The Road Not Taken, from developer Spry Fox, is an inventive little rogue-like game in which the player takes on the role of a Ranger who has come to inhabit a small frontier town where absent-minded children are constantly wandering off into the forest. The player’s job is to delve into the dark woodlands and retrieve said children by reuniting them with their parents (who have followed them in). In a world with all the lovely hand-drawn visuals and quaint music we’ve come to expect from indie darlings the player forms relationships with the townsfolk between adventures, giving them goodies such as berries, rabbits or coins obtained through their adventures to progress their subplots and obtain equipment to aid in future quests. Each adventure features different inhabitants in the town, randomly generated levels, and results in a novel plot for every playthrough.
I really do respect all that The Road Not Taken tries to do. There is a certain poetry to the adventure- a solemnity to the task of retrieving the children in the midst of a biting tundra, a small joy in seeing children reunited with their families despite all the horrors of the world that the player alone must face. And that interactions with the world result in the unveiling of secrets that carry over through playthroughs (giving the player a successively better idea of what they’re getting into) really gives a sense of progress in terms of knowledge despite the setback of frequent death which is the hallmark of the genre. The plot is simple, but moody, and variable though consistent in theme, a fact that strikes me as an example of expert storytelling in the medium.
However, despite all the praise I can heap on its abstract, artistic successes, I find that the game itself is, for me, simply no fun. The main mechanic of TRNT is throwing; the player picks up items in the grid-based map of a given scene (the levels are divided into square rooms littered with interactive items) and tosses it directly away from themselves. This can be done to move obstacles blocking one’s path, or if a specific item is tossed at another that it can interact with then a new item may be created (throwing an axe at a tree, for example, will turn the tree into lumber), which may provide the player or a benefit or be used for further combinations. The idea is creative, certainly a cut above most of the genre, but in execution it simply isn’t fun.
I like roguelikes. I’ve wasted obscene amounts of time on FTL, Rogue Legacy, The Binding of Isaac, Spelunky and others, but I never really felt frustration until I played TRNT. In the aforementioned games death can come swiftly, annihilating hours of careful playing through a misplaced jump or dodge.
Not so in TRNT. Here death comes after hours of confused shuffling of items in frustrating arrangements whereby it can take painstaking trial and error to move a single beehive across one map so as to unlock the path to the next scene. I found myself wanting to quit the game frequently and restart after digging myself into a hole, but lacking even a restart button my frustration could only mount until I took my character around the map slamming them into every dangerous critter I could find.
My judgment of TRNT is personal, and as I’ve said I respect what it does. I just can’t say I find it at all fun. For me the game is a frustration of the worst type – not the frustration of Dark Souls or Spelunky, which I can find some humor in with the suddenness of its cruelty, but rather a grinding boredom of adjustment and readjustment with no real satisfaction to be found. I hope all the kids make it home, I hope there’s an interesting story waiting to be found if you can uncover all (and there are many) the secrets the game has to offer, but I just don’t find myself engaged enough to explore the myriad plots all the way through.
Take this road if you're ready for a frustrating trip
Road Not Taken is an imaginative, interestingly constructed game whose frustrating gameplay will alienate many players.