze through it in a single sitting. As unfair as the game can be, it’s ultimately worth it in the end as Spry Fox manage to keep things steady and entertaining throughout.