Road Not Taken is a roguelike puzzle game about surviving life’s surprises
. But life is so often content with stagnation and repetition, offering what seems the same grind over and over and over, soon only occasionally taunting with the glimmer of something new. But that’s just the way of things; everything new becomes old, in time. Eventually, new
just begins to run out. RNT follows a similar cycle; in the beginning, discovering all these new things and how you can change and adapt them to your uses is exciting and intoxicating. But soon enough, the new
is exhausted , and with it, the allure of the prospect of new discoveries waiting just behind each locked gate. RTN is profusely entertaining up until you realize this point has come, but even after then, its unique and challenging formula saves it for a time, despite other issues, both glaring and minute.
RNT plays off its theme of “life’s little mysteries” remarkably well in its gameplay. As the town’s new ranger, you’re tasked in each of your years with rescuing the children lost to the woods during each winter’s storm. To deliver them safely, you’ll have to guide each to any of the waiting mothers, wherever they may be, using your limited amount of energy in carrying the odds and ends populating each level. The greatest joy had in this game also provides its greatest challenge; the discovering of new items and creatures that can both greatly hinder or assist you in your search. There’s a surprising amount of variety in the number of ways things can interact, with many even able to change into new forms entirely, given the proper combination. You’ll quickly begin filling your travel book with all manner of creatures and their respective “recipes”. Eventually, puzzles that seemed impossible in the beginning are soon found to have only been so due to your own ignorance of some combination relevant to the situation.
But here’s the rub, and it’s one that eventually hinders all games of this sort. After a while, it’s very noticeable which pieces the game favors, and which ones have yet to appear more than once, if even that. There’s a handful of items and creatures that are exceptionally common, changing in relation to your years. In my playthroughs, those handfuls have been identical. The aforementioned variety in items and enemies becomes less so when the same few common assets are used ad nauseam, which is a shame, given the inventiveness of some of the lesser used pieces.
In between winters, your time is spent in the town you call home. Here, you can take your hard earned coins, rice, berries, etc, and trade them for townsfolk’s friendship, a la the story of Rainbow Fish
. In return, you may receive helpful recipes for your book, or even better, equip-able trinkets. Early earned trinkets’ perks are useful in smaller capacities, but the greater are earned through repeat visits. They, along with the tradeables found in the forest, make up the other half of the Roguelike formula, namely the part that you lose upon death. Make too many mistakes, resulting in zero energy or too few children saved, and all of these are lost. Given the time investment needed to get the better ones, I’ll admit to believing this a bit harsh, especially since death can often be the result of truly unfair elements brought on by the roguelike system, like unavoidable loss of children to enemies or rare, impassible gates due to poor default placement of pieces.
A point of contention for me lies here as well, particularly in the store page’s embellishment of a winding, twisting narrative, unique to each journey. The only narrative comes in the townsfolk, who remain constant, personalities and dialogue alike. Even their preferences in tradeables remains identical between playthoughs. The only change is that of color scheme, and which one is most willing to marry you, which becomes readily apparent early on. Despite store page promises of offering the opportunity to lead a unique life each playthrough, the character with obvious affection for you will always yield trinkets and info for fewer tradeables. There’s no reason to invest in anyone else.
Regardless of my issues with it (mostly with the not-so-random level randomization), RNT is tremendous fun, and it’s a unique challenge that I’m going to continue playing, if only to try and earn the remaining pages to my travel book. In retrospect, my biggest issues could easily be rectified with a few randomization patches, or better yet, a future DLC expansion. As it is, the journey slowly loses its luster more than several hours in, but it never loses its shine altogether. The combination of some amusingly humorous travel book entries, a charming art design and some legitimately unsettling sound work help to mask the budding feeling of familiarity on repeat journeys. I think what’s most disappointing is that despite the game’s want to emulate the unpredictability
of life, it has instead exemplified how easily it can fall into routine and predictability. While the initial few hours and playthrough are wholly the most entertaining, a lackluster attempt at differentiating narrative and the occasional sense of déjà vu on later playthroughs only slightly diminish an otherwise fantastic puzzle-rogue.