I keep thinking about Roadwarden like a tourist city that I visited for not quite long enough. Sure, I saw the main sights and had a great time soaking in the ambiance, but I know that I missed so many hidden gems. I want to go back and explore, maybe this time with a local guide who knows its secrets.
At its most basic, Roadwarden is a text-based RPG. You play as the titular roadwarden, who sets out from the city to investigate an unmapped peninsula with little more than their horse for company. Your goal as set by the people who sent you is to investigate the region and report your findings in preparation for the expansion of trade guilds in the area. But you can also set your own goal, shaping your character’s approach from the start in a way that helps with roleplaying a particular kind of adventurer throughout. And once you get to that adventuring, dozens of sidequests open up covering everything from gathering fruit to curing the plague.
The catch is that you don’t have forever. You have to leave the peninsula and return to the city by the autumn, giving you 40 in-game days on the regular difficulty. Travelling takes time, and you need to be somewhere safe at night if you don’t want to be attacked by monsters and beasts on the road. Safe is also not the same thing as clean or comfortable, which can affect your stats. Maintaining health, nourishment, appearance, and armour quality all matter for participating in quests and not dying out on the road.
These considerations and other small RPG mechanics like occasional dice rolls in dangerous situations break up the standard visual novel approach that makes up most of the game. Every area has a gorgeously illustrated pixel art sidebar accompanied by equally gorgeously written descriptions of the area, who’s there, and what they’re up to. Roadwarden’s command of sensory invocation is fantastic – when I wasn’t in awe at the creativity of the consistently detailed descriptions it’s because I was simply immersed in the fantasy feel of a rough woollen blanket and a hearty stew in a wooden bowl.
The writing’s complexities don’t just shine in the moment to moment, but in the entire world-building. The peninsula truly feels like a place with a deep history, and particularly one where humans and nature have an uneasy coexistence. The impact of everything from founding a new village to travellers abandoning a path can be felt in how the land itself is described and drawn.
The peninsula truly feels like a place with a deep history, and particularly one where humans and nature have an uneasy coexistence
As for the humans themselves, there are four villages and dozens of smaller outposts on the peninsula, all of which have opinions on the others, as well as their own internal tensions and NPCs with personal considerations. How you approach any of these is up to you, but it will have complex knock on effects. The game roughly splits itself into two halves: finding and learning about these areas, and then revisiting them all multiple times and seeing the effects of your actions. It adds to that layered effect, with history pressing down everywhere.
This is a good time to mention that Roadwarden is best played with a notebook to hand. There is a quest log which picks out helpful aspects of the conversations and descriptions you uncover, but it’s easy to forget things when there are so many places and people involved. Plus, keeping a journal makes it feel all the more like you’re an explorer keeping track of potential leads and features of interest to report back upon your return.
Then there are the secrets. This is where Roadwarden continues to have its hooks in me even after I finished it several days ago. There’s so much that I know I don’t know, from how I was supposed to respectfully address a druid living alone in the woods to the whereabouts of major missing characters.
On the former, one mechanic that really sparks intrigue is when the game invites free text entries. These usually indicate that you’ve found an area or person that needs a specific interaction, but it could be days – or never – until you figure out why you were being prompted at all. On the latter, and without spoiling too much, you learn early on that the previous roadwarden went missing. For a long time, it leads go nowhere – until they suddenly go somewhere very interesting indeed. But I wasn’t able to follow those threads to their conclusion in time before the autumn swept in and my roadwarden had to return to the city.
Let me be clear: This is not a frustration. And the game’s easy mode turns off the timer, if it would be for you. But the time limit (and there are other, smaller time limited quests, too) makes Roadwarden feel exactly as mysterious as it should. The peninsula is big and complicated enough that it can’t be perfectly squared away on a first try - or really, any try. But returning to the city and getting the ending rundown of what I did and didn’t achieve just piqued my curiosity for more. I definitely couldn’t say that I got a “good” ending, but equally, I’m not sure there’s such a thing. Whatever choices you make are going to create winners and losers.
I could replay the game with a better understanding of what to prioritise. But I’m more interested in seeing others play it and uncover secrets that I couldn’t. This is partly an indication of my own impatience – Roadwarden really rewards a slow, deliberate approach that I unfortunately can’t always afford to spend, particularly when considering a second playthrough. But it’s also a testament to the game’s complexity. I’m still not sure that I’d be able to figure everything out, even with two or three more attempts.
Again, that might sound frustrating. And I do, for entirely selfish reasons, really want Roadwarden to blow up. It’s a game that needs a community that can create a detailed fan wiki that I can treat like a Lonely Planet guide to everything I missed.
But at the same time, if that fan wiki were available, I would want to avoid it, at least for my first playthrough. So much of what I enjoyed about Roadwarden was its unknowability. You’re a traveller in the peninsula for a little over a month, and it reflects that. You can’t fix every problem, you can’t make everyone happy, and you can’t know everything there is to know. Instead, you take in as much of it as you can, try to improve people’s lots slightly, and leave with a journal full of questions and sense memories.