Impressions: Road Not Taken

By John Walker on August 6th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

There’s a reason this is titled “Impressions”, and not “Wot I Think”. That is, I’m really no good at this game. Or, this game is incredibly difficult. Road Not Taken is a combination of sokobanish puzzling, Triple Town object combination, and roguelite imminent failure. I’ve been playing for a couple of days, and I’m really struggling to get past what is ostensibly the fourth level. Thing is, I’ve been absolutely loving my time playing it.

To use a technical term, Road Not Taken is stark-raving bonkers. It is the lovely, oddly rewarding results of grabbing three or four different, unconnected genres, putting them in a bag, and shaking that bag about a bit. Which is oddly apposite.

Things must be strange in Spry Fox HQ. Some sort of anomaly in the order of physics means it seems quite normal to them that combining objects creates single, different objects. Now, that’s true in the case of say, bread. But it’s not perhaps as instinctive to others when it comes to trees, or cats. Triple Town took this pleasingly daft gimmick and ran with it splendidly, and it continues on here in Road Not Taken. Here, picking up and throwing three similar trees into a row causes doors to open. Throwing the broken remains of two shattered vases at each other makes a wooden stool. Because it just does. Two wooden stools colliding forms, er, a ghost girl. Two logs makes a fire, which sort of makes sense. Two axes makes a spear, which makes no sense at all.

That’s what makes the core concept of RNT so compelling – figuring out what does what by picking it up and lobbing it at another thing. And the peculiar disconnect from reasonable logic, for once, only serves to make the process more fun. For instance, if you throw a lost child on a fire in the real world, people will make such a fuss. But in Road Not Taken, if you throw a lost child at a fire, you’ll get a precocious child.

The puzzles themselves are all about reuniting lost children with their mothers. Awwww. To reach the children, you need to rearrange gridded screens of all manner of peculiarities, combining stuff, creating axes, chopping trees, lighting fires, sacrificing spirits, conjuring potions, cooking pigs, building giant angry bears, and so forth. There’s also a need to bring together multiples of the same object, usually to open doorways. Line up three pine trees, or six bulls, and the rocks blocking your path will roll aside.

You can pick almost everything up, but moving around with things costs you energy – a resource that once it’s used up, you’re dead. So instead you need to focus on throwing stuff. Throwing is free. And that’s where the Sokoban nature of the game is most present. Calculating ways to move things about such that you group three roaming deer together, without spending all your energy lugging everything about. Getting fires going in any screen means you can carry things about for free, but that’s never inevitable, and often very tricky.

Your character, (at first at least) a behooded figure with glowing eyes, arrives at this town by boat, and learns of the problems they have with children never returning after being sent out to collect berries. They don’t learn about the inherent flaw in their child labour racket, and each year a collection of children need rescuing. You have, according to a town doctor, fifteen years to live, presumably meaning that if you’re not as useless as me, something significant happens after fifteen levels. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t fail a great deal along the way and carry on from the same level (with all your loot lost), if you made a sacrifice at a shrine. So is it a roguelite? Look, I don’t know.

What I do know is that it’s fantastically, outstandingly cute. Every animation is a mad delight, the creature art unrelentingly gorgeous, and the descriptions of every object (of which there are hundreds) are often hilarious and silly.

“Goat

Goats eat flowers and then poop. Why? Because they are goats. Stop trying to change the world.”

Betwixt levels, and sometimes within, there are other characters to chat with, and with whom you can share some of the treasures you gather as you play. Sharing develops friendship, and they share special items and knowledge back with you. But make too good friends with one person, and another might become jealous. Balancing that is cute fun.

I’ve had some frustrations with hardware. The game has crashed a couple of times. However, more annoying is an oddity of the implementation of Unity’s resolution settings, with its only asking for a setting the first time, and then ignoring what you picked afterward. I’m currently limited to running it in a tiny window, or unnecessarily in fullscreen, and it requires a complete restart to launch either.

But the larger issue for me is certainly the difficulty. This is a hard one to call, because roguelites are meant to be difficult. I spend about one hundred percent of my spare time playing Pixel Dungeon on my tablet, and that’s horrendously tough, endlessly killing me. I love that. But the difficulty here feels different. It’s not about seeing how far you can get, hoping this time what you’ve gathered along the way will eek you a little farther. Instead, it’s about meeting a wall of randomly generated, increasingly complicated puzzles, and running out of energy because you didn’t solve stuff. Resetting to the beginning of the game each time would be mortifying, but resetting to that current level, but without your equipped bonuses, means things just get tougher on retrying.

Extremely odd is a mechanic which means that when you get very low on energy, the game suddenly becomes massively more difficult, and various ghosties that exist in levels turn malevolent and attack you. It’s mystifying why it would suddenly turn on you when you’ve no means at all to survive, rather than allow the tension that would arise from having under 10 energy blobs left in the regular game and seeing if you can still make it.

But then, I am a colossal idiot, and what if I’m just especially terrible at Road Not Taken? Maybe I’d get better if I stuck with it the way I’ve stuck with more roguelikey roguelites? I’m enjoying playing it, and that’s crucial. But I’m also aware I’ve met a wall, and the incentive to keep running into it is running out for me.

It’s unquestionably smart, almost intolerably cute, and splendidly novel. I’m not quite convinced the balancing is right, and think the levels become too cluttered, too quickly. But it remains completely lovely to play despite it.

Road Not Taken is out now, and currently $12 via their Humble widget.

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7 Comments »

  1. chesh says:

    I find the puzzling very finicky — my kingdom for a way to *drop* things if you pick them up accidentally, rather than throwing them across the screen! — but I keep at it because of the astounding atmosphere. It is just so full of wist, and I love it. The idea of joining and integrating into this community and finding out what makes life there worthwhile despite all the hardship (and that ship is practically diamond!) hits so many of my buttons.

  2. Tatourmi says:

    So, I just wanted to say that I’d like more info on the game’s availability if possible from rps articles. I don’t know from the article if the game is out, free or not, and on which platform. A hypetertext link would have been enough though but there is kinda nothing, then again I might have read the article wrong. I know, i can google the name, but call me lazy and self entitled, I love the convenience :).

    To counterbalance that: I’d never have realized there was a lack of info if the article didn’t make the game sound interesting enough.

    EDIT: And just for other readers: Out now, available on steam, 15 dollars or your regional equivalent, on sale now on the dev’s website, http://spryfox.com/our-games/road-not-taken/ , for 12.

  3. Lacero says:

    Every single time you post one of these I think Impressions the studio has reformed and is making games again and my heart jumps a little bit and I think of walker paths and Pharaoh.

    Every single time. I’m a fool.

  4. Ooops says:

    Two notes:
    1) It’s currenty free on the PS4 for playstation plus subscribers.
    2) I’m glad it’s free because I wouldn’t have bought it. I’ve been burned by how Triple Town’s neat ideas were ruined by the awful business model (even though the PC version had no in-app purchase, the slow grinding nature of it wasn’t stripped away in the port).

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