Preview: Surviving the First Five Years in Road Not Taken

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By now you’re probably familiar with indie developer Spry Fox for the studio’s hit casual game Triple Town, which combined match-three puzzle mechanics with the strategy of a city building sim. Spry Fox’s next game, Road Not Taken, borrows Triple Town‘s adorable art and design approach of marrying casual puzzle matching with the gameplay of a genre typically viewed as being for more experienced gamers. In this case, object-matching puzzles collide with the harsh challenge of a rogue-like.

The objective of Road Not Taken is to guide a brave, lonely ranger, who actually looks more like a wizard, on a children-saving career that will end in retirement after 15 years pass, with each level/mission completed equating to a year in this timeline. I’ve been able to play an early preview build of the game on Steam, but for now I’m only able to share impressions through the first five years.

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Road Not Taken looks and acts just like a regular isometric rogue-like. As the heroic robed ranger dude, you venture into a snowy forest teeming with evil spirits and other critters, both tame and aggressive, on a mission to rescue the children of the village who were stranded by a snowstorm while out foraging for winter berries. The mission maps are laid out in grid-like fashion, with the ranger capable of moving up, down, left or right one square at a time while surrounding characters and creatures simultaneously move whenever the ranger takes a step. Each year consists of a randomly generated forest layout and a different number of lost children that need to be reunited with their parents. Taking certain actions and incurring damage drain the ranger’s energy, and if at any point he runs out of energy his current road to retirement ends and starts all over again from year one. Only half the children need to be rescued in order to proceed on a given level, but over the long haul it is crucial to rescue as many of them as possible and thoroughly search every area of the forest, because you will be able to collect items (some of which can be gifted to other villagers in order to develop relationships and earn special rewards), find charms to equip for various bonus effects, and earn additional energy which will carry over to the years ahead. Although, when some children are left out in the wild to die a frosty death, the village Mayor’s response is rather funny: “Every winter we lose a few. We’ll make more.”

The twist here is, of course, how the game uses puzzle solving as a replacement for traditional rogue-like combat. Instead of hacking and slashing through hordes of enemies and attempting to crawl through the dark depths of a dungeon without dying, in Road Not Taken you progress through the forest and overcome obstacles by magically lifting and throwing objects in order to match them into appropriate groupings. When the ranger is standing in the square next to an item, such as an animal, rock, flower, fellow villager or whatever, pressing the space bar lifts all adjacent objects into the air. There is no way to single out one thing to pick up when the ranger is next to multiple objects, and that’s where the brain teasing begins. Depending on the layout, the ranger can then walk around to carry items into position at the cost of energy drain with each step, or by pressing the space bar again he will throw the object (or objects) in a straight line opposite from his position without losing any energy. The basic use for this is to unlock barriers leading to other areas of the forest. Paths connecting one area to the next typically are blocked and must be opened by stacking the displayed number of like objects next to each other. For example, one door might need you to form a cluster of four pine trees. Or in another instance you may have to herd deer into a group of three. These matches can be created anywhere on the map and in any configuration, as long as they are all linked together.

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When matched together, certain items will form entirely new items and potentially new creatures or hazards that will make the journey more arduous. Three flame spirits forge an axe. Matching an axe next to a tree or other piece of foliage creates a log. Two logs build a campfire, which brightens the area and limits energy drain when carrying other objects. Throwing animals next to a campfire makes an energy-boosting food item (like a tasty bowl of raccoon stew). And so on and so forth. While exploring the forest it is important to bump into every object, even the harmful ones, to examine them and add their properties to a little journal menu which keeps track of object data, matching recipes and bestiary information. Obviously, this leads to some trial and error while learning how different object pairings react, which can make success or failure on certain missions seem frustratingly random–especially during the first few attempts when you’re still figuring things out. But, of course, that is the nature of rogue-likes.

Don’t be fooled by the cute appearance, this game puts forth a serious cerebral challenge that will bite you in the butt the second you don’t take it seriously. The first two to three years are pretty easy to clear without leaving any of the berry-picking kids out in the cold, but after a few attempts I have not been able to make it through years four or five with all children rescued. Matching the appropriate items without destroying key objects or blocking the exits to adjacent areas becomes a whole lot trickier than the game initially lets on. Careful attention of the environment and a keen awareness of how different objects will react when touching is required, because one wrong move can wreck an entire year, and likely your career moving forward, in the blink of an eye. I can’t even count the number of times I accidentally threw an axe next to a tree, leaving only two trees available when access to the next area required a match of three trees. Doh!

In my first half-decade heading down the Road Not Taken, I have already learned that this game is fun, funny, cute as a button yet devilishly difficult, and also very different from any other rogue-like hybrid (and there are a ton of them out there). Just surviving five years has already been tough. I can only imagine how much of a mental challenge it will be to make it through a full 15-year career when the full game drops, which isn’t too far off now as Road Not Taken is scheduled to launch August 5th on PC and PlayStation 4, followed by a portable Vita release later in the fall.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!