Road Not Taken is one of those marvelously mysterious games where I just… have no idea where I got it from. Seriously, I couldn’t begin to tell you. A cursory search through my Gmail archive only suggests ‘Road Not Taken Seriously’ and ‘Road Not Taken King’, both of which I’m choosing to ignore. So where did it come from? Steam sale? Bundle? Gift from a friend? Developer key? Planetary alignment? It’s always been in my library, watching, waiting? Your guess is as good as mine.
What I do know is that Road Not Taken is a product from Spry Fox, otherwise well-known for games like Triple Town, Panda Poet, and (more recently) Alphabear. And given how many hours of my life I’ve put into Triple Town — more than I planned to, because that’s how it goes with these games — it’s safe to say that I like Spry Fox. And Road Not Taken‘s fancy art style appeals too, from what I’ve seen of it. Consequently, a game-launching link has been palling around on my desktop for months now, just waiting the right time to unleash its possibly hidden potential.
Let’s see if it actually does anything for me.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, medium-high.)
(Game source: Bought it myself, I… I think?)
Road Not Taken starts with a cutscene. Holy shit, an incredibly fancy cutscene. Just look at how goddamn fancy this looks:
Oh hey there, black-skinned, brown-robed, yellow-eyed fella! What are you doing walking through the snowy woods all alone?
Not having a good time of it, that’s for damn sure. The wind is howling, the snowfall is intense, and there’s nothing but white-out between the trees wherever you look. The figure shivers, grumbles. And then, all of a sudden, dark spirits from beyond attack!
The dark spirits force the robed figure to the ground, shivering in the snow, before darting off. Exhausted, frustrated, and cold, the figure briefly contemplates just closing their eyes…
…but hey, what’s that? There’s an unlit torch not far from where they’re lying. That’s… that’s weird. Why would there be a random torch out in the woods? Mystery and curiosity dispel cold and exhaustion, and they move to pick it up.
At which point it bursts into blue fire.
And just like that, by the light of the blue torch, the figure spots a boat and a boatman in the distance. A way out of this white-verdant nightmare. We’ll stop to think whatever this all means after a hot meal and a cold bed.
Smash cut to a loading screen.
“Nasty storm…” the boatman grumbles. “Some villagers were out harvesting berries. They didn’t make it back. They rarely do…”
Then an actual loading screen happens, and we find ourselves…
The boatman holds watch over his nice little dock, though I can’t see how he’s secured his boat in any way. The snowfall has lightened to the point where we’re no longer in immediate danger of hypothermia. A fenced-off path with a fancy light post starts to the right. And a distraught woman runs down that path, drops to the floor, and starts crying.
Time to see that this game’s options are like!
Dang. And here I wanted to avoid the obvious quest hook for a little bit longer.
“Use arrow keys to move,” the game says, and so I use the arrow keys to move. I’m the brown-robed figure, I want to say ‘obviously’, though I’d also have enjoyed Bearded Boatman’s Rescuing Adventures. Robe-me walks one set distance per button press; a distance that I now notice corresponds perfectly to the alternating coloured squares on the ground. Wow, this place is fancy.
I walk around for a little bit and bump into the boatman. This prompts us to start talking, just like it would in real life. “You were caught in the snow storm, too? My niece is still lost out there. Bah. She shoulda stuck to fishing.” Dude, your niece is lost in that forest? With this kind of weather? That’s awful!
The crying woman has a similar story. “A blizzard caught us while we were out picking winter berries. I was separated from my daughter… I’ve been looking for her for hours. I knew we’d both freeze to death if I didn’t find help!”
Wow. This is terrible! There are kids lost in that forest during a blizzard? Someone should try to help them! Someone needs to go out into that frozen hellscape and…
Ah. I see, suddenly. That someone is me, isn’t it.
Listen, lady, I’d love to help, I really would. But I don’t know what you’re expecting me to do! I almost froze to death myself out there. I’m just one brown-robed person of indeterminate shape and gender. With a fancy blue torch. I don’t have anything special going for me!
Here, I’ll show you what I mean. I walk down the path to the right, and bam. Trees block the way. And what do I do now? It’s not like I can somehow magic these trees out of the…
Yes, okay. This changes things. By walking up to objects and pressing Spacebar, I can use my apparently magical blue torch to lift them into the air. Press Spacebar again, and I launch them in the direction I’m facing.
I can do more than just pick up and throw stuff, though: I can actually carry items around. Because magic is cool like that. However, the torch’s energy isn’t infinite: picking up and throwing things is fine, but carting giant trees around drains my energy supply for each square I move.
Further down south, the path west is blocked by enormous stones. Too enormous for my torch to lift: try as I might, they won’t budge. But luckily, these stones obey other laws: I can dispel them to the underground by… putting two particular trees together.
In the western area, the blizzard rages fiercely! Here I lose energy not just from carrying items, but simply from walking around; the torch’s magic burns to keep me alive with every step. I find some handy-dandy rejuvenating apples to eat, here, but all the same I should probably bail as soon as I can.
And then! One area to the north — right underneath where I started, if my sense of direction hasn’t frozen over — I find the missing child. She’s huddled up on the ground, shivering. Close to freezing to death. She’d never be able to make it out on her own; partially because she’s too tired and exhausted to even move, but also because more finicky magic stones block the exit.
I reunite the kid and the mother, and the expense of draining almost all my own energy. Yes, I could probably just have chucked the kid all that way. But come on. Either way, the screen now fades to black…
…and opens back up on a fancy village.
I walk around the village, bumping into everyone and everything. A man with a nice green hat introduces himself as a funeral singer. A doctor with a white plague mask sells medicine that delays incurable diseases. A well-dressed man with glasses talks about the importance of the berries, providing for the whole village. A pink-haired archer woman tells me she doesn’t trust me. A blond woman selling flowers immediately starts talking about marriage. It’s an… eclectic bunch.
Some of the characters I bump into, like the singer and the flower woman, have progress bars and hearts over their heads. Others, like the mayor and the doctor, don’t. I don’t know what this means, but I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough.
For now, there are more immediate concerns. At the eastern edge of the village, a… jester, of sorts, hurriedly tells me there are more children missing in the woods. He carries a large #1 sign in his hands. Wow, I wonder what that could mean?
I walk into the forest to the east of the village. The corpulent mayor follows me, then blocks off the exit. No leaving until I find those children, huh? He talks about my torch for a bit; how it ‘looks like the strange staff their old ranger had’, and how that ranger used it to ‘teleport back home when he got stuck’.
I guess I’m this town’s new ranger now. Let’s go save some children!
I walk south. The forest here has trees, rocks, a signpost, and an enormous wolf. Oh, and some sort of ghost child.
“Bumping into things is a good way to learn secrets,” the sign reads, as I bump into it. Good suggestion, sign! I bump into one of the trees to try this out, and am rewarded with a giant blueberry for my troubles.
The next forest board is all beehives. Beehives dripping with tasty, tasty honey. And there’s also a parent and a kid stuck in-between them. The parent throws me a a book she found; perhaps, it suggests, “it has a secret that will get us out of this sticky mess?”
I mean, I was just planning on throwing around all those hives until I got the two of you out. But when I read the book, I learn that putting objects together has more uses than just opening magic-mandated rock doors. Three hives in close location, for instance, will transform — somehow — into a jar of delicious energy-boosting honey!
I quickly harvest the hives for their honey. One large, angry bee does emerge, buzzing angrily and stinging away some of my energy. But the honey keeps me alive, and when I throw the bee far enough away, it calms down. I then reunite the parent and child, for maximum good feelings.
The rest of the forest plays out as an extended tutorial on child-saving. I retrieve children from difficult-to-reach places and reunite them with parents. Doesn’t matter which ones, honestly; any child-parent combo is fine. I could even manually drag the children to the starting screen if I wanted to. Five children overall are lost, but — barring the occasional giant wolf bite — they’re not too difficult to extract.
The village is ecstatic at my rescue efforts, of course. The mayor himself hands me a large bundle of rice as payment. And since I don’t have anywhere to go, the village’s offer of ‘maybe you want to keep living with us for a little while longer’ is gladly accepted. That large locked house on the forest edge? My house now.
It’s a nice village, sure enough. And I’m sure there’s more good to do and children to save when winter rolls around again next year. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to learn a little more about the mysteries surrounding my arrival. How is it that I found this Ranger Staff when I did? Why were dark spirits attacking me earlier, and what caused them to stop? And what — what — is the deal with that ghost kid I saw?
For now, the tinkling water rolling off the blooming leaves heralds the arrival of spring. And there is no need for child-saving in a forest that doesn’t lure people in with the promise of life-extending winter berries. But I’ll be called upon again next year, I think, when greed and desperation once again lure children into the snow. Maybe that’ll even happen… next page?