Road Not Taken Review: Puzzling Down Diverging Roads

Road Not Taken is a gorgeous little matching-style puzzler, but its cartoony visuals and simple gameplay hide something darker and more mysterious.

I’m still not sure what, precisely, that mystery is.

I’ve rescued children from the dark and frosty woods of Road Not Taken. I’ve met townspeople and gained their affections. I’ve married, gathered trinkets, discovered evil forces and matched a lot of objects together. I’ve died and died again.

Through it all, Road Not Taken continually drove me forward; forays into its dark, maze-like forests can be addictive in the best way puzzlers can be, and I was always hoping to discover more of its secrets. It’s disappointing, then, that I feel even now there are things I’m missing. There are ghosts in those forests about whom I never learned anything. I formed relationships with people and others, I’m told, were jealous of me — but I’m not quite sure why. There may yet be a road not taken in the woods somewhere, but I’m unsure I ever found it.

It is equally true to say I enjoyed being lost in Road Not Taken’s rogue-like puzzler world, and that it perhaps promised more than it delivered. But as far as novel puzzle titles go, it’s certainly a world within which it’s worth getting lost.

Road Not Taken
Platform: PC (Reviewed), Mac, Playstation 4, PS Vita
Developer: Spry Fox
Publisher: Spry Fox
Release Date: August 4, 2014
MSRP: $14.99
Available: Steam

If pressed to describe Road Not Taken in a quick and easy categorization, “roguelike” would probably be the best way, with “puzzler” taking a back seat. Players take on the role of the ranger, a character whose life was saved by a magic staff and who thus must repay the debt with 15 years of service in a small village. That service: rescue local children who get lost in the woods each winter.

To do that, you’ll enter the dark forest each year, which is a series of rooms reminiscent of old Legend of Zelda locations from the Nintendo Entertainment System days. Each room is a procedurally generated grid filled with objects, and your staff gives you the ability to pick up (most of) those objects and throw them away from yourself. To open paths to new rooms, you’ll often have to match several like objects together somewhere in the room, or even drag objects from other rooms.

The goal is always to find kids, often trapped in various rooms, and throw them to their waiting parents, who are also out in the woods with you. Like rocks, trees, bushes and other elements, they stand around, waiting for your kinetic interaction to improve their predicament. Once you save half the kids in each level, you’re free to leave, and often the decision is governed by a trade-off between better rewards and positioning yourself well for the next year.

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