Into the wild.
Road Not Taken is a puzzle game set in the aftermath of a winter storm. The game places its central character, the Ranger, in a forest environment that continually changes. This setting is essentially a chequerboard landscape: the player must navigate the Ranger across the board using up, down, left and right commands. The Ranger begins in a village where he discovers that many children have gone missing as a result of the storm, and dedicates his time to rescuing them.
Times are tough; the Mayor tells the player they will only get food if they work for it. Children are rescued by either reuniting them with their parents, or bringing them back to the Mayor. From a gameplay standpoint, this is the primary objective of Road Not Taken: navigate the forest, unlock new areas by placing certain objects next to each other, avoid enemies and hazards and locate the children and send them home. Road Not Taken compliments its puzzle gameplay with crafting and survival elements, offering plenty of secrets for the player to discover as the Ranger’s journey progresses.
Platforms: PC, PS4
Length: 10+ hours
This is a simple enough premise, which suggests Road Not Taken offers an interesting – albeit formulaic – puzzle game. Yet to simply evaluate Spry Fox’s title based on these attributes alone would be doing Road Not Taken a large disservice. The fact that levels are randomly generated means that each player always has the opportunity to experience a different story. Change is inevitable from playthrough to playthrough, there are many paths to take and nothing is certain. The game shares its name with, and is clearly inspired by, Robert Frost’s famous poem; a poem which is about decisions, chance and regret. Spry Fox do well to make it apparent very early on that this choice of title is a wholly appropriate one.
The road less-travelled.
Road Not Taken is a game that doesn’t have a vast array of functions to master. The Ranger can move in only four directions. Objects such as trees, other creatures or slabs of ice can be moved by picking them up and throwing them across the board. Each level is comprised of several areas, which are accessed by combining multiple objects together to unlock a ‘door.’ The Ranger can also carry objects around with him, but this drains energy – one point for every move made on the board. This adds a layer of strategy to the gameplay at hand, giving the player something to think about. When the Ranger runs out of energy he collapses and dies. Energy can be replenished by eating food – apples, for example, that scatter the playing board.
While this sounds easy enough, these factors contribute to making Road Not Taken a game that is actually quite challenging right from the start. Throwing objects, for example, is actually not as simple as it sounds – they always fly in the direction opposite the Ranger’s body and there is no way to change this. As such, the player always needs think about how best to the manoeuvre the Ranger and various objects across the board whilst consuming the minimum amount of energy. It’s a lesson Road Not Taken wants to establish early on: every step is important, every move has consequences. It is this point which brings me to the game’s strongest feature: the emotional depth and heart which runs through every puzzle and interaction the Ranger engages in.
Before embarking on each level, the Ranger begins in the village by the forest, which is populated by a struggling and demoralised people. Completing the first level – or year, as the game refers to it – provided a genuinely touching moment when all the children were reunited with their parents. The player is subsequently told that one year has passed before the next stage, and that there are 14 years remaining. This sombre reminder is a perfect example of the finality that haunts the Ranger and the game, and gives Road Not Taken a sense of gravitas that is unique among puzzle games. There are only so many years to go, and only so many children who can be saved. This finality is balanced with the growing relationships the Ranger is able to build with the villagers.
In year two the player sees the Ranger slowly become more involved in the community; talking to the villagers one year later gave me the sense that food is still scarce, and people are tense and suspicious. Yet I found that a simple act of kindness encouraged villagers to open up – for example, I shared rice with one person and following that gesture, we became acquaintances. As the villagers slowly come to trust the Ranger, they share their goods with him – extending what little they have to make the Ranger feel welcome. Building relationships with the townsfolk is encouraged. While some accuse the Ranger of begging, other strangers become acquaintances, and acquaintances become friends. Building friendships and relationships is also practical, as each act of kindness fortifies the Ranger’s strength, allowing him to start the next level with extra energy.
A fork in the road.
Road Not Taken is not without some minor complications. One gameplay aspect that wasn’t made immediately clear was how to throw an object south. It turns out, this is accomplished by attempting to throw an object when its northern side is inaccessible. The Ranger can pick up to four objects simultaneously, but the player cannot selectively choose one object over another if standing adjacent to several items.
I previously mentioned that running out of energy results in death. This actually happened to me playing the tutorial, just as I was about to rescue the last child I was looking for. I was about three steps away from safety before I died. I had wasted a lot of energy carrying objects around, getting used to the mechanics, and trying to figure out exactly how to throw objects where I wanted them to go. My careless wandering and lack of focus, even at an early stage in the game, resulted in a pretty severe consequence. It is a relatively steep learning curve, but in my opinion, such consequences are in keeping with the game’s larger themes of regret, second-guesses and the impossibility of always making the correct decision.
Life goes on.
Road Not Taken is a beautifully presented game of small acts, survival and humanity. Even small actions have large consequences. This mantra impacts the gameplay in a positive way – while the mechanics certainly aren’t revolutionary, strategy is key in a game wherein literally every step is important. As such, while each level is challenging the difficulty actually pushes the player to do better, rather than causing frustration. With each level that is completed, Road Not Taken counts down the years to the Ranger’s retirement. While a level can be exited without rescuing all the children if things get really tricky, the Ranger loses a year of time before getting the chance to go back and save them. Every move must be thought through, and the game certainly rewards investment. That such a simple formula can be infused with such depth is impressive. The combination of the small decisions and details that go into tackling each level, alongside the grander themes of opportunities gained and lost, is a quality that makes Road Not Taken a cut above most puzzle games.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.