Grid-based game goes from witty to wicked

Jon Mercer
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Road Not Taken
PS4, PC

“Roguelike” is one of those gaming buzzwords that pops up every now and again, setting up shop on the tips of smaller developer tongues for a few months or so.

Spry Fox’s new release “Road Not Taken” starts out well enough but then turns into a bit of a gaming hangnail. — Submitted photo

Drawing inspiration from primitive (and extremely difficult) dungeon crawlers from the very early 1980s, these titles at their best balance short and focused campaigns with fits of agonizing challenge to keep fans coming back for more.

Using careful grid-based movements, and measured risk vs. reward mechanics,  developer Spry Fox’s “Road Not Taken” is aiming to ensnare gamers with its fresh take on the über-taxing genre.

Missing children

Every year, increasingly brutal winters descend upon a village of hardy, but desperate folks. And every year, like clockwork, children from the village venture into a winding, pitiless forest in search of food to replace the village’s eve- dwindling supply. When these children go missing, it is up to a hooded, Jawa-like Ranger to follow them into the cold, unforgiving woods and bring these wayward youngsters home to their families.

The game mechanics in  “Road Not Taken” seem simple enough. The Ranger is given a finite amount of stamina points he can use to locate a certain number of lost children in each randomly generated stage (the game features 15 forests for each playthrough, one for each passing winter).

The Ranger is free to move around without his stamina dropping, but if he lifts an object and begins to carry it, the points drop with every piece of grid he steps on. The game quickly turns into a devious little puzzler where players must figure out the best way to lift and toss objects around to maximize conservation of their precious stamina points.

The ultimate goal is to carry or lead the lost children to their respective mother, or to the beginning of the stage.

If all of this sounds a little too direct, Spry Fox has made its own mark by giving players an assortment of items to use and combine (by tossing together onto a square, of course) for different effects.

For example, a pair of logs can be used to start a fire. The fire’s warmth can help the Ranger move about and carry obstacles or children without draining his stamina on that immediate screen. It can also inspire the kids to follow the Ranger, giving a brief respite.

There are also meals to replenish stamina, deterrents to keep the vicious forest predators from attacking, and much more. It’s a great wrinkle that keeps gamers guessing as to not only what the next move could be, but what it should be to minimize losses

Additional items and bonuses are accrued back in the village in between stages (years) by gifting things found in the forest to different denizens.

Warm look

Despite the bleakness of its setting, “Road Not Taken” is home to warm visuals, coupled with very inviting art design. Just about everything in game is the same flavour of adorable that lives as stickers in the notebooks of eight-year-old girls worldwide. The fancy-free soundtrack is a tasty icing on the graphical cake.

Sadly, its only about a third of the way into “Road Not Taken” when the freshness gives way to formula, and compromises are made to artificially boost the difficulty. The game's challenge ceases being about clever management of inventory, and becomes more about having every screen stuffed with every manner of obstacles until a single wrong move spells instant doom. And given that “Road Not Taken” uses a “permadeath” system (one life, no saves), it makes these deaths feel even more unjustified. No, I’m sorry — not unjustified; cheap.

“Road Not Taken” should have been a nice little game to get us all through the dry stretch at the end of the summer. But even at a $15 price point (and free for PSN Plus members all through August), I was struggling to find reasons to keep playing. It’s not just the difficulty, but rather the cruelty and laziness of the bigger bulk of the game.

Truly challenging puzzle games take a cool-headed approach to design, and Spry Fox, after a brilliant opening gambit, trades in wit for wickedness.

Bit by bit, the levels grow less fun, until eventually it’s like a gaming hangnail. The game has got artistic merit to spare (even if naming it after a Robert Frost poem is the very spirit of superficial), but to see this unhewn path through to the end will take a super-sized portion of patience to go along with those brains.

Platform: PlayStation 4, PC, Mac (PS4 version reviewed)

Developer: Spry Fox

Publisher: Spry Fox

Release Date: Aug. 5, 2014

Rated: E for Everyone

Email Jon Mercer at thejonmercer@gmail.com.

Organizations: PSN Plus

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