Road Not Taken
Publisher Spry Fox Developer In-house Format PC (version tested), PS4 Release August 5
Amother weeps, a blizzard howls. A wolf paces across the path deeper into the forest. You’re exhausted, and there are still more children waiting to be saved. You know where they are, but you’ll die before getting to them. You give up. “Every year we lose a few,” says the town mayor, whose heirs you have sworn to find. “We’ll make more.”
Road Not Taken is about as grim a puzzle game as you’ll ever play. Every move of its Sokoban- like block pushing presses you closer to exhaustion. And you can never undo. Every choice is permanent. Your journey is filled with regret as you fudge the forest’s interconnected rooms of randomly generated puzzles. And your powers seem so slight: you can lift adjacent objects with a tap of X, then throw them away with another tap, or you can walk with them by expending energy. Use all your energy, and you restart from scratch.
Your first task is often to clear a way through a thicket of the game’s 200 different objects – sleeping racoons, flame sprites, trees, bears. You’ll also find yourself having to open the doors between the forest’s rooms, which are marked with various objects you must place next to each other: three conifers, seven rocks, eight open flowers. Sometimes the room won’t have enough of them, so you’ll need to throw them in from other rooms, illustrating the forest’s persistence.
Combinations of objects will often meld them into new ones, a little like they do in Triple Town, Spry Fox’s previous puzzle hit. Three flame spirits will combine into an axe, which combines with a tree to form a log. Two logs form a campfire, which will stop you using energy when carrying objects. Not that you know any of this when you start. Experimentation is key, each new combination or object filling an entry in your logbook. This Rogue-like element of Road Not Taken provides its backbone, your experience fuelling more successful runs in the future, and your logbook retaining all its entries.
Road Not Taken is an immensely clever game, rich in detail and complexity. But stumbling through its forests so often feels like failure, your energy levels dropping steadily as you scrape through the limit of finding half the children before you give up for the year and begin a new forest the next. Nothing is ever arbitrary, but the random layouts rarely provide elegant, authored solutions, and there are so many variables in play that mastery always feels far from your grasp.
For all its delightful art and writing, the cold logic in its Gordian design is unrelenting. Some will relish the challenge and invest the necessary time and thought to understand all its intricacies. For others, though, the forest’s winter will leave them snowblind.
If you collect them, you can stop certain objects from appearing in the forest – a useful way of avoiding irritants, such as the hawks that swoop down, take your energy and dump you in a random location