Road Not Taken appeared relatively out of nowhere. I hadn’t really heard much of this small, unique puzzler until it was announced to be a free game on Sony’s Playstation+ service, which seems to currently be the best way of introducing games exactly like this to the masses.
You play as a Ranger for a small town, and are given the task of rescuing young children from the snowy tundra to the right of the village. Each of the game’s 15 levels take place one year apart from eachother, and depending on how well you do one year dictates how easy or difficult the next will be. Aside from this, very little plot is given, with only a few cut scenes littered throughout. This lack of plot however allows you as the player to fill in the gaps. It’s certainly not a Dark Souls-esque style of narration, but is comparable nonetheless.
The main selling-point of Road Not Taken however, is clearly meant to be its gameplay. The game plays like a top-down puzzle, with the Ranger throwing objects in order to reunite the lost children with their worried parents. It initially reminded me of 2011’s The Binding of Isaac due to the top-down room-by-room structure of play and seemingly permanent death whenever you fail (which will be frequent), but this is where the similarities ended. Road Not Taken’s game world is littered with obstacles and enemies which are designed to prevent you from blazing through the game without any hassle, and although they certainly prove challenging when working out how to go about rescuing the children, the game often feels like more of an inconvenience than an engrossing experience. Pressing X (on Playstation 4) will allow you to pick up surrounding objects, and then pressing it again will throw them in a straight line. This is a concept which initially seems like it would make for some interesting puzzling, but other mechanics make this not the case. You are frequently limited by how many steps you are permitted to take due to an energy count which numbers the amount of movement you can make whilst carrying objects. This is designed to make you think carefully about you next move, but the perma-death introduced to make the game challenging causes this feature to seem more like an antagonising chore rather than an exciting twist. Initially, 15 levels for the entire game seems like an easy task, but when you are forced to repeat them from the beginning every time you die they quickly become tiresome.
Graphically, Road Not Taken is nothing short of superb. Although the game may feel slightly frustrating to play, it certainly isn’t anything but entertaining to look at. The cartoon graphics look like something out of a children’s book, but the slightly dark nature of rescuing children from their icy deaths is really successfully juxtaposed against this. Approaching a crying child and reading as he asks “Am I going to die here?” feels initially jarring when compared to the cutesy look of the game, but gives real purpose to your task, even if that task isn’t incredibly fun to carry out. Also, the rare but engaging cut scenes featured look like paintings in their own right, and are easily one of the highlights within the game. If anything, one of my biggest criticisms is that many more of these were not featured, as they definitely surpass the actual gaming segments.
In the end, Road Not Taken is a joy to look at, but not much else. Its interesting concept of rescuing children whilst solving movement puzzles is initially engrossing, but is soon dampened by the unfair and trivial difficulty. I’m no stranger to intensely challenging games, and have been a huge fan of the ‘rogue’ genre for a while, but the difficulty must at the very least feel justified. In a puzzle game such as this, the enjoyment of success is sadly squandered by the repeated attempts it takes to reach it.
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