Road Not Taken Review (PlayStation 4)
Spry Fox's Road Not Taken, along with Klei Entertainment's Don't Starve earlier this year, heralds the return of the roguelike sub-genre. For those who don't remember them, roguelike games spawned throughout the '80s and '90s and usually featured dungeon-like exploration, turn-based gameplay, tile-based graphics/movement, perma-death and procedural level generation. This style of gameplay helped usher in the tactical role-playing game genre that we saw flourish with Ultima III, the Fire Emblem series, and, eventually, Final Fantasy Tactics. Does Road Not Taken pay its niche genre proper tribute? It certainly does, but that doesn't mean that it's for everyone.
Some of you might even recognize Spry Fox's previous title, Tripletown, as a pretty solid puzzle title for PC that invoked many roguelike attributes as well. While Don't Starve took some liberties with the sub-genre, it is proof that there is still plenty of mileage left in a traditional format that many older and veteran PC gamers are well-acquainted with. For newcomers, Spry Fox's console debut marks a puzzle/exploration game with unique mechanics that rewards and punishes experimentation. A lot of time has gone into making Road Not Taken a game that encourages both methodical planning and random experimentation with your actions. To paraphrase the Robert Frost poem from which Road Not Taken inherited its namesake, Spry Fox "took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."
One of the first things you'll notice about Road Not Taken is its simple presentation. It looks like it could have been released as mobile game, but once things start getting hectic, you'll realize that most smartphones and tablets wouldn't be able to handle the sheer amount of character and item models you can interact with that Road throws at you. Much like its premise and mechanics, Spry Fox has kept everything remotely simple and basic until you start paying attention, start focusing and start exploring -- everything looks easy and cheerful, until you start playing.
Road Not Taken is a game where you navigate cold, wintry forests for the sake of reuniting lost children with their mothers. Road's camera is fixed in a top-down perspective and you can only move your Ranger character across the grid of each level in four directions: up, down, left or right. You can pick up, move and throw away obstacles in your path as you help locate and guide each missing child to his or her mother. While these mechanics seem simple at first, they become intricate when you realize how you must use them to help save each child.
Each time you move across the 8x6 grid of each area, the creatures living in the wilderness can randomly move too. There are over 200 different kinds of animals, obstructions and items that you will encounter throughout your rescues. These items range from honeycombs, to pigs, trees, dark spirits, statues and even yetis. Your Ranger character cannot move through these objects on the grid, but he can pick them up, move them or launch them from the position you pick them up from. Moving an item after you picked it up and going to another space on the grid will diminish your energy for each step taken. Running into monsters and spirits on the grid will also damage your energy. When your energy hits zero, you die and must restart all 15 years over again (each year involves another trip from the town to the woods to rescue a set number of children). Your energy also carries over from year to year, and replenishes based on the food items you have in your inventory.
It is through these simple mechanics that Road Not Taken turns into a both a thought-provoking puzzler and hints at a sympathetic story. If your ranger successfully rescues all children each winter (you can turn back early to skip to the next year without rescuing them all), the townspeople will love you. Certain parents you encounter in town have troubling stories about losing their children that the Ranger couldn't save. You can donate the items you collect throughout your journey, including your rewards from the mayor, to these unfortunate people. Some become your friends, some become your loved ones and some even live at your house afterwards. This offers a bit more depth to the story that we were never expecting, turning our Ranger into a selfless hero, who not only saves children in the wintry forest, but gives his rewards back to the people who need it -- it just depends on how much you're willing to give (factoring in your energy). This offers an excellent outlook on Road's story, which could have just consisted of message saying "go save these kids" with no type of narrative of all.
The obstacles and forests of Road Not Taken are complicated by the items you encounter in the wild. Putting two items next to each other can result in them combining into a new item, which could be good or bad depending on the ingredients you used and the item that is produced. You can make an axe from combining forest spirits, and you'll want to keep bringing the axe with you to the other areas of the map (draining your energy as you go). Axes can be thrown at trees to make logs, which combine to make fires. Fires can cook animals for food (restoring energy), and you can throw children at fires to calm them down and get them to follow you, eliminating the need to pick the child up and drag them to their mother. While this system is intricately detailed, it is all about experimentation to find out what works. Putting together the wrong spirits can result in a black ghoul spawning that can kill you much faster than anything else. We applaud Spry Fox for being so thorough in regards to this inventory/obstacle system, offering an incentive to keep playing to see what works and what doesn't.
Road is turn-based, meaning that wildlife on the map does not move into another grid-spot until you do, resulting in reactionary movement from the animals on screen. Some areas of the map can only be unlocked by putting together certain animal/obstacle/item combinations, but this can turn out to be difficult. For example, what if you need three pigs to open up a specific part of the map, but each piggie is spread out across a different area. You've gotta drag them to a specific part of the map and combine them somehow. One pig we saw was surrounded by spirits and wolves that were all intent on killing it, resulting in us being unable to open up that part of the map and saving the child on the other side. So you must think and plan on how you will save the animal without letting it touch the other predators (the solution this time involved throwing an axe at one of the wolves).
Other than Road Not Taken's intricate combination system and your Ranger's relationship with the town, there isn't much incentive to keep going. Every year just starts to feel the same with a few differences to the background or new items get introduced that work just like dozens of others. There are some secrets in the game, but nothing really worth investing your time in doing the same thing over and over again.
We must mention that we encountered game-breaking glitches during Road Not Taken. Across multiple years (probably occurring once every hour or two), we would try to lift an item and just get stuck, with no way to put the item back down or even move with it. Each time this happened (it tends to happen near fiery objects), we had to close the app and restart the game. Given this game has very simple graphics and mechanics, it's a shame that a PS4 game should glitch so often in such game-breaking ways.
Road Not Take provides a heartfelt take on an old style of gameplay that we're glad to see return in the modern era. While its puzzle mechanics and item combination system are intricately detailed, there isn't much else to keep players engaged for long. The entire game just boils down to pairing together items to save children. The narrative aspect of Road Not Taken is surprisingly thoughtful for its style of gameplay, but there isn't much to keep players engaged, nor is there any kind of incentive to keep playing after Year 15. On top of this, the game-stopping glitches we encountered should not have been an issue for a game this light on the PS4 hardware. Nevertheless, Road Not Taken is still a solid, if unspectacular puzzler on its own.
This review was completed using a digital copy of Road Not Taken for PlayStation 4.