Review: Road Not Taken

It’s hard not admire what the Spry Fox team was going for when they created Road Not Taken. Inserting roguelike mechanics into a match-based puzzle game, sprinkling in some RPG-ish systems, and attempting to give the final product emotional flair makes for a neat idea. Unfortunately for players, Road Not Taken, while theoretically interesting, is flawed in practice. Successful roguelikes, at their core, require addictive gameplay that keeps players scratching that ever-present “just one more game” itch. Sadly, Road Not Taken plays more like a chore than an exciting puzzler, and its backstory and flawed attempts at establishing emotion give players little reason to actually care.

Players take the role of a hooded Ranger who appears to be a combination of the main character from Journey and the Sorting Hat. After being attacked by ghosts and collapsing, the Ranger attains a glowing staff that gives him the power to lift and throw objects in his immediate area. The player character takes a boat trip with the chibi version of the Gorton’s Fisherman to a remote village plagued by snowstorms. In order to eat, the Ranger has to save children from the forest on the outskirts of town by returning the hypothermic toddlers to any parent in the area. After fifteen years of service, each one conveniently set up as a single stage, the Ranger is able to retire from his heroic duties and forgo danger for the remainder of his days.

While it’s somewhat demeaning to call Road Not Taken a “Match 3” game, that is essentially what it is. While one might have to match four, five, or six objects, placing like objects together is still the core gameplay mechanic. Every stage consists of a series of grid-based rooms, each populated by a combination of various creatures, obstacles, and wildlife items. Using the magic staff, players are able to pick up any item in an adjacent space and throw it in the direction directly opposite of the Ranger. Matching specified objects will open doors, allowing players to advance into the next area. Every item reacts differently to how its thrown, picked up, and what it hits. For instance, bear statues can only be picked up if they aren’t touching any other items. When angry bees are thrown more than one space, they become happy bees that no longer attack the player. Bullies are able to bump other items when they are thrown in their direction. Players have to take inventory of everything in the area, making sure to plan every move meticulously. It makes for some decent puzzling at first, but slow-paced matching puzzles can only be so engaging. Sadly for all those involved, players are quickly left wanting more after the first few stages.

Matching games have been around for years, with Lumines: Electronic Symphony showing us that the genre can still provide exciting gameplay. The methodical nature of Road Not Taken causes players to really use their minds, but the lack of evolution rapidly causes boredom to set in. Pick up something, throw something, maybe combine two things, then throw some more stuff. Lather, rinse, repeat. Sure tons of great video games are repetitive, but they have an appealing gameplay hook that draws player into them in the first place. Road Not Taken manages to take a standard matching game, insert some roguelike mechanics, and call it a day.

Because Road Not Taken is a roguelike, there is an element of danger lurking around every corner. The puzzles are randomly generated, though if one plays enough he or she will start to see patterns emerge (the single-mole, unmovable block puzzle appears quite frequently) If players are not careful, they will be sent back to the first stage, forcing them to start their fifteen year service term from scratch. Carrying objects requires the use of light, Road Not Taken‘s ambiguous health unit. Not only do players have to ensure that they are throwing objects more than carrying them, but a number of dangerous enemies are ready to rob the Ranger of precious health. To advance, players have to save at least half of the children in each stage without running out of light. Because of Road Not Taken‘s procedural-generation, there will be anywhere from four to ten children in any given stage. This creates somewhat of a problem, as one could choose to die a few times to get an easier goal rather than simply playing out. Because of the randomness of the goals and object placement, Road Not Taken creates the feeling that one is being screwed over by level design far more than action-based games like Spelunky or Rogue LegacyWhereas the aforementioned roguelikes can be conquered through precision and skill, Road Not Taken often presents players with impossible situations and then punishes them for not conquering them.

Saving children from imminent doom might seem like a deeply motivating task, but Road Not Taken manages to undermine the emotional nature that these rescues could have. Children and parents are basically just extra objects on the screen, barely more lifelike than the bees, bears, and blobs that surround them. While the toddlers do utter out some adorable dialogue every now and then (“I think I’m missing school!” being the cutest), these speech bubbles are the only humanizing aspect of their characters. Eventually, the handful of dialogue options begin to cycle over and over again, causing the cries of the children to fade out of the player’s consciousness. Even though years are passing in this world, the saved children are never seen or heard from again. It would be interesting to see them wandering around the town, slowly growing older, but instead they are relegated to collectible status. Why should the player care if they are saving children if they disappear just like their dead friends? What makes Road Not Taken especially disappointing is if  players were tasked gathering food instead of children, it would barely be different at all.

Everything seems woefully meaningless in Road Not Taken, especially the relationship-building aspects featured in the central village. Players are able to give gifts to the various townspeople in order to grow closer to them, exposing them to random dialogue and allowing them to bestow gifts upon the Ranger in the future. Unfortunately, players have to offer key resources to these NPCs in order to build these relationships. Because activating each stage’s save point requires sacrificing the same resources, giving gifts to the townspeople feels like a waste. What gift could they possibly provide that’s more valuable than being able to save one’s progress in a roguelike?

Easily the best aspects of Road Not Taken are its visual flair and RPG-lite mechanics. The adorable character models are always fun to look at, even though it’s difficult to become emotionally attached to any of them. The angry bees, costumed toddlers, and dangerous berry-eating bears are some of the cutest characters you’ll see in any game, regardless of targeted age. The chubby, cloaked Ranger is a hilarious looking character, even though his life feels devoid of any substance. Being able to unlock perks is exciting, even if it isn’t readily evident how to attain them. Players can get coin boosts, health boosts, or disable certain objects or creatures from the forests entirely (Road Not Taken‘s single coolest feature). These mechanics add some much-needed depth to a title that desperately needs it.

Closing Comments:

Road Not Taken is a decidedly “okay” experience, as its strategic gameplay is fundamentally flawed from the very beginning. Matching puzzles and roguelike mechanics make for an annoying combination, as the core gameplay isn’t exciting enough to bring players back for more. Randomly generated stages and goals find a way of screwing players over far more often than the average roguelike, causing Road Not Taken‘s gameplay to often feel like a chore. Worst of all, there is no reason to actually care about anything that’s happening, being that saving children feels like trinket-collecting rather than heroism. Those looking for a truly rewarding challenge are better off looking elsewhere.
Version Reviewed: PC