Road Not Taken is a newly released, fresh and clean-looking Puzzler for Playstation 4, PC and Mac. Its developer and publisher, Spry Fox, describes it as “a rogue-like puzzle game about surviving life’s surprises” – a deceptively simple description that’s actually quite precise. Unlike their previous release, another puzzle game called Triple Town, you control an individual character and don’t just manipulate the environment from a god-like perspective. In spite of similarly cute visuals, Road Not Taken’s tone is much darker than their last game and you won’t be cheerfully racking up astronomical high scores. Leaving only four children to die in a forest instead of five is sometimes your greatest accomplishment in a run, or “career”, of Road Not Taken.
Upon running Road Not Taken for the first time you’re given a short but sweet tutorial that will fill you in on the basics: you can lift and throw most things, objects can be carried at the expense of energy from a finite supply, locked paths tell you which items or creatures and how many of them need to be matched to open the way… Nothing too overwhelming and certainly enough to help you dive in. Following the tutorial (which you don’t have to go through on subsequent playthroughs) you are taken on a boat ride with a rather hefty sailor, leading to your arrival at the town the game is based around. This is the point at which I was met with Road Not Taken biggest surprise – there’s a romance system! When you talk to someone, you’re given the option to give them gifts in order to pursue them as a love interest. Gifts they prefer show in green, things they aren’t too bothered with aren’t coloured and treats that will offend them show up in red. The preference of each of the townsfolk is somewhat connected to their personality. Although this part of the game doesn’t take much time, I’d count it as one of the key halves of the game due to its significance to the main themes present in Road Not Taken. I’d say it’s the game’s story, but it doesn’t quite work like that.
If the relationship mechanic is one key half, then the other half is doing your job. You are a ranger and your duty is to save the children who have gotten lost while picking berries in the forest. Luckily, the town has shockingly low standards for the safety of their children. You only need to save half, with one chance to save less at the cost of the Mayor’s respect. He’s not too worried though: as you’ll often hear him say, “we’ll make more [children]”. This is the meat of the game, saving the town’s children involves traversing a procedurally generated map full of a mixture of randomized puzzles and some set pieces. As you progress through the years, the difficulty increases. Trickier objects and creatures appear and everything seems to become more densely packed. Areas also fill with more of the items you don’t want, forcing you to throw them into another section. Sometimes you even have to drag items in from other areas to complete matching puzzles. For example, you might enter a room that has a door requiring three deer to be matched; there may only be one or two immediately available. This is really interesting to me, it means that the procedurally generated puzzles span the entire map and aren’t limited to working within single rooms. You have to remember what you’ve seen in each part of the map.
With regards to difficulty, yes, Road Not Taken can get really hard. A concern with any procedurally generated puzzle game is that it will either have an algorithm that can mess up and create an unbeatable situation or, in order to avoid that, it’ll have one that errs on the side of generating levels that are too easy. Once or twice, in the 33 hours I’ve played, I’ve come across a disproportionately hard or easy forest layout. However, for the most part, the difficulty ramps up smoothly. The set pieces add a nice challenge to the game as well. One predefined layout in particular involves having to rescue a child before a wisp kills them – I’ve actually never beaten the room without losing the child! You definitely know when you’re entering one too: a procedurally generated room will have all sorts of bits and bobs scattered around, while a carefully designed section hits you like a jump scare with its organisation. I guess walking into a creepy little copse full of evil ghosts counts as one of “life’s surprises” in Road Not Taken. At least enemies can only move when you move!
There are some more quotidian surprises too. Especially in town where you’ll encounter jealous lovers, whispered secrets and gifts in return for forcing pile after pile of rice and copper into your friends’ hands. Most of these flow fine, they get a bit repetitive after a few careers but otherwise they fit. The weird part comes when you marry someone and then they explain that they’re embarrassed to be seen talking to you, or a new friend is jealous of you talking to someone who you’ve never spoken to… Or when your spouse tells you at one point she’s jealous and then that she’s seen you flirting and thinks you should go for it. It’s a bit strange how they nailed procedural generation of tricky, complex puzzles but this community system seems a bit awkward and impersonal. People quickly become a slot machine to feed their preferred gifts to in return for information on recipes, charms and new banning options.
That’s not to say these treats from the townsfolk aren’t appreciated, though: crafting’s a major part of the game, charms give you a modifier while you hold them and banning is really useful for getting rid of elements you don’t like. To craft in Road Not Taken, you just smoosh ingredients together. Almost everything is an ingredient in one recipe or another, so you have to be very careful! Three of the red spirits make an axe and an axe can cut a tree into logs. Two logs make a fire which either stops a level’s blizzard effect or warms it up and negates energy penalties for carrying an item. Not too unreasonable so far but some of the recipes, like a bear statue plus an ancient mortar giving you a block of ice, are just crazy. These bizarre combinations can lead to you accidentally ruining a run if you haven’t discovered their recipes yet and are unaware of the odd effects. The crafting system is a welcome addition to the game that adds a deeper layer of strategy – it just leaves you scratching your head most of the time. Charms, on the other hand, are always great: they give you bonuses like extra parents to send children to in the forest or bonus energy from honey pots. They can also have a balanced effect such as extra base energy at the cost of increased energy consumption or a bonus to energy from all food at the cost of evil spirits appearing sooner than usual. Banning is another interesting mechanic: as you learn about creatures from townsfolk they appear in your basement, they can then be “banned” from appearing when you next enter the forest. Very useful if there’s one creature or object you hate dealing with, although I’m fairly sure they can still appear in set pieces. Both banning and charms are limited to two active at once to begin with, but items to allow more can be earned by pursuing relationships.
I’ve already mentioned that I don’t feel you can call anything in Road Not Taken a “story” in the traditional sense. It’s a bit like Harvest Moon: you’ve got your yearly chores and then you’ve got relationships. You rescue children from the forest every year for fifteen years, but you can reach the maximum relationship level with your spouse in just seven (on my quickest attempt, maybe even faster is possible) and nothing really happens except some unlocks and a tiny bit of dialogue. It seems like Road Not Taken is more about approaching a couple of themes than having a story with a beginning, middle and end. It mainly deals with aging, death and procreation; it covers lamentation of death but also acceptance and hope. It’s pretty sad to see your character age every five years the first time around. You’ll be mocked by a plague doctor about your impending doom and being constantly reminded that children and family are required for life to go on can be a bummer. In stark contrast to the cute art style, this game’s lore is a real downer.
I want to talk about the art style a bit, even though I’m fairly sure the screenshots speak for themselves. Road Not Taken is a beautiful game, while still being functional. There’s a strong sense of style alongside plenty of detail and visual effects, without ever obscuring the checkerboard that the gameplay takes place on. It’s truly superb and reminds me of Samurai Jack with a touch of felt thrown in; it’s my favourite part of the game with only one minor niggle: the backgrounds get a bit repetitive. Throughout most of the game you’re going to be seeing very samey forest backdrops with the occasional beautiful ice cave, autumnal wood or evil forest thrown in. I would have loved to see these alternative backgrounds used to reflect the progressive difficulty increase rather than being used seemingly at random. A forest slowly becoming colder and colder each winter would really add to the feeling of impending doom and help to avoid tiring out the player’s eyes. Like I said, a minor issue and not to do with the general quality of the art, which is excellent. The soundtrack is also well done. It features a town theme that’s reminiscent of something from Toy Story or Monsters Inc. mixed with Don’t Starve, alongside some unsettling ambiance for the forest itself. Like the art, it can get a bit samey but it also isn’t that intrusive, providing a subtle boost to the atmosphere. You won’t find it becoming grating.
The reason feelings of fatigue with repetitive backgrounds and sounds are a little bit more important with a game like Road Not Taken is because part of its schtick is re-playability. Being procedurally generated means you can get new content forever. This is the basis of most, if not all, of the new wave of rogue-like games. Road Not Taken is a bit different in that one run can take a few hours, especially if you’re going for a high score, and the difficulty ramps up on a smooth gradient. Unlike Binding of Isaac or FTL, you’re spending hours looking at more or less the same scenery and it can be a bit of a drain. You won’t feel a clear progression through different styles in each run. The other issue is that every time you beat a career you start with really easy levels again. You skip the tutorial but, as your skill level gets higher, more and more of the earlier levels feel like a repetitive grind until you get back to a challenge in the later years. It would have been really nice to be able to just pick a “final year” mode where you can play the hardest difficulty mode’s levels over and over in a chain.
On the technical side of things, I had a couple crashes early on and then one issue that stopped my ability to progress in the game. I contacted the developer and it seems that they managed to immediately figure it out – there hasn’t been a problem since. Playing with a controller is great and keyboard controls seem fine too. Everything looks beautiful and runs smoothly. There aren’t really any display options beyond picking full screen or windowed mode, but it’s a 2D game and I haven’t encountered any problems. One nice touch is that switching to windowed mode causes tile outlines to thicken for easier viewing. Lack of a volume slider isn’t great to see, though.
Do I think it’s worth getting? For some people it’s a definite yes. if you’re into puzzles and can appreciate a strong art style then go ahead and get it, Road Not Taken is the game for you. For others it’s a more tentative yes. If you’re expecting a story that will move you, then you might be disappointed. The use of townsfolk, while significant to the concepts the game tries to explore, lacks a lot compared to the actual gameplay section. Put simply, the puzzle sections can carry the town sections but the town sections won’t carry the puzzle sections if you aren’t into them. If you don’t like puzzles or get frustrated at not being able to get wild high scores and combos in a puzzle game, it’s probably not for you. Road Not Taken takes a middle ground between a pure puzzler and a more contemplative artsy experience, with much greater success on the puzzle side.
Overall, there’s a high enough level of quality for the price point that it comes down to personal taste whether you should get it or not. There’s nothing in this game that I’d call bad, there are just some missed opportunities and a couple odd design choices. While there are a few improvements that could be made, I absolutely enjoyed the vast majority of my time playing Road Not Taken; it may not be the best introduction to the modern rogue-like, but for those already initiated it’s worth considering.