Road Not Taken Review
Life can be harsh. When you wander outside the safety of the village walls, you must contend with all sorts of deadly obstacles, and that includes enemies and the inevitable Father Time. In Road Not Taken, you really can’t even count on your memory, as the procedurally generated levels keep you on your toes throughout, forcing you to adapt on the fly. The game is somewhat tedious and occasionally frustrating, but its challenge, imagination, and unbounded creativity make it well worth trying. Just be patient and remember, the brain is your most effective weapon.
The first positive aspect of Spry Fox’s game is clear within the first few minutes: It’s a charming, sometimes charismatic and emotional visual presentation, which is always a huge bonus. You don’t need a massive budget and photorealilstic graphics to tell a great story or convey sentiment. These sprites are very expressive and despite the bleakness of the situation, you’re always surrounded by a certain lightness and cuteness. There’s not a ton of variety, even with the randomly generated levels, but this is a well-appointed, beautifully designed little game that often gives us reasons to smile.
The music matches that charming display and it adds another dimension to a surprisingly immersive experience. When exploring, you’ll hear pretty yet haunting melodies, accompanied by subtle environmental effects. That subtlety encompasses the entire game; at no point is the score insistent, and the effects never hit you right between the eyes. This results in an almost surreal atmosphere that you can’t easily forget. At the same time, one could argue that a heavier emphasis on the audio could’ve further increased the effectiveness of that atmosphere. But really, why quibble? The technical elements are well above average.
The start of your adventure isn’t promising. You are a hooded ranger, caught in a snowstorm, who arrives at a remote village. It’s hardly a thriving little town but at least it provides you with much-needed shelter, which the mayor is happy to offer, so long as you agree to a little task. Okay, it’s not a little task; it’s a commitment to save some children who have gone missing. They went out to harvest berries but in such weather conditions, who knows what could’ve happened? So, you set out to conquer a series of randomly created regions in a noble effort to locate those lost children. Speaking with other members of the town will yield more stories and quests.
Taking the time to learn more about certain villagers is beneficial, as your character will often receive bonuses, such as a temporary energy boost. In fact, if you’re diligent about fostering relationships, you can bring about significant changes among the townspeople. Just think, that couple got married ‘cuz of you! Anyway, once you’re done roaming the town, you head out into the forbidding wilderness, which is full of terrible dangers. For those who are old enough, they’ll be reminded of old-school top-down dungeon-crawlers like The Legend of Zelda. The difference here is that your character is definitely not a superhero.
You’ve got a magic staff that lets you lift objects and carry them around, and you can also fuse items to craft new – and hopefully more useful – equipment. There’s a fair amount of trial-and-error because you’re never quite certain how an object will react when combined with a piece of the landscape. Also, it’s important to remember that carrying objects drains your energy meter and you can’t just bring an object anywhere you wish. Some spaces are too tight and other times, you can’t carry everything you want to carry (there’s a limit of four). This means you’ll have to carefully plan out your approach before making any final decisions.
The children you must rescue are way the hell out there, which means you’ll have to conquer quite a few puzzles before you can play the hero. And by the way, failing twice or failing to meet the mayor’s mandatory saved child limit will result in Game Over. Add to this the fact that you’ve only got 15 years to handle your business. That may sound like a long time, but one year passes pretty quickly during the game. The more time passes, the less capable you will be, and that can prove problematic. Obviously, this adventure is all about caution, diligence and timing. If you’re found lacking in any of those areas, you probably won’t perform well.
The game is a definite challenge but it can also feel tedious and needlessly frustrating. For instance, you don’t keep anything critical from one section to another, and you might lose gifts other adventurers give you in passing. Failure will result in the loss of a particularly good charm, for example. You can ban two objects from the wastelands by visiting your basement, but there are lots of objects hovering around out there. Failure is absolutely inevitable and knowing that makes the game feel like more of a chore than entertainment. However, it really depends on your mindset when you being the quest.
If you appreciate a robust challenge in a unique mechanic and atmosphere, you should definitely knuckle down and give it a try. If, on the other hand, you don’t react well to a constant sense of pressure and urgency, you might feel somewhat overwhelmed. This pressure is subtle, much like the rest of the game, but it’s always nagging at you: The passage of time and your energy meter are like ticking time bombs that never go away. This is really annoying at times while other times, it infuses the game with a fresh, lively dynamic. Everything do you, each step you take, has a definite impact on the outcome of the adventure, and that’s a daunting feeling.
Road Not Taken is an interesting little game. It’s tough and sometimes even unforgiving, and I should add that it’s not entirely stable. I came across several bugs in the game and it crashed on me twice, so that should be mentioned. However, the procedurally generated puzzles and areas really boost the replay potential, and the overall charm and originality can’t be ignored or understated. Sure, it could be labeled as “punishing” but if you’re craving a unique experience that tests your wits and general problem-solving skills, this is a great option. Just make sure you have an appropriately thick skin.
The Good: The graphics and sound are charming and effective. Atmosphere is original and engaging. The adventure/puzzle setup is well-paced and always entertaining. Solid control. The villagers have some decent stories. Randomly generated areas add longevity.
The Bad: Can feel tedious and overwhelming. Some of the puzzles aren’t very well designed. A few bugs and freezing problems.
The Ugly: “15 years seems like enough time…but maybe not.”
8/8/2014 Ben Dutka