Road Not Taken Preview: Puzzling Ghosts of the Past

Can a match-three puzzle game be unsettling?

In the case of Road Not Taken, the answer is a definitive, if ghostly, “Yes.”

Developer Spry Fox’s puzzler carries a bright and cheery art style the belies its furtive, frightening nature. As a ranger, a cloaked character with a mystical staff that gives you the ability to levitate and throw objects, it’s your job to venture out into the forests surrounding your small town each winter to rescue lost children.

To do that, you’ll need to manipulate objects like trees and rocks around grid-like clearings, making way to reunite children with their parents. The mechanics and art will remind mobile fans of Triple Town, a similar game in which players had to continually match objects together in sequence, in an attempt to get as high up the chain as possible.

But despite its cartoonish style, the town seems to have its share of strange secrets — not the least of which being the question of why children are sent into the woods to gather much-sought-after berries each season, when it’s common knowledge among the villagers that many will never make it back.

The oppressive woods themselves are an unforgiving place, full of spirits and specters. Occasionally the ghostly apparition of a child that went unsaved at some past point flits about the screen. With those ghosts come more questions: what are these haunted woods, and what has happened within them?

Even Road Not Taken’s many puzzles, randomized in a rogue-like way each time you step into the forest, offer more mysteries. Strange stones and statues are as plentiful as the creatures that live there, and players have to open paths through the puzzles by tossing objects around the grid. Doors to other sections of the forest are often blocked by magical barriers that can only be cleared by matching up a certain number of specific objects together, so the mechanic works like other match-three puzzlers, such as Bejeweled.

You’ll learn a little about the world from interacting with these objects, but the information is always cryptic and strange. Even as you start to understand how Road Not Taken works, things remain opaque in the early levels, or “years,” of the experience.

The longer you work in the forests, the more information you’ll uncover about what you can do there. At its simplest, matching certain objects together can open doors, but you’ll also discover recipes that create other objects to help you (or harm you) on your way. Combine wood logs and you can build a fire; throw ghosts into strange arcane fire pits and create potions. Haphazardly place too many of the wrong kind of spirits together, and you’ll create angry demons that chase and attack you.

Everything you do is governed by an energy level that serves as both your health and your ability to move things, and when it runs out, you die. Objects can be picked up and tossed for free, but if you move them while you’re levitating them, you’ll expend energy. Stepping on spirits, getting burned by fire, or braving winter storms also costs energy as you search for lost children, so you’ll also need to find recipes that combine to make strength-restoring foods.

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