Road Not Taken
Most rogue-like games operate under the assumption that you tackle multiple playthroughs, and the variation in the procedurally generated worlds keeps things interesting. Spry Fox has taken that design structure and crafted a highly playable twist on puzzle gaming. The system works admirably, with a gradual curve into difficulty, endless varied puzzles, and some thoughtful storytelling thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, the core puzzle and rogue-like features become increasingly tedious the longer you play.
As a lonely ranger who lives on the edge of town, your job every winter is to venture into the dangerous wilderness and save the lost children who failed to return from their berry picking before the storms picked up. Years pass, your ranger gets older, and you decide whether or not to engage with the townspeople, develop friendships, or get married. Juxtaposed with Road Not Taken’s storybook visuals, Spry Fox explores a number of adult themes, including everything from the nature of growing old and facing death to the insidious but self-perpetuating problem of child labor.
The forest is a grid of squares, and you can pick up all adjacent objects and fling them away to clear a path to your goal. Whether it’s a wolf, a tree, an unquiet spirit, a bee hive, or one of dozens of other objects, everything in the wilderness has its own properties. One rock might change color if thrown in a particular direction, while a certain animal might flip places with any object it strikes, or combine in an interesting way. Over time, there’s fun to be had in memorizing how each object functions.
Any way you dress them, these procedurally generated spatial reasoning puzzles are in the not-so-grand tradition of box-pushing – perhaps the most frustrating part of dozens of action or RPG games you may have played over the years. By giving the boxes distinct properties, the puzzles are more sophisticated than most, but the annoyance of navigating a grid with too little space to move remains.
As you explore, actions like carrying objects and walking in extreme cold drain your energy, while saving children and eating restore it. Make a bad decision or just hit a hard puzzle, and that energy runs out and it’s time to start over. It’s frustrating to have to give up on harder, more interesting puzzles just because you’re almost out of life, but it’s even more aggravating to have to play through the simplistic early puzzles yet again after you die. A checkpoint system is available, but restarts take away all the helpful gear you’ve accumulated so far, making it even less likely you’ll succeed the second time out. A full restart is usually the unfortunate better choice.
The more I played Road Not Taken, the more my hesitations mounted. Mixing rogue-like restarts with puzzle mechanics is an intriguing concept, and I like the opportunity to see new puzzles on each playthrough. However, the resulting problems and sense of repetition on similar (even if not identical) puzzles isn’t worth the trade-off. I genuinely enjoyed the charming early hours of Road Not Taken, but its rewards are a game of diminishing returns.