The rise of the roguelike has introduced gamers to incredible experiences like Spelunky, Rogue Legacy and Dungeons of Dredmor. The best games in this burgeoning genre heavily randomize many game elements to keep things fresh even on the tenth or twentieth playthrough, giving some indie games legs that rival even those of giant, AAA RPGs. Road Not Taken from developer Spry Fox is the latest in a long line of games to throw its hat into the roguelike ring, and at first blush there’s a lot to love about this charming romp in the woods. However, the repetition inherent in roguelikes soon reveals the game’s fatal flaw: there just isn’t enough variety in the game to make those repeated playthroughs anything but tedious.
Road Not Taken makes a charming first impression with its gorgeous artwork and wonderfully sparse, atmospheric soundtrack. As the game opens, you’ll be escorted by a mysterious boatman to a remote town caught in the icy clutches of a harsh winter. Upon arriving, you’ll find that the town’s children have gotten themselves lost in the forest on a berry hunt. The town mayor will grant you the title of Ranger and send you into the forest after the children, and thus your residency in town will begin. The cartoonish visuals and ambient sounds of the forest go a long way towards making your first steps in the game memorable.
After you’ve proven yourself in a quick tutorial level, you’ll emerge from the forest to find the mayor beaming with joy. After a short conversation, he’ll hand you a key to your very own house, which just so happens to be conveniently located on the fringe of the woods. Enter the house and a sleeping cat will leap from a side room and stick to you like glue. In a funny little introductory sequence, you’ll find that the only way to get rid of the cat is to use the game’s throwing mechanic to toss it back into the other room.
Your house consists of four rooms and a basement, and it’ll look awfully sparse when you first enter. The basement will be locked, too, giving the sense that you might be expanding your home throughout the game in the style of Animal Crossing. Leave your home and you’ll find the town’s seven inhabitants eager to speak with you. A creepy doctor will sell you medicines to delay incurable diseases, and the boatman will make idle conversation about the storm. Four of the town’s inhabitants will trade items with you, and by trading the proper items in return you can develop friendships, relationships and even marriages with the NPCs. It’s a system that seems awfully promising in the opening hour of the game.
That promise turns to tedium as the game slogs on and you begin to discover how little variety there truly is in any of the game’s core mechanics. Developing relationships with NPCs never evolves beyond trading the items highlighted in green and avoiding those highlighted in red. You’ll never have to read a character’s personality and make judgement calls based on your assessment, because the game does all the thinking for you. The home management component is similarly superficial. You will occasionally expand your home by collecting keys, but the house itself serves as nothing more than an interactive display case for all of the collectibles you've grabbed from the NPCs. Character interactions do change, but in such minor ways that you'll barely notice.
The shallow nature of the town content wouldn’t be an issue if the game itself wasn’t so repetitive. Because your Ranger can’t actually hold any items, the core gameplay revolves around hovering items with your magical staff and tossing them around the game’s self-contained rooms. The direction in which you throw an item is determined by the direction from which you approached it, so if you want to toss a rock to the left, for example, you’ll have to approach it from the right. You can move while hovering an item, but doing so will drain your health, so you’ll want to toss items as often as you can. Most of the time, the only way to progress to the next room is to stack like items next to one another. One room, for example, might ask you to put three trees next to each other, while another might ask you to stack six rocks together.
Rooms can get pretty devious as the game winds on, and many will require backtracking to an older room, hovering an item back into the next room and tossing it somewhere to complete a puzzle. Hovering items drains health, though, and dangerous beasts wander the forests, so in traditional roguelike style you’ll find yourself restarting the game numerous times. When you do, you’ll face the exact same introductory sequence you saw the first time. The boatman will ferry you to town, the mayor will introduce himself, you’ll play through the first tutorial area and return to town, at which point the mayor will hand you the key to your house. Enter the house, and you’ll be forced to watch the cat attack you before you toss it into the next room again. The NPCs will all be the same as they were before, and that goes for their dialogue and their item preferences, too. Now picture playing through that sequence every single time you die just to get back into the core gameplay loop.
All of the repetition highlights flaws in the game that would be minor if they weren’t repeatedly flaunted in your face by the game’s structure. The throwing controls that comprise the core of the gameplay aren’t very precise, for example, and when you pick up one item, you’ll also pick up all other items that happen to be bordering your character. That means that when you’re trying to move items, your movement will often be restricted, and when you throw items, you’ll often toss other items haphazardly across the level too. Rooms get crowded, and there’s often no way to move one item without tossing two other items off course. It can be occasionally be thrilling to unravel the secrets of a tough room, but it can also be frustrating when you're barely afforded any breathing room.
These frustrations extend to the crafting system. There’s no inventory, so you’ll have to throw items into one another to combine them. Due to the aforementioned room crowding issue, and aided by the fact that the game doesn’t tell you about most combos before you create them, you may sometimes find yourself crafting items by accident. Given that certain combos can all but ruin a run for you, this can also be frustrating. One time, for example, I inadvertently created a demonic rabbit right in front of the child I was supposed to rescue. The rabbit would teleport me out of the area each time it saw me, so I couldn’t approach the child to save her, forcing me to leave the area without completing all of my objectives.
The final nail in Road Not Taken’s coffin is the lack of variety in rooms. Like Rogue Legacy, Road Not Taken uses dungeons composed of pre-made rooms compiled in random order, giving the illusion that dungeons are randomly generated. But while Rogue Legacy uses hundreds upon hundreds of different rooms to ensure that each playthrough is fresh, Road Not Taken started repeating rooms for me on my second playthrough. There were some rooms that I saw every single time I started a new game, and that’s just not okay in a game that asks you to start from scratch so many times.
Road Not Taken’s roguelike structure works against the rest of the game’s design and ultimately makes playing into a tedious, repetitive experience. On the surface there’s a lot to love in the game’s charming presentation, but repeated playthroughs reveal a failure to implement the variation and unpredictability that make rougelikes great.