Every year, just as the winter starts to kill off the last of the year’s berries, children head out into the forest in a final attempt to boost food stores. Some of the little ones never come back, which seems to panic the parents a little too much considering that they let them go off and do it every year regardless. This is where you come in: as a Ranger, you’ll go into the forest, outwit witches and wolves, and save as many children as you possibly can.
Road Not Taken is a rougelike puzzle game that pits you against a fairy tale environment loaded with magical flowers, violent racoons, walking houses, and pig statues. There are fifteen randomly generated stages, each representing another year of terrible parenting, and you’ll need your wits about you if you hope to save everybody and leave the forest alive.
All of this sounds like hard work, so it’s a good thing that your Ranger powers let you pick up things to fling without any effort at all. Carrying objects without throwing them is harder and will cost you energy, which is something that you’ll need to conserve if you plan to make it out alive. Run out of gas, and you’ll die cold and alone, like the many spirits that you’ll encounter while going about your business.
The gameplay is simple: get the children to an adult as best as you can while conserving energy and avoiding the various dangers of being a Ranger. Sometimes this will mean dragging snotty nosed kids across multiple screens, or simply getting them to one of the parents deep in the forest. As soon as you’ve rescued half of the missing children, you can leave without punishment – although only if you’re happy abandoning those that you’ve left behind.
Each screen is filled with a variety of different items that you’ll need to interact with. Some of them are dangerous, while others only become a threat when you mess with them – and others can even move heavy rocks or slide behind enemies. It’s the way in which these things relate to you and one another that makes the game so challenging, especially as you progress through the years and more difficult hazards begin to get in the way.
Much like in Don’t Starve, the key to success here is merging two or more items together to create something better; two logs will start a fire, meaning that you’ll be able to carry things without losing any energy, while three bee hives will create a pot of honey which will increase your life. These combinations can be negative as well: bringing together three of the wrong spirits will create a big black ghost that will finish you off before you’ve even had time to consider an escape.
It’s not as simple as learning your combinations and avoiding dangers, though. Pathways to other parts of the level are blocked off and will remain that way until you can string together several of the same item. This turns the forest into an area-by-area puzzle in which you’ll not only have to avoid certain obstacles, but learn how to effectively deal with them. It’s frustrating at times, but also quite fun.
Finishing a year and rescuing a decent amount of children will net you a reward – typically either some money or food. You can share this wealth with anyone that you come across, and form friendships (or even relationships) that’ll get you extra information, some cool rewards, or even a few little secrets. It’s a fairly lightweight system – give the man or woman of your dreams enough stuff and they’ll come and live at your house – but it’s a nice addition that adds an element of variety to an otherwise quite samey experience.
Graphically, the game works quite well, too, and is extremely stylised in a way that suits the tone. There’s a disappointing amount of slowdown when there’s a lot happening on the screen, which is an especially irritating problem considering that this is a two-dimensional PlayStation 4 game with no obvious hardware hogging background processes. It doesn’t happen often enough for you to need to worry about it, but that just makes the occasions where the framerate plummets all the more obvious.
Trophies consist almost fully of Bronze trinkets, and you’ll get most of them over and done with during a single playthrough. There are a few challenging ones in the game, but unless you’re committed to 100 per cent completing the title, then you’ll ask yourself whether it’s worth going that extra mile for such a low-level reward.
In fact, playing through a full career – 15 years – will be enough to satiate most people’s interest in the title. This is a fun little game – while it lasts – and it’s nice to have something to stretch your brain power occasionally instead of your muscle memory, but there’s not much in the way of replayability, even with the randomly generated levels.
As this is an indie title closely aligned with Sony’s PlayStation Plus programme, Road Not Taken has its work cut out right from the very start of its arduous journey. Taken on its own merits, however, it offers an enjoyable ride for the five to ten hours that it lasts. Niggling performance issues aside, it’s hard not to enjoy being the star of your very own fairy tale world – even if that fictional realm has a particularly odd approach to infant safety.