Thanks to titles such as FTL: Faster Than Light and Rogue Legacy, the “roguelike” game genre has seen a major upswing in popularity over the past few years. Known for attributes such as permadeath and randomly generated levels, the genre has been championed by those who wish games were just a little bit more challenging. Looking to make their own mark on the genre, Spry Fox has combined elements of roguelikes and mechanics from puzzle games, in order to make Road Not Taken.
Although Road Not Taken takes its name from a classic Robert Frost poem, this game does not focus on the life of the iconic American poet. Rather, the it centers around a lonely and mysterious ranger who wanders into a small town one winter. In order to be able to live in the town, though, the ranger must venture out into the wilderness in order to rescue stranded children. As the years go on, the ranger continues to evolve, as he falls in love, owns a house and must even come to grips with his own mortality. Also, as charming as the title looks, its plot is a surprisingly deep narrative that only becomes more interesting the further you progress into it.
Of course, since this is a rougelike, getting far is frequently a tall task to accomplish.
Upon starting each quest, the forest is divided up into a square grid, and in order to progress through each area, the ranger must move the objects that litter his path. Our hero can pick up any object that is adjacent to him and throw it with his mind. Doing so doesn’t waste any energy, but walking around with an object does, meaning that you need to think about where you are tossing these objects or you will soon find yourself dying from a lack of energy.
Dozens of objects and animals are found in the wilderness and each one has its own specific action. For instance, throwing a bird into another object will lead to the bird flying away with it, which can potentially throw a wrench in your advancement plans. Figuring out how these objects interact is part of the challenge of Road Not Taken, as one foolish mistake can lead to a child’s death. Wild animals also add to the challenge, as wolves, pissed off raccoons and other assorted creatures want nothing more than to mess your day up.
The brutal challenge found in this game is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, being able to survive the harsh forest and rescue all the stranded children provides a sense of satisfaction that is hard to match. The lack of hand-holding is also refreshing, as outside of moving and tossing objects, little is explained to you. Obviously, this will lead to some frustrating moments, such as accidentally combining objects, but experimentation is just part of the experience I suppose.
However, on the other hand, the frustration Road Not Taken provides can sometimes be more annoying than it’s worth. Most of this frustration however, comes from the trappings of the genre, specifically the permadeath aspect. I understand why this type of system is in place, as it does help you approach each level more carefully after every foolish death. That doesn’t change the fact that having to start with the easy levels over and over and over again isn’t annoying. Sure, there’s a checkpoint system in place, but even spawning from there results in your ranger losing all of his acquired items and bonuses. Dying after a long stretch of time can easily turn a fun experience into a tedious one.
Regardless of how brutal and punishing the gameplay of Road Not Taken may be, though, its graphics and art direction are absolutely delightful. The character models are unique, with several townsfolk having their own personalities and style. The animals, even the ones that want to kill you, are adorable; especially the Yeti, if you classify him as an animal, that is. Best of all, though, is the ranger himself, as I think it’s one of the better protagonist designs in recent memory.
Even with the surging popularity of the genre, trying to sell a roguelike title to the general public can be hard to do. Surprisingly, not a lot of people are interested in playing a game where you die repeatedly and lose all of your items all the time. So, while I know that fans of the genre will seek out Road Not Taken for its unique challenge, I implore other gamers to give the title a shot. The look of the game is enchanting and its engaging story is deeper than you would expect. It’s certainly not for everyone, but I think those that stick with it and truly learn how the game works will be rewarded with one of the more unique experiences of 2014.
This review was based off the PlayStation 4 version of the title, which we were provided with.
Although punishingly difficult, Road Not Taken's charming graphics, engaging story and unique gameplay make it more than worth the pain.