Read our full Road Not Taken review.
With mainstream games becoming more and more accommodating, placing checkpoints every five minutes and providing the constant option to drop down in difficulty level, titles that deliver punishing difficulty and drastic consequences for failure can feel like a breath of fresh air. Roguelikes (games that deliver randomized levels and remove save points) have grown in popularity, and while the subgenre is primarily associated with role-playing games, the addition of these core concepts into new categories (like the open-world Don’t Starve) has led to some of the most talked-about games of late.
Road Not Taken shares a handful of traits with Spelunky; it has a cute exterior that belies the hardcore difficulty within. However, the different style of play for this tactical puzzle game will tax an entirely new section of your roguelike-loving brain.
Don’t freeze. As games of this ilk are wont to do, Road Not Taken doesn’t beat you over the head with narrative; there’s a cold, wintry world filled with environmental puzzles you must solve to save children separated from the hub town’s adults (including a nefarious mayor who gives you orders and puts the children to work). The ambiguous nature of your work (they seem happy, but there’s a weird air about it) is further accentuated by a ghost child that will sometimes pop into a room and offer up a cryptic quote.
For each “year” in Road Not Taken‘s story, you’re tasked with saving a certain number of children (again, there’s a creepy side in that you don’t have to save them all). There are 15 years to progress through before your character’s career ends. However, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll make it that far at first, as the multitude of elements and obstacles are constantly causing harm to the game’s hero.
Grid and bear it. The core of the play in Road Not Taken is pretty simple. Move around on the grid-based maps, throw elements at each other to unlock doors or create new items, and save the required number of children. However, between the dozens of items you can make, the various creatures with different behaviors, and the new rules that come up if certain items are on the map, you’ll need to put plenty of thought into every single move.
For example, you can move around the map unencumbered and not take any damage if you step onto an open tile. If you pick up an item, however, you’ll lose a point of energy for every spot you move on the grid, as a result of the cold. It’s a necessary evil if, say, a room requires two items that are separated by an obstacle.
However, if you create a fire to combat the cold, you’ll be able to carry items around without harm– unless there’s a cursed doll somewhere on the screen, which negates the fire’s power. Said fire requires you throw three logs together. Those logs can be made if you use an axe to cut down trees, and the axe requires you — oddly — to toss three ghosts together.
Those are but a fraction of the rules that you need to keep in mind as you play Road Not Taken. Helpfully, there’s a journal you can refer to that keeps track of the various rules and recipes, but the sheer range of things you can do is something that will take time to wrap your head around.
Enemies And Allies. There’s more than just the cold working against you in Road Not Taken. As the years progress, more and more enemies will populate each stage, including a few that target the children as well as your character. One of the specialized rooms that popped up during our recent demo — a handful of these are in the game, in the midst of the randomly generated ones — was a Spider Room, where large arachnids trapped kids in cocoons. If the children were not freed from their trap within a certain number of turns (picking them up does the trick), the predator consumed them.
More direct is the human foe in the “Baba Yaga” room, where the witch picked up children scattered throughout the room to deposit in her bubbling cauldron. This one employed a bit more strategy than “keep the kid away from the enemy,” as the simmering pot could be picked up and thrown if Baba Yaga had a child in hand.
While those enemies showed aggression, there were also pleasant animals that acted differently. For example, a locked door might require you have three deer standing together to unlock it, but you’ll have to keep in mind that they’ll instinctively stay away from you and use that knowledge to herd them.
If you can survive the day and save enough children, you’ll return to the hero’s hometown where you can barter with specific resources in your inventory like bunnies and berries (though damage each day carries into the next). While making trades can reap immediate rewards like increased health (and boost your standing with locals by giving them the items they prefer), you can also bring them into the harsh unknown, where there’s a chance you can find a rare checkpoint that requires certain resources. True to the genre, however, even if you find one of these and activate it, then revive there after death, you’ll still arrive with a completely depleted inventory.
Cute but killer. As mentioned before, the cute nature of Road Not Taken goes a long way toward disarming you as the cruel world does its damage. While its got a style of its own, you can see a dash of Rilakkuma and a hint of Final Fantasy amongst other cartoony influences. All of this cuteness is mixed with a hearty dose of sadness and terror inspired by darker children’s stories of decades and centuries past, whether it’s classic tomes like Grimm’s Fairy Tales or modern animated fare like The Secret of Nimh.
Without a true inventory (elements stay on the ground or in your hand while resources can only be used in the two aforementioned circumstances), there’s really little clutter in terms of visual cues as the screen only needs to show you your health level, number of kids to be saved, and what item you’re wielding, if any. That’s pretty important since the amount of info you’ll have to keep in mind is truly staggering.
Granted, our demo threw us around from the tutorial, to a slightly imposing early stage, to an insane late-game level, so we went from learning the ropes (most items will give you a clue about their use when you bump into them) to expert play in a short amount of time, but all of those details could potentially become overwhelming, even with an extensive index. Here’s hoping that journal can be searched and reorganized for easy access.
The past year has been a big one for games like Road Not Taken, as the likes of Don’t Starve and Spelunky have inspired plenty of online conversations between players about their progress against the odds in those deceptively difficult games. While the earlier releases brought the pain in a fair and balanced manner, Road Not Taken has a tougher path to toe since the amount of rules, recipes, and randomly behaving creatures could become complex to the point of frustration. However, as mentioned before, a normal run through Road Not Taken might just mete out the info at an acceptable rate.
Road Not Taken arrives on PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita later this year.