Match three puzzle gameplay has never been so charmingly melancholy
As it can sometimes prove easy to forget, Initial impressions can be deceptive. You see, despite its charming, toddler-friendly aesthetics, Road Not Taken weaves a fairly downcast and miserable tale around its roguelike puzzle gameplay. Casting players as a mysterious, glowing eyed hooded stranger (looking not at all unlike a Jawa from Star Wars), Road Not Taken tasks its participants with saving children who have gotten lost in a mysterious forest across a fifteen year period. A match-three game at heart with procedural content generation, Road Not Taken stands as a fresh, if sometimes frustrating, take on the roguelike puzzler.
After an introduction that doubles as a tutorial of sorts, the player is thrown into the village which serves as the central hub in which they'll live out their fifteen year term. A largely melancholic bunch, the townsfolk are quick to let the stranger know their draconian expectations; having a family is the ultimate measure of a human being and charity of just about any sort is largely frowned upon. This is a place where the rich routinely force their children out in the frigid forests to forage berries for them and where, outside of some sort of miracle, their lives are doomed to death in the wilds or monotony-infused depression within the village itself.
The on-screen doesn't lie; the book is key to understanding the secrets of the forest
Essentially, it's one of the most stiflingly, passive-hostile places you'll encounter in a videogame, but it's also one in which glimmers of hope and happiness may still be found.
Each of the townspeople has a friend rating which bobs above their noggins. A meter with a heart icon, it lets the player know what their social standing is with that particular character. By appeasing to their better natures with gifts of rice, copper, berries and other such items, friendships and eventually romantic relationships with the townspeople can be struck.
Relationships with the townspeople though, are a double-edged sword. While soaring friendship ratings result in gifts and buffs for your character, there's very little need to do any of it outside of purely pragmatic, and by proxy, selfish reasons. The reason why interactions with these folk feel inconsequential is because outside of the odd chat within the village hub itself, these denizens which are meant to be so important to primary protagonist have very small roles to play in the overarching narrative.
It's in this respect then that the notion of a village hub area to spend your time in between missions seems like a sadly missed opportunity. If the protagonist is to be such a big part of the village's everyday life, the interactions with the folk within in it should probably extend to more than just one-off conversations, repeated lines and the accrual of affection by material worth.
Aside from a house where the player can store charms that can affect how each mission plays out to varying degrees, there is little other reason to spend much time in the village itself. Thankfully, the bulk of the game is spent out in the forest; stretching the limits of the player's grey matter as they endeavour to reunite each errant child with their distraught parent.
A novel and interesting take on the match-three puzzle formula, Road Not Taken's gameplay premise is straightforward and yet pleasantly deep.
Each level or mission that you embark upon is set within a procedurally generated portion of the forest, meaning that while you might stumble across some familiar areas on consecutive playthroughs, more often than not you'll be going into a new area each time.
Every area in the forest is divided up into a grid of sorts with each movement by the player and other creatures within it, being articulated square by square. The manner in which player agency is achieved lends Road Not Taken a turn-based style of gameplay, since in between every step the player is able to take stock of the environment and plan their next move without harassment.
The goal of each stage is to reunite lost children with their parents by levitating them and throwing them into the waiting embrace of their grieving mothers (funnily enough the men of the village can never seemingly be bothered to rescue their own sprogs). This task however, is always rather easier said than done.
Each stage requires the player to match a certain number of objects in order to progress to the next part of the forest. Be they trees, spirits, animals or monsters, a specific amount is always needed before progress to the next area can be attained. The trick however, is that for every step the player takes whilst holding an item, a certain amount of damage is taken. Thus, Road Not Taken impresses early upon the player that each stage must be completed in the most efficient manner, meaning that whenever possible, anything which is picked up should be thrown rather than carried.
Thinking through each and every move is essential
What elevates Road Not Taken above puzzlers of similar comparison however, is that each item or creature in the world that can be cast about by the protagonist has its own set of characteristics and traits. Furthermore, when each entity is combined with a specific other, a transformation occurs which can either hinder or benefit the player.
For example, combining items such as a pair of sticks will create a campfire; something hugely useful that stops the health loss of your character as they carry items. Conversely, combining two types of seemingly harmless forest spirits will create a Doomspirit; an entity which will sap your health to zero in quick and surprising order.
While such discoveries might seem haphazard, there is a lot players can do to educate themselves in the nuances of the forest. Walking into creature or item in the forest will cause an entry to appear in the player's notebook; a consistent record of the characteristics and possible combinations of everything encountered by the player thus far.
As a result of such discoveries, there is a bespoke element of trial and error in Road Not Taken and it is something which will likely not endear itself to players early on. Simply, expect countless lives to be lost as the frequent result of unexpected combinations gone awry and items with unknown qualities.
Though Road Not Taken unashamedly subscribes wholeheartedly to the roguelike template (death will cause you to reset your progress at any point within your fifteen year term), the notebook and its contents endure, meaning that with each death the player (should) come back a little wiser each time. Its a novel gameplay mechanism for sure and one which arguably separates it from any other match-three puzzler on the market.
While the overall objective of each mission is to save the lost children, there is actually some latitude as to how a successful outcome is defined.
Naturally, the best outcome that one can hope for is that each and every kid makes it back to their parent without incident. If this happens, the player is given a full suite of rewards that can be taken back into town and traded for friendship points. That said, the game's difficulty and the unpredictability of the trial and error gameplay elements means that such a picture-perfect result doesn't come as frequently as we might otherwise wish.
Indeed, events often unfold in such a way that it becomes impossible to rescue all the children in a given area because the player either has too little health left, or, has destroyed one of the items required to match with others in an area to proceed. In this instance, it's actually possible to finish a year by only saving half of the children, but doing so with earn you slimmer rewards and disapproval from the villagers.
The thing is, if the developers were hoping to tug on the ol' heartstrings with the disapprovals of your fellow villagers, they've largely failed to do so as the limited interactions with the townsfolk ensure that there really isn't a great deal of scope for their sadness and disapproval to affect the player.
While easy on the eyes, the village stands as little more than a shallow hub
Road Not Taken is not a game for everyone. Players who aren't willing to deal with its trial and error tropes will find a great deal of frustration while, at the same time, its child-like charm and striking visual style stand at odds with the harshness of later levels which demand zen-like attentiveness with every step taken.
ROAD NOT TAKEN VERDICT
Road Not Taken might not always be successful in making players feel remorseful for paths avoided, but the game itself stands as one journey that at least everyone should attempt; if only to expose themselves to the game’s frustrating, yet undeniably fresh idiosyncrasies.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Flinging a fox at a rampaging wolf in order to pacify the slavering beast.