Road Not Taken: Never settling for ‘good enough’

August 14, 2014


I never knew that I needed roguelikes and puzzle games to team up, but Road Not Taken is great enough to prove how wrong I was. It rewards careful gameplay, features procedurally generated puzzles and lifts the crafting mechanics from match-three games like developer Spry Fox’s previous release, Triple Town.

The story grabs you, as well. Being smaller in scale does wonders for making me care. In something like FTL: Faster Than Light, I end up losing to the rebel fleet because I’m not a good captain and the game is difficult. I don’t feel bad for the Federation, though; I just feel like I’ve lost a game. In Road Not Taken, you play as a Ranger who finds himself in a small town, whose children get stuck in a blizzard while collecting berries so that the village can survive another harsh winter. The Ranger’s job is to reunite those children with either their parents or the village mayor.

If your goal is six children saved, you can stop at three and move on to the next winter, but I’ve never been able to do it. I either rescue all of the missing kids or that’s where my game ends. The one time I tried, the mayor laid so much guilt on me that I knew I had to keep rescuing kids. I want that village to survive and all of those kids to make it home.


The Ranger interacts with the world by picking up objects, carrying them around and throwing them away. He can’t set things down, and he always throws as hard as he can. For light objects like logs and children, this means that they’ll sail through the air until they hit something like a wall, tree or bush. Heavy things move a predetermined number of spaces when thrown, unless they hit something else. Some special items, like ice blocks, trade positions with struck objects, and others can’t be picked up at all.

The Ranger has a set amount of energy. Moving is free, picking things up is free and throwing things is free. Moving while holding an object costs one energy. The strategy involved in reuniting a child and her mother while expelling the least amount of energy is challenging to pull off and rewarding when you do.

Gaining access to adjoining rooms often requires collecting items and grouping them. Getting two trees together in the first year isn’t too difficult. Getting six bullies together is harder, because there are also fire imps, rocks and trees on the screen, so not only is real estate limited, but moving all of those bullies around without using a ton of energy is also difficult.


Adding another layer of complexity is the crafting system. Combining three fire imps creates an axe. Throwing an axe at a tree or shrub creates a log, and combining two logs makes a fire. Rooms with a fire allow the Ranger to carry objects without using energy. Road Not Taken favors the careful, though. The trees you turned into logs to make fire may have been necessary to open a door three screens away.

When you eventually run out of energy and want to play again, you’ll start from square one. None of your collected items or trinkets carry over; the only advantage you have is that you now know more about how the world works. You think twice about combining beehives to make honey, because they also sometimes make bees. There is no experience meter, and you’ll never start a game with additional energy like in Rogue Legacy. But you’ll get better and make it more years every time, because you’re no longer running into everything to create its journal entry, you’ll stop accidentally picking up fire (as it turns out, that burns you!) and you’ll take it seriously when the game warns you that otherwise docile creatures get perturbed when thrown.


All of this brutal puzzling goodness is wrapped up in the now-trademark Spry Fox visual style, first seen in Triple Town. Everything is cartoony, and people are certainly cute, but it works here despite the somber tone. I believe that the village is in danger, I know to stay away from the wolf and I really want to save all of the children. I don’t know if I’ll ever complete all 15 years, but I’m going to keep trying, and that’s how I know that Road Not Taken succeeds. I’m bad at it, but I love it and I want to keep playing it, and when I fail, I have no one to blame but myself. I’m not stuck on level three; I’m stuck on acting brashly and choosing the wrong trinkets. I’m stuck on wanting to rescue everybody instead of surviving one more year to save even more kids. I’m stuck on wanting to fix this world and help this village.

Pros: Beautiful aesthetic, well-realized theme, simple mechanics used to solve complex puzzles
Cons: Occasional technical hiccups

Score: 5/5

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