Road Not Taken review: Take it

The developers at Spry Fox aren't sure how to describe Road Not Taken. They say it's kind of a puzzle game and kind of an RPG. It's a little cute but also pretty dark. There's survival, crafting and randomly generated levels like in Don't Starve, but it also has a rich narrative. Okay, it's time we put this descriptive ping pong to rest:

Road Not Taken is a roguelike.

This is the most important game mechanic to remember when booting up Road Not Taken – you will die and lose progress and it will suck, but you will keep playing. You will keep playing for the puzzles that test your ability to strategize and plan movements three, four steps ahead of time. You will keep playing so that no more helpless, freezing children die alone in the forest. You will keep playing to discover new friends, lovers and enemies around the town, or to figure out new crafting recipes in the woods. You will keep playing to see what lies underneath the protagonist's hood, and what happens to him when his limited years of life are done.

Road Not Taken is a roguelike, but it's also so much more.

The playable protagonist in Road Not Taken is a mysterious, hooded ranger wielding a blue-fire-tipped staff that allows him to levitate and throw most objects. He arrives in a small, snowy town where once a year he must recover children lost in the forest – if he doesn't save the children, they die, either at the jaws of a hungry beast or of exposure to the freezing elements.

It's an adorable game, similar in style (and bears) to Spry Fox's Triple Town, though on a grander and more intricate scale. The cutesy art enhances the serious nature of Road Not Taken through a subtle brand of sorcery that makes the truly horrific moments genuinely surprising, while keeping the game accessible to those who don't want to think too deeply about spiders chomping on the bones of babies.

There are a few levels of gameplay, hence the difficulty in assigning one specific descriptor overall. The main game – the part where you'll most likely die and lose progress – takes place in the forest. Each level is blocked off in a chess board-like field, with obstacles, children and enemies randomly placed on the squares. There, you must:

  • Reunite the children with their mothers, who are also in the woods or at the edge of the forest.

  • Unblock the borders of each area to advance and find more children. A picture of a tree with the number two next to it, for example, means you must put two trees on two adjacent squares, and the blockage will disappear.

  • Craft useful tools by throwing items at each other.

  • Survive the attacks of bees, wolves, hawks, spiky bushes, raccoons and all manner of nasty beasties.

  • Easy, right?

Oh, honey. We're just getting started.

The ranger runs on energy, and he moves objects with levitation. Picking things up and throwing them takes no energy (unless the item is spiky or otherwise awful), but walking while levitating an object drains energy, one square at a time. There's no avoiding walking with items, but it's best to minimize that motion. One hundred bits of energy might sound like a lot, but among setting up throws, lining up objects, rescuing children and being attacked, it doesn't go far.

Road Not Taken is deceptively difficult as a puzzle game. Children are usually tucked away on the map, curled up next to dangerous or tricky objects. You can only throw things in a straight line, away from the square you're on, and when you levitate something, you pick up everything in the four spaces surrounding your ranger. Picking up children and tossing them is a matter of planning, not grabbing-and-going, since multiple objects more easily get stuck on their surroundings, limiting your mobility.

One particularly vicious puzzle puts a child in the corner and fills the room with giant blocks that can only be moved in a few ways (that I know of, at least): Throw a bull-like creature at the block, bumping it out of place; magnetize it with a big sphere lodestone so that the block jumps to the ranger when he's in line with it; concoct a potion via crafting that enables one block to be levitated, though at an energy cost. These tools aren't in the room, but the bull creature is in the next room over, so you throw him in and start knocking back blocks. And then the bull gets trapped and the child is still stuck, so you bring in a lodestone, which accidentally magnetizes more than you wanted, meaning big stone cubes and a giant bull slam into the ranger every time he takes a step. This is when you begin to wonder if the child is worth it.

The game quickly throws dozens of objects and animals at your ranger in hundreds of combinations, meaning each area requires a new style of thinking. When your energy reaches 10 points or lower, all of the spirits on the map become dark "doom spirits" that follow you around, attempting to trap you and force you to lose. It pays to take the time and survey every situation before acting, lest you find yourself stuck in a corner with a weeping child, surrounded by doom.

The children, by the way, actually ask you, "Am I going to die?" They do this while curled up in the fetal position and shivering in the snow. And the real kicker? They might die, and it might be completely your fault. You don't have to save all of the kids (you monster), but you must rescue at least half of those lost in each level.

At first, it's difficult to leave a child behind, but as the game advances and the areas become more complicated, it gets easier to turn in with just most of the kids. This is why the roguelike aspect of Road Not Taken eclipses other descriptors – while saving the last child, you could die, lose all of your possessions and be transported back multiple levels, and this threat ultimately drives every decision in every area. There's pride in completing the earlier levels, but that doesn't mean you'll want to do them again – besides, they'll be completely different by the time you return. Some risks just aren't worth it. Sorry, kids.

A manual checkpoint system takes some of the burn out of the roguelike mechanics, but you have to find it first. One item scattered throughout the levels, a grey altar, will allow you to respawn on that level the next time you die, as long as you have items to sacrifice. It's a nifty way to lighten the roguelike, preserving the constant threat of failure present in true permadeath games, while offering just a glimmer of hope.

On top of the intricate, frustrating, intellectually stimulating puzzles, Road Not Taken provides a deeper story in the RPG-lite aspects around the town. The ranger has a house that he can fill with trinkets from the townsfolk, offering him assistance and tips. Also in his home, you gather a range of items and animals to ban from the forest entirely – if those buzzing bees are too much for you, simply take them out of there. There are plenty of other irritating and vicious monsters to take their place.

The ranger can become friends – and more – with the townsfolk, each of whom has a unique personality. Decide to fall in love with one character, and another might become jealous and distance himself from you; befriend another character and receive an energy bonus for the next level. Making friends costs food or money, which is also what you sacrifice to the grey altar, so sometimes the decision comes down to "friendship or checkpoints." (My choice, for the record: checkpoints. Always checkpoints.)

The doctor character, with her elongated plague mask and steampunk attire, most succinctly encapsulates the deeper narrative of Road Not Taken. Strike up a conversation with her each year and she calculates the time you have left with giddy precision, at times asking when you're going to do something meaningful with your life. It's clear that with each success, you're one step closer to dying – the ranger physically ages, and a screen appears after each completed level reading, "Another year has passed," in effect counting down your time alive. You're saving these children – most of them, at least – but why? Why bother, when our lives hinge on random, selfish decisions, and we all waste away in the end?

Road Not Taken is the cutest catalyst for an existential crisis I've ever encountered. Its puzzles are complex and brutal, at times unforgiving and in other ways surprisingly merciful. The townspeople are lovable and unique, even in their bite-sized interactions. The game is packed with surprises – it's deep in narrative, world and interaction. Overall, though, it's a roguelike.

Kind of.

This review is based on a Steam download of Road Not Taken, provided by Spry Fox.

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