Life can take many unexpected turns; failure or success at a key moment can mean the difference between heartache and bliss. Road Not Taken is an action/puzzle adventure with heavy roguelike elements that explores that motif. Despite a few disappointing issues, the developers at Spry Fox have pieced together an artistic and absorbing experience that touches upon themes of love, loss, and, ultimately, hope.
Road Not Taken begins when you, a hooded ranger, push through a blizzard and catch a boat ride to a snowy village. Its population is scarce. A few lonely figures wander the streets, and you soon find the mayor waiting on the east end of town. He promises you a roof over your head, but in exchange, you must lead the search for children who have gone missing while attempting to harvest berries in the harsh elements. That means wandering through a randomly generated region filled with hostile wildlife and other objects that stand between you, the children, and their parents.
Gameplay is divided between two areas. In town, you talk to villagers and learn their stories. One person might come from a wealthy family, for instance, and money is his language. Another feels the ticking of her biological clock; she yearns for a future with a house and kids, but there's no guarantee she'll ever find it without your aid. As the wandering refugee, you engage with the characters, handing over coins, rice, berries, medicine, or rabbits you have obtained. In exchange, you learn more of a specific character's story and perhaps gain new information for your records, or a charm or temporary energy boost. Your relationship can grow to inspire love, envy, or even marriage.
When you're not busy turning strangers into friends, you wander a wasteland that resembles a dungeon in The Legend of Zelda. Your magical staff allows you to lift adjacent objects (up to four at a time, one on each connecting side) and carry them or hurl them outward. Each item you might heft behaves differently when it connects with the proper obstruction. Often, such items simply fall in place, but sometimes you match the proper items; two orange spirits and a blue well of fire turn into a life-restoring apple, for instance, and combining a couple of sticks produces a fire. As you experiment and talk with villagers, you learn about other useful combinations.
Not every match you make is beneficial, so you should think carefully before you lift anything. Once any objects are lifted, you can't simply set them down again. Instead, you must either throw or carry them. The latter activity drains your energy meter with each step you take, unless a cheery fire is burning nearby. You need to make sure you don't produce an unintended match, and you also must be careful not to throw something so that it lands near another object you have no interest in subsequently lifting. Mobility is also a factor, since you can't squeeze through tight spaces if you are toting around too much junk. The amount of planning this sometimes requires can be intimidating, especially in later areas.
Screens in a given region are usually blocked by obstructions that disappear only when you make a specific match, and sometimes the necessary ingredients aren't all on hand. In that case, you must backtrack and toss the desired item--a tree, or a block of ice, or skittish wildlife, or something else of that nature--through an opening. In other instances, you might stumble across a wolf surrounded by deer. The carnivore will eat the other animals if you don't act quickly, perhaps eliminating your opportunity to ever advance to adjoining screens.
Situations such as the one noted above pose a serious problem, because children are located at the far reaches of each randomly-generated area. If you let a bit of bad luck or poor planning prevent you from reaching too many such screens, or if you carelessly carry items too long that could instead be tossed, you won't be able to save enough missing youths to meet the mayor's quota. If you fail twice or if you run out of energy, your fifteen-year run is cut short and you must start fresh.
Frustratingly, you don't keep anything important from one cycle to another. Neighbors and wandering adventurers you meet in dungeons sometimes give you charms, and you can equip two at once by default. Those charms do helpful things like reducing the number of children you must find, or causing restorative items to have a greater impact. One particularly great charm adds 200 points to an energy meter that otherwise might hover near 60 or 90. If you fail to complete the cycle, though, you lose it and might not find another to replace it for several more cycles. You do at least retain the ability to "ban" a standard maximum of two objects from the wastelands by visiting your basement, but there are dozens of items to worry about, and the option to eliminate only a couple of them hardly matters. Charms are significantly more useful, so it stinks to always lose them.
Road Not Taken is a difficult adventure, one that suits its name perfectly. Though you will likely fail many times as you attempt to finally reach the end of a cycle, there is almost always something to lure you back. Maybe you had almost reached the end of one character's story, and you are dying to see how it concludes. Or perhaps you discovered a new technique or combination, and now you'd like to put it to proper use on a subsequent run. There is something novel to discover on nearly every run, and online leaderboards provide yet another reason to keep trying again.
Unfortunately, the game currently suffers from some irritating bugs. Patches may address that eventually, but right now crashes often happen at a rate of several times per cycle. You can even lose your save file in the event of a severe crash, which makes their frequency distressing, even though typically you resume on the exact screen where you last played. Combine the lack of stability with the occasional cheap combinations of randomly generated rooms (not to mention your inability to keep charms from one cycle to the next) and you're left with a punishing experience indeed.
On a brighter note, the art style is charming and even uses some familiar icons from Triple Town, a popular mobile game from the same developer. The sprites are expressive and vibrant, which allows the game to spin bleak stories without getting overly depressing. Music is atmospheric, with a lot of the chimes and bells that always seem to accompany wintry landscapes in film and games, accompanied by haunting gusts of wind and the faint sobs of distressed parents.
Road Not Taken is an ambitious endeavor, a substantial puzzle adventure with that special something that keeps you returning for yet another trek through the harsh wilds. It's sometimes too unforgiving for its own good, but the urge to travel along another path is difficult to resist.