Thanks to games like FTL: Faster Than Light and The Binding of Isaac, roguelikes are now more prominent in recent releases. Some examples that have come out this year are Abyss Odyssey and the dancepad dungeon crawler Crypt of the NecroDancer. The roguelike express is not bound to stop anytime soon, and here’s another one for the road.
Road Not Taken is a roguelike puzzle game developed by Spry Fox that was shown back in E3 2014. That description should be enough to give gamers an idea on how different it is from most other puzzle games. Most puzzle games tend to go with level-per-level progression, like with MouseCraft and Pushmo World, but this one aims to give a different experience every time you play. There are still levels, but they’re not the same every single time for a change.
When you look at it, you’d think that everything is safe and dandy with the cutesy visuals and character designs. You play a character that roughly looks like the Black Mage from the original Final Fantasy with a hood, and everything around you has a quiet winter wonderland look to it. The story is also with its own charm that may pull you in. But once you do get into the gameplay, you may be taken aback by its depth and challenge if you’re very much unprepared for it.
There’s an energy counter on the top left of the screen, and moving the hero doesn’t spend energy at all. But when you pick something up and move, or throw whatever is around you outward with magic, that does cost energy. So you move stuff out to find and open up new paths, and your goal is to find all the children in the area. That has its own counter on the top left, and filling it up is what you need to complete that level. The roguelike mechanic in the gameplay means that the locations are different each time you play through this game.
You encounter various elements that will come between you and the children that you must save. This is where your power to interact with and move everything comes in handy, as long as you have energy to spare. You can pick up one of something and combine it with something else, like a flame spirit into two other flame spirits. These combinations yield other things that can help you get past obstacles to rescue the children. For instance, three flame spirits combined gives you an axe, which you can use to chop trees down.
These combinations are listed in the Book of Secrets, which has information on just about everything you’ll encounter throughout your child-saving quest that can be unlocked as you go along. Being able to find the combos that can solve whatever problem there may be in the current area makes for a rewarding experience. There’s a sense of discovery with every secret unlocked and every problem solved, as if there’s a puzzle crafting mechanic to it that makes gameplay interesting.
Each level ends with a gorgeous and artistic cutscene that progresses the story, and then you get a score screen of sorts that says you have how many years left until “retirement”. That’s basically how many levels you have left to go, and it also says that 40% of the energy you have left will carry over the the next level, or year in this case. You want to be as energy-efficient as possible with each year so that you don’t run out in the next one. Perhaps that’s where problems start coming in for this game though.
It must be said that once you start getting used to it, much of the sense of wonderment starts to slow down. By the time you have plenty of secrets unlocked, you don’t really have much incentive left to fool around since you wouldn’t want to spend your energy on what could end up being useless. This forces you into a goal-oriented type of play wherein you just do what works best every single time and complete the levels. If you run out of energy in the middle of the level, it’s all over and you have to go back to the start.
Roguelikes have the ever-present problem of usually being very difficult, which turns off most casual gamers. But for those who appreciate this kind of gameplay, even in a puzzle game like this, then you’ll find it to be a pretty good game that has a good bit of replay value due to each game being different whenever you play. Just know that once you get it going, you’ll have to walk the straight and narrow to finish it.
Tested in PC. Final Score: 7/10