Review: Road Not Taken02 Aug 2016 3
Review: Road Not Taken
Released 28 Jul 2016
It’s always nice to come across a game that doesn’t have the words ‘space’, ‘war’, ‘marine’ or some combination of the three in the title. Road Not Taken - if you were not aware - is the name of a Robert Frost poem from the Mountain Interval collection. Typical interpretations of the work say it is about looking back at minor events and attributing blame for things that came after; that these minor events can be attributed with more meaning than they may deserve.
Originally released two years ago for PS4 and PC, the-game-with-the-same-name is an action/puzzle adventure that explores the ideas discussed in the poem, with a roguelike system that ties the whole thing together. So how does the iOS fare?
On the surface, Road Not Taken looks almost whimsical in its art direction, with some subtle animation in the environment and on characters, plus some bright and very bold colours. Yet there is an underlying sense of darkness in some of the design and audio that I appreciate. Underneath the bonnet is a game that uses compelling puzzles with simple controls and a user interface that overall is elegant and translates superbly onto iOS (don’t worry folks, the Android port is on the way). Swiping in a general direction will aim your avatar that way, while tapping on an object will lift it in the air, tapping once more sends it flying over to the other side of the screen.
The goal is to survive 14 years (levels) and to save the children that have ended up lost and send them back to their mothers. The little blighters manage to get lost at the same time each year, and each year without fail the mayor comes running to you for help. How does this guy stay in office? The solution to this situation is less elegant, as It involves you flinging the children towards their mothers. It has similarities to the excellent Binding of Isaac, with procedurally generated levels that are set in square shaped rooms with different elements, and if you die you begin back at year one.
Moving doesn’t require energy, but picking up and throwing objects does, plus objects that you carry around will drain you even further, so with that in mind you want to preserve your energy as best as possible. You have a flame in the corner that tracks how much you have left, and when it reaches 0 it’s game over. A portion of the energy you preserve passes over to the next level as well, so it’s something you have to stay wary of at all times – playing into the poem’s themes of every minor event having a bigger meaning to them. This also means that this is a puzzle game that doesn’t allow you to poke at it until it makes sense. Instead, you have to plan ahead for each move and decide whether it’s worth executing.
You use a book of secrets (basically a log diary) that helps you understand what the elements are in the environment and how you can interact with them. A basic example is crafting wood into a log fire, which allows you to move around and pick up objects within that part of the level without loss of energy. Early runs with the game were more about experimentation to see what was possible, and I appreciated the game spending less time telling me what to do, and leaving me to try things out for myself. Items can also be thrown from one room to another, so sometimes puzzles are not in front of you. There are also different animals, creatures and spirits that have their own behavioural patterns that are also recorded into your diary. Some are friendly, some are not.
Between levels you can interact with the townsfolk who will part wisdom or different upgrades depending on the items you collect and are willing to part with. These upgrades can be crucial to your survival, so it’s important to be on the lookout for berries and coins as you traverse through the forest. There’s something to be said as well for your avatar; the nameless protagonist has a charm, and the eyes are designed to give plenty of life and character.
The big kicker when it comes to Road Not Taken is how punishingly difficult it gets. The spike in difficulty is way out of balance, and it’s surprising that even two years later, there doesn’t feel like it’s had much tweaking to try and balance some of that out. As mentioned, the your diary helps to keep track of what works with what, and to begin with these combinations are fairly obvious. As you progress further however, the lines of common sense and just-plain-made-up start to blur. And for a game where experimentation does not feel like such a risk in the early stages, the permadeath mechanic used here is an absolute pain towards the latter half of the game. Though in some ways that is the point of the permadeath mechanic, so you’ll need to play for yourself to see if you have the patience.
While this may sound like a turn off to some, Road Not Taken is definitely worth checking out. The energy meter constantly looms over you while you make your valiant effort to save the children, and it keeps a good level of tension raised at all times. There is a checkpoint mechanic; but seeing as you lose all your items if you restart from there you’ve already signed your own death sentence. The iOS port is perfect for picking up and playing one session at a time and the lack of twitch-based movement makes it a viable option on the go as well.