Times are tough, and everyone is struggling to obtain food in the winter. So children go running into the forest to try to find food, but always end up lying in the fetal position, waiting to be saved and returned to their mothers. Our character, a wanderer who becomes the town’s savior, begins to rescue the children in the forest in a game of incredibly difficult and unforgiving puzzles in Spry Fox LLC’s Road Not Taken, released 5 August 2014.

Road Not Taken screenshot

The forest is cut into sections, as you can see in the picture above. Each of those squares are tiles on which stands a character or an object. The basic powers you, as the brown-hooded figure in the lower left-hand corner, have are the ability to pick up objects with magic and carry them away—which costs you one point of energy from the blue flames in the top left for each step—and to send the objects or people you pick up flying off in the direction relative from you. Most objects and people are sent as far as they can before they hit another object or wall. Using these two basic moves, you wander around the forest sections and attempt to move all the children to either a mother you see along the way, or back to the beginning, where the town’s mayor awaits your return.

Something which was immediately apparent was my need to balance carrying things with throwing them. In the easier levels, you have more than enough energy to carry some and throw a lot. But as the career continues, the game gets harder and less forgiving; I had a spider eat a kid, right in front of me. I actually jaw-dropped and left the room. The horror! Forgive me; I can be a tad emotional when it comes to large arachnids consuming small, frightened children. Anyway, the balance struck between carrying and throwing quickly became a mystery to me. I simply spent hours trying to just figure out how to rescue a single child. Very quickly, the puzzles became too complex for me. I had to bring in help (my elder brother, mostly) just to solve some of the forests. I think the ramp in difficulty was too quick, but that could be my lack of puzzle-solving skills beginning to cause problems. Regardless, accessibility in a puzzle game is key to keeping a large playerbase; it’s why all other genres have difficulty settings. I would definitely caution some people against playing this game if I know they are not wicked smart. (I’m not, and that’s why I began struggling so much around Level 5).

Something that is simply odd is the presentation of this game: it’s marvelous, but contradicting. The graphics are sharp but cute and well-rounded; the characters and environment work together to present you with the effective illusion of a cold winter, but one that is fun. The music adds to the eerie atmosphere. The animations are smooth are adorable yet purposeful. The variety of elements you will interact with are stunning—from charms you can store and equip, to the various objects and animals and people you find in the forest and in the town, everything feels very well-oiled and enjoyable. And my problem with all this is that they all contradict themselves. Some elements come off as cheesy, others as eerie, others as fun; all of them are thrown at you at the same time, and sorting through this jumble turns what could be a unique game into a sort of hodge-podge of conflicting visual/aural appearances. Don’t get me wrong; the art is great, the sound is great, but there are elements that simply shouldn’t be mixing here, or at least not all at the same time.

Road Not Taken cuteness
Look at how cute these mothers and children are!

 

Road Not Taken acquaintances
There’s some true bonding in this game.

Yes, there are other animals and people. In an interesting, unexpected, Sims-like mechanic, you can befriend people in Road Not Taken, like how I am now getting quite deep with MAYA? You becomes friends with people by, mostly, giving them some of the rewards you enjoy from completing levels, be it rice, berries, gold, rabbits or medicine. If you do this repeatedly, you can build rapport with certain people. I, personally, am courting Flora quite intensely. Yeah, she get’s every rabbit I come across. You know…wipes dirt off shoulder…it’s just how I do. Anyway, these encounters almost always result in an exchange of gifts; I gave Aya some rice, and she gave me two charms to keep. I gave Flora a bunny and I was given four secrets in return. It pays to be friendly! It’s a nice twist to add to a puzzle game, one among many ingenious elements. And later on, the relationships get even more deep. But that’s for you to explore. Every animal and object you encounter has special properties you need to learn: spirits hurt you, fires cook raw food, bunnies are “decent replacements for children” (slightly-paraphrased quote from the mayor), some animals follow and attack you, etc. This last one frustrated me a lot and caused me to rage numerous times; the animals following you distract you from the puzzle, from even the environment, with their incessant following you. Some animals move randomly, such as the ninja bears. After forty minutes, I wanted nothing better than to send them to the campfire and roast them on spits. Their only purpose is to block you every few steps. That’s it. I know that the irritation is caused intentionally, but I think Spry Fox went overboard here.

As you progress, you discover and collect secrets, another very smart mechanic. The objects in the forest aren’t just there to look cute or to block you from moving…they can also be combined. To use the highly-overused term, you can, essentially, craft items in the forest by knocking certain combinations of objects into each other. You learn to make these from secrets, some of which come from characters, others from signs, and still more from accidental discovery (such as accidentally crafting things, or bumping into objects). In this way, the number of possible solutions increases incredibly. And if there’s something I love in games, it’s the ability to solve problems in your own way. These secrets and crafting elements give a lovely new flavor to the puzzler-at-heart of Road Not Taken and compose an amazing way to refresh a long-lost genre of game.

Bugs. Oh my goodness, bugs. My save was reset three times during my playthrough. Some animals inexplicably sent me to random sections of forest. Sometimes my screen turned black and wouldn’t fix itself (while showing the rest of Windows with no trouble).

So that’s Road Not Taken. The brutal, unforgiving puzzle game laced with evil animals and bewitching adorableness, all of which are scattered among a conflicted atmosphere. If you’ve got the wits to keep up, and stay ahead, of the not-always-effective complexity and don’t mind the scattered attempts to elicit emotional responses, then give this Road Not Taken ago. Otherwise, give it a pass; the frustration is simply not worth it.

 

Gameplay: With a combination of legimate challenge and cheap frustration, Road Not Taken can’t seem to play fairly. Intriguing, clever mechanics keep the gameplay fresh and addictive. Still, it’s only for the very sharp players.

Graphics/Sound: Road Not Taken sometimes just cannot get every actor on the same page with its assortment of on-screen moods at the same time; however, everything is just so darn cute and well-done that I can’t take off a ton of points.

Technical elements: Frequent bugs and save erasure, as confirmed on forums across the Internet and by my own very frustrating experiences. Buyer beware.

3.5/5

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