Sometimes in these reviews I feel compelled to avoid sentimentality and extolling certain subjective aspects of games out of concern I will come off as too sappy or prone to exaggeration. I suppose I shouldn’t be so hesitant, as I’m sure if anyone has read some of my past reviews it would be easy for them to decide already that I read too much into things or that I’m pretentious. It still is a concern to me, however, as I do want to get to the point where my opinions hold some water and my writing conveys that. All insecurities aside, I do want to talk about a game today that I found to be heartwarming and enjoyable in both form and experience—a game by the developer Spry Fox called Road Not Taken.
Road Not Taken is a puzzle game in which you try to find children lost in a snowy forest and reunite them with their families. In order to do this, you, a new visitor to the village, given the role of ranger by the mayor, need to harness the power of a mysterious blue torch to lift objects and manipulate the environment to accomplish this task. The forest takes the form of several randomly generated screens, some of which have barriers that require a certain number of objects be lined up to proceed through them. Each object has its own rules for how it can be moved or thrown, and some even combine to make special items. All the while, an energy gauge ticks down for every step you take while holding an object, forcing you to think about the best way to maneuver the forest.
Road Not Taken’s style is very charming. The characters, setting and writing are whimsical and quirky. From the children who shout “Again!” after being thrown by the ranger to the use of bumping into someone or something to interact with them, there is a lightheartedness to the setting that softens the edges of the matters at hand. Death haunts this village, with children succumbing to the ever more dangerous winters and the doctor who, when interacted with, will size you up and estimate just how long you have, before selling you medicine to stave off the inevitable. All the while, you can collect items that will aid your searches and consumables that can be used as gifts to build friendships with the townsfolk. If you run out of energy, the ranger will die, and each subsequent playthrough will follow another ranger, with many people recognizing that you’re different. The bittersweet balancing act is really a major plus to the game, helping it avoid becoming too silly or too maudlin.
My favorite part of Road Not Taken, however, is the playable character. The ranger’s design is so pleasing to the eye, with expressions and mannerisms that elicit empathy from the player. The ranger is a simplistic character who is simultaneously a blank slate, yet filled with purpose. Having nearly died, lost in a blizzard, the ranger is offered sanctuary by the blue flamed torch that in turn grants the ability to extend the same offer to the children of the village that has been rendered nearly soulless by the annual loss of life. Though near featureless, the ranger’s bright yellow eyes convey just enough humanity to allow the player to identify with the robed figure. The presence of the ranger takes this puzzle/strategy game and endears us to the world it takes place in.
When considering the aesthetics of a game, it is important that everything lines up right down to the playable characters to form a cohesive whole. Road Not Taken accomplishes this well and provides RPG elements to its puzzle core, giving a sense of purpose to the objectives of the game. One drawback of the game is that at times it may not seem that difficult, as it can be easy to amass large amounts of energy at the beginning of the game. This is not much of a detraction to enjoying Road Not Taken, however, and should you play it, I think you’ll definitely have a positive experience. So venture into the blizzard and see what life awaits your ranger.