Indie Wonderland: Road Not Taken

A few hours in

Yup, called it.

Sure enough, I intuited Road Not Taken‘s core gameplay loop alright enough. Every year you spend in the village corresponds to one ‘level’ of saving children from exposure death in the forest. Which sounds like a pretty sweet gig, to be honest: a year of stress-free living in trade for a day of risking your life in deep-frozen terror? And if you do well, you get to feel good about yourself for rescuing children, too.

If you do well, of course. It’s probably no surprise that Road Not Taken‘s levels get significantly harder over time. The first two or three years throw the kids on sparsely-populated boards, with easy opposition and simple puzzles to keep you busy. But later years can get really difficult, sometimes even impossibly so. And if you fail to rescue enough kids before your energy runs out…

A ranger staff is a promise of death delayed in exchange for good deeds. Which means that if you don’t do enough good deeds… well, the equation has to balance out *one* way or another.

What I didn’t intuit about Road Not Taken, though, is that in-between the ‘forest missions’ the town area plays host to what’s essentially a social link system. Remember those heart-and-progress-bar characters I could talk to earlier? Every year, before starting your mission of choice, you can talk to these characters again. That in and by itself doesn’t do much except further their characterization a little:

For instance: this dude’s family is wealthy. NOW YOU KNOW.

What you can also do, though, is give people gifts. Throughout playing Road Not Taken, you can run across items like berries, rice, bunnies, medicine, and copper pieces. And you can trade these items to social characters, furthering your relationship with them.

Different characters have different likes and dislikes. Can *you* intuit which items Eve here likes?

Befriending townsfolk gets you cool bonuses. Sometimes it’s as straightforward as ‘you start with X energy for your next mission’. Other times, they might grant you special trinkets. You can (initially) have two of these trinkets equipped when you go into the forest.

Their effects can be good, or bad, or both. And while some trinkets are pretty straightforward, like this one, others can *really* change up the gameplay rules.

Or maybe they’ll give you new items to ban. In the basement of your house, you can collect simulacra of objects and creatures you can — can — find in the forest. You can choose to ban up to two of those, in case you are — for example — really fed up with boars and their boary bullshit.

Hypothetically.

And secrets, of course, might be the most precious gift of all.

Then again, they might not be. I have no idea what value to assign to this.

You’re starting to see the shape of Road Not Taken, I think? At its core, this game is a procedural roguelike with a semi-persistent core. Like a more ephemeral Rogue Legacy, maybe. Every ‘year’, you are sent into a procedural-random-generated forest to rescue a random selection of children from a (partially) random selection of dangers. Do well, and you’re rewarded with trade items, trinkets, and knowledge. And energy, let’s not forget: you bring half of the energy you have left after a mission into the next one. So, by playing carefully and effectively, you slowly build a power and knowledge base to better tackle the later challenges. Which is necessary, because the forest stops playing nice before long as well…

I’ve played a few hours of Road Not Taken. My first ranger after four years, alone and abandoned in a strange forest they never really understood. My second ranger made it farther, partially by appreciating the survival value of just letting some of the kids in each level die. They survived for nine years, accumulating a vast array of items and tricks and forest knowledge. They even got married!

*And* they even *took their cloak off* at some point!

Then, after they died… they were resurrected, somehow? Except they were resurrected two years in the past? And it cost them some of their valuable items. And I think their spouse also fell out of love with them, somehow?

Listen: I honestly have no idea what really happened here.

Do I call my current ranger ‘ranger three’? Or are they still ranger two? Ranger two point five? I have no idea. I feel like they’re unmoored from the world, somehow. And with the loss of their good items… maybe I should just let this ranger pass on, and move on to ranger three proper. Start the whole game over again. Get a whole new set of colourful NPCs, and a whole new thirteen years of saving kids.

Or, maybe not. Maybe I’ll just stop playing this game entirely.

It was never going to get better than this anyway.

I… I’ve been trying to have fun with Road Not Taken. I really have. It’s quirky, and funny, and good-looking. And on the surface, its mechanical ideas are pretty interesting! But… the longer I played, the more those clever ideas started getting buried under an avalanche of random chance, strange design decisions, uncertainty, and frustrating nonsense.

Saving kids from the forest is the name of the game in Road Not Taken; you got that much, I hope? It’s all pretty simple early on: kids and parents are either in the same forest areas or really close together, and the magical stone doors with two threes, or three bushes — all of which you can find in the area itself. It’s a magical maze forest, sure, but it’s a convenient magical maze forest.

What’s more, you quickly learn that you don’t just get through the forest: you can actually make it work to your advantage. Putting objects and creatures together has more use than just opening plot doors. Three red spirits put together, for instance, turn into an axe! Then, if you put the axe next to any kind of tree, it turns that tree into kindling. And if you put two pieces of kindling together, you get a fire — which warms up the area you’re in, and reduces the energy cost of carrying items around on that board to zero.

Obviously be careful with a fire in a forest.

You can even pick up the fire and throw it around, if you don’t mind taking a little damage from handling actual fire. And this isn’t the only example of beneficial object interactions. Putting spirits next to magical wells produces potions of strength and potions of fear, beehives provide honey, throwing a raccoon into a fire makes it into raccoon stew…

And then there’s this family-friendly recipe.

Not all interactions are good, obviously. You do not want to throw a fire spirit into a bunny, trust me on this. But all the same, the early Road Not Taken levels carry a sense of exploration, and growing mastery over your environment. Slowly, but surely, you’re getting better at this whole forest rescue thing.

You can clearly see the game Road Not Taken wants to be at this point. The putting-things-together-to-make-better-things is very reminiscent of Triple Town; Road Not Taken, then, seems like it aims to be Triple Town re-imagined as an adventure. You build a possibility and power base by successfully rescuing children, and through socializing and experimentation, you slowly learn the secrets of the forest. This will make you better capable at countering the forest’s increasing threats — a sort of ranger-trees arms race, with the surviving children as the winners.

But over time, Road Not Taken starts upping the difficulty a little. First, the stone doors you encounter aren’t as easy to open anymore. They’ll start requiring you to put together three deer, for instance, or two bunnies — creatures which move around on their own accord whenever you do. Or they’ll still need three trees or three rocks, but there’s only two rocks on this particular part of the map. And you’ll have to get your third example from one or two or three boards over. If you didn’t already chop down that third tree to make a fire, that is. But generally, you can find a way into any field… if not from the left, then from the right. Or from the top. If those goddamn deer would just stand still for a second.

Next, some of the objects and creatures you start finding aren’t friendly or useful, or even neutral, but outright hostile. Wolves and angry bees chase you down. Placid raccoons are alright enough, but throw them around too much and they become angry raccoons — with a grudge for the ranger who manhandled them. Boars charge into you and knock you around. Creative spirits of fire and light bar your way, letting you create amazing items — but hurting you if you walk through them. Take too long in the forest, and they’ll become malicious dark spirits. And the bears…

The bears are just annoying is what they are. If you’ve played Triple Town, you know what to expect.

A little challenge in and by itself is obviously not a major problem. But while the more difficult doors feel like a natural progression of Road Not Taken‘s difficulty, the increasing focus on hostile creatures and energy-as-life-management feels… strange. I initially thought that the threat of this forest was supposed to be freezing winter, strange spirits, and a confusing pseudo-magical layout. Not ‘getting mauled by wolves’. Still, as a mechanical device to convey that the forest is dark and full of terrors, it works fine enough. I don’t much like it; it’s frustrating that you seem to have so little counterplay against these monsters, with even your axe only stunning them for a few moves. But that might just be me.

Some of the scenes are more effective than others.

But then Road Not Taken further ups the difficulty by just making the boards very busy.

Like so. Look at all this gunk.

Here’s a thing that I’m not sure came across about Road Not Taken: you don’t selectively grab items. When you hit Spacebar, you grab everything in the four cardinal directions next to you. Everything that can be grabbed, anyway. Like so:

‘Wooooooo… why did you graaaab meeeeee’

I wanted to get the red spirit somewhere, in that screenshot. Probably next to the other two. But grabbing it like this, I also grabbed one of the two dead trees that keep open the right door. Which means that if I move or throw now, I move or throw both of them. If I just want the spirit, I’ll have to find a way to border only it. And then zig-zag around a little to get it where it needs to be.

It’s… a choice, as far as mechanics go. Directed grabbing and throwing would probably have this game really very easy. On omni-grab adds a level of tactical planning: you need to think out what you’re going to get where, and how you’re going to grab it, and what you’re going to do with all those other things…

On open, sparsely populated maps, this works. It’s a little frustrating sometimes, but that’s more by-design frustration, I think. ‘Oh, damnit, I didn’t think of this.’ If you’re good at counting and planning, and lucky with the random factor of some of the moving critters, you can solve puzzles pretty handily. And if not, you can always burn more energy to circumlocutiously get your stuff where it needs to go.

But on dense, heavily clustered maps…

‘Alright. Time to see if I can figure out how to do absolutely anything.’

I’m trying not to be too down on this game for its particular choice of focus. Not everyone likes the same things I do, I get that. But the more I play, the more I feel like Road Not Taken‘s different systems are constantly countermanding each other. You need to carefully get things to places, but the maps keep getting more and cluttered and the grabbing system doesn’t let you do anything easily. You need to move fast to stop kids from freezing to death, but you also need to be careful and measured to make sure you don’t object-combine yourself into a corner. But also don’t take too long, or the game punishes you for it. You’re a Ranger with a magical staff and a journal of knowledge and insight, but the game never properly incentivizes you to do anything with that: recipes are presented but not contextualized, explanations are rarely given, and the core loop of ‘save children before your energy runs out’ doesn’t seem to reward time-and-energy-wasting experimentation anyway.

And, seriously: who thought those auto-charging boars were a fun idea? Did anyone? Because let me tell you: there’s nothing like feeding some wisps to a well out of curiosity, getting several angry boars as a result, and then continually being attacked and knocked around while you try to go about your business, to really make me feel like I’m having a good time.

And I haven’t even mentioned *these* contemptible assholes yet.

Final thoughts

Like I said, I got the sense that Road Not Taken wants to be Triple Town as an adventure. Make your way through a forest, combine objects in clever ways, save some children, yeah! But while early levels manage to provide that sort of feeling, later levels just… don’t. They become cluttered messes of objects you can’t move, enemies you can’t defeat, and puzzles you may or may not be able to solve. It’s no surprise, I think, that my second successful ranger would bail out of levels with half the children rescued more often than not.

Unless the random-feeling difficulty would do me a solid and throw me a level with, like, two children. Those were usually easy enough to clear ‘perfectly’.

Road Not Taken is an interesting idea, but I just don’t feel it works out. With the core roguelike gameplay growing more frustrating over time, there is very little that actually made me want to keep playing. Combining objects is a fun gimmick, but not when it never works and it feels like a waste of time when it does, anyway. And I do dig the interesting town characters that you can talk to, befriend, and even marry… it’s just that the mechanical benefits of that are always, by necessity, strictly geared towards the forest parts. More toys to bring, that don’t really feel like they change the experience much. More recipes that you’ll hardly ever make. Or a chance to ban one or two items, from the several dozen frustrating, flow-breaking entities that litter your otherwise cool and interesting forest.

Road Not Taken can be bought on Steam for fifteen dollars. I don’t know if I paid that amount for this game, or any amount at all, but… well, the art style and the ideas are worth supporting, at least. It’s not a bad game, just disappointing. So maybe keep an eye out for a sale or something, if this game looks at all interesting to you. As always, you just might have a much better time than I had.

In closing, it’d be remiss of me to not mention that the complete text to ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost is in this game.

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Jarenth often wishes he liked games more than he actually did. Share stories of disappointment in the comments, on Twitter, or on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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