Release Date: August 5, 2014Platforms: PS4, PC (reviewed), MacDeveloper: Spry FoxPublisher: Spry FoxGenre: Puzzle
Even several years after its release, I’m still trying to overcome my hopeless addiction to Spry Fox’s Triple Town, the strategic match-three game with all of those funny looking bears (and ninja bears, of course). Now Spry Fox has taken the matching fundamentals of Triple Town and expanded them for the PlayStation 4 and PC/Mac crowd with Road Not Taken, a challenging and unexpected direction for the casual indie game developer. The biggest change here is the game’s presentation as a full-fledged adventure, effectively rendering it a puzzle roguelike and playing as a cross between Triple Town and games like The Binding of Isaac. That might seem like a strange comparison to make, but it’s one that actually works in this context, and one that will inevitably get its hold on you all the same.
In Road Not Taken, you play as a mysterious hooded ranger who arrives in town to rescue lost children in the woods every winter. Each level in the game constitutes a single year in your 15-year career before you’re allowed to retire and pass the torch onto another ranger. You would think after all this time the parents would be better about letting their kids go off in the woods alone, but I guess that’s neither here nor there. Nevertheless, there is something deeper here that’s running through the wintry veins of this game, as your ranger is constantly haunted by the fleeting visions of a ghostly apparition. The dialogue is rich with ethereal musings about life and our existence, and the gorgeous visuals are a sweeping and upgraded version of the cartoony presentation we saw in Triple Town.
The mechanics of movement in Road Not Taken are fairly simple at first glance, but quickly ramp up in difficulty the further you progress in your ranger career. Each screen is divvied up by a grid of squares, with exits onto other screens located at the edges. You move you ranger up, down, left, or right according to this grid. To move other environmental objects around you, you’ll need to press the action button while standing next to them, and then press it again to throw the object in the direction you are facing. You can also carry the objects with you instead of throwing them, if the space is available, but be warned that this exertion will cost you a precious point of energy for each over encumbered step that you take. It’s tough work rescuing children all the time, and if you end up losing all of that stored energy, you’ll have to start your entire career over from the beginning.
On each screen, you’ll typically need to maneuver the environmental objects so that a set number of them are adjacent in order for a door to open onto the next screen. You’ll also need to use those same maneuvering skills to put each child next to a parent in the woods in order to rescue them. And if you horribly box yourself into a corner, you can teleport back to the mayor at the start of the level to try again from a different angle. You can also part with some of your earned resources at special shrines that act as checkpoints should you fall victim to the wilderness. The game functions very similarly to The Binding of Isaac in this way, as starting over from the beginning for multiple playthroughs becomes the routine before you’ll even get good enough to complete your first full career.
But the real genius of Road Not Taken is how certain objects can be combined to form new ones, a sharp evolution of the simple matchmaking system that made Triple Town so addicting. For instance, matching two logs together will reward you with fire, which enables you to move all objects on that screen without the cost of energy. If you don’t have logs, you can always make your own by combining an axe with a withered tree. Each time you stumble on one of these matches, you’ll unlock the accompanying entry in your book of secrets for future reference. It’s a system that gives the game a wonderful sense of depth, and there’s an extremely rewarding quality in unlocking new secrets as you play.
Of course, not all objects or matches in Road Not Taken are there to help you, as you’ll soon find the woods are filled with all kinds of hazards that can cause your energy to plummet real fast. Friendly raccoons can turn rabid in an instant, angry bees can emerge from those beehives you just matched, and evil spirits will be lying in wait at every turn. Some screens are so snowy and treacherous that you’ll lose energy with every step you take, even when you’re not carrying an object along with you! Oh yeah, and those adorable bears that became the face of Triple Town make a pleasant return here, and they’re just as wonderfully frustrating at impeding your progress as they always were. What’s more, the randomized nature of each year and every career ensures that no two games are ever the same, and can boost that replay value exponentially.
As you progress through your 15-year ranger career by rescuing more and more children, you’ll begin to unlock additional perks that can make the going a little easier. You can carry various charms with you during each rescue, which can increase your available energy and more, and even ban selected objects from ever appearing out in the wilderness. Another crucial component outside of the actual puzzle gameplay is forming friendships with people in town. This is usually done by trading various resources with them to solidify that bond (like the bunnies, berries, and rice you’ll earn from rescuing children), which can then reward you with new charms or reveal a few secret matching recipes at no extra charge.
In truth, however, many of the puzzle setups can feel very obtuse: especially the ones that are designed by their nature to box you in and force you to teleport out. I also wish there was a simpler way to start your career over from the beginning if you sense that things aren’t going so well. Road Not Taken is certainly not as accessible as its spiritual predecessor Triple Town, and the steep learning curve and unrelenting difficulty might be off-putting to some. But once you start building up your reserve of secrets and get a better handle on all of the matching nuances of the gameplay (like how you can throw objects into previous screens to give yourself some breathing room), then the game definitely escalates into that “addictive” status that has become synonymous with Spry Fox releases. And what more can you really ask for in this thing we call life?