By: Jeff Cater
Road Not Taken, developed and published by Spry Fox, is a genre mashup between match-three puzzlers and roguelike elements courtesy of randomly generated levels and a collection of puzzles and enemies intent of not letting you succeed in your goal.
As a nameless, mysterious robed stranger, you happen upon a town where children have vanished after going to collect berries and resources from the surrounding forests. Your task is to win over the hearts of the village’s inhabitants and return the children to their mothers, all while wracking your brain by dealing with limited movement and randomly generated levels and puzzles.
The game is built completely around grid-based movement, so the directional pad and thumb stick offer equal accessibility and immediate comfort — it’s similar to sliding chess pieces across the board. Aside from selecting between a couple of dialogue and trade options here and there, menu interaction is minimal and, of course, simply dependent on the directional pad or thumb stick. Picking up objects and throwing them with the X button is about as complicated as the controls get, but in no way should that be viewed as any indication on the mechanics of the gameplay.
Road Not Taken features a unusually warm presentation for a game that takes place in the harsh of winter. Sometimes light, lazy snowflakes will fall down from the sky, while at others there could be a blizzard that completely whites out the screen. As all of the characters follow the grid-based movement, animation is often limited, but what we are given are well done and fun to look at.
Entities you encounter can range from a simple, cute white bunny (for catching purposes) to shamanistic troll creatures that are only there to block your progress. Despite the severe objective of the game, finding missing children in freezing conditions, there’s a friendly visual presentation: characters are plump and cute, complete with rosy cheeks, and each new character or enemy variant you come across is fresh and interesting to study.
The soundtrack also lends to the game’s foreboding vibe of the snowy, lonely forests you delve into. Whether it is wind splitting your ears, or the dead calm of the level, the tone of the music has an amazing way of just fitting any situation you encounter perfectly.
In order to increase the villagers’ trust in you, you are tasked with finding and saving lost children in the forest. They had gone to collect berries, but they have stopped returning and their mothers are worried. Once all of the children in a given stage are all rescued, you’re teleported back to the entrance of the area and treated to a heartwarming scene of all the children reuniting with their families.
During the first handful of randomly generated stages you’ll be presented with a few “Match Two” or “Match Three” of any given item. The tricky part starts when you need to pick up an item that may be surrounded by a few other items, and by activating your telekinetic lift ability you’ll also grab any object adjacent to your stranger.
While moving just one object depletes little energy, you’ll often have to move several objects at once, and that drains your energy pool very quickly. You may also throw any given object you are currently lifting, but you cannot control how far they are thrown, which lends to the puzzle element of the game.
That leads to many occurrences of “OK, if I grab these two items ABOVE the one I need, I can move them with one frame and throw them to save energy, so I can then move my desired object solo and conserve!” Among these objects to be thrown are the children, who will land with a gruff “Oof!” but are ultimately grateful to be reunited with their mothers.
This is all good and challenging right off the bat, but having to match three items in order to unlock another path in the forest can truly wear thin quickly. Plus, the difficulty ramps up extremely high by levels four and five (or, by the game’s terms, Year Four and Year Five, because over the years these damn kids haven’t learned their lesson). This includes having to throw items from one zone of the forest to another, while contending with a constant stream of new foes that like to do anything from block you into a corner, to surrounding an object that you desperately need.
It’s not all obstacles, though. Fountains can be found that regenerate some of your energy, and various items that are scattered around the forest can be traded to the villagers, who then in turn reward you with an otherwise unattainable gift — a gift that can usually be given to another villager in turn for another reward.
Road Not Taken is a very solid puzzler with the roguelike elements of limited movement and entities that, while not quite enemies, can deter you from making progress all the same. So yeah, come to think of it, they are enemies. Still, that shouldn’t mean you should be scared of taking the Road Not Taken. After all, someone needs to save those kids!