Road Not Taken is a deceptively difficult puzzle game

Don’t let the cute and whimsical art fool you. Road Not Taken, the forthcoming game from developers Spry Fox, is a challenging game with nuanced gameplay. I had the chance to check out the game before its summer release, as well as talk to the developers about some of the ideas behind the game.

Default player

Gameplay

“How hard can it be?” I said to myself as I played Road Not Taken for the first time. On the surface, the game looks like a simple 2D tile-based puzzle game. Thirty seconds later, I died for the first of many times during the hour-long demo.

The goal of the game is to rescue kids that are lost in the woods by returning them to their mothers. Gamplay in Road Not Taken consists of picking up people or objects, and tossing them in the direction you’re facing. Combine different objects like rocks or trees to unlock parts of a level.

Road Not Taken mother gif

You have a finite amount of “energy” which you need to conserve to beat the game. Simple things like holding and moving an object cost energy, but tossing objects doesn’t. You’ll rely heavily on this mechanic to solve the game’s puzzles. Run out of energy, and you die.

But Road Not Taken is not quite that simple. It gets infinitely more complex, with different types of objects reacting in different ways. Take, for example, the stone that changes color every time you toss it, or the unique crafting system that lets you combine objects to create new ones.

Road Not Taken pooping goat

Throughout the game, I encountered various creatures, but it’s really up to the player to find out if the creatures are friends or foes. There are ravenous raccoons, giant spiders, and a even pooping goat. Each character reacts differently, and you’ll have to discover if they can help you, or if its better to get rid of them.

The combination of combat and difficult puzzles means that you’ll die often, but death doesn’t stop the game from being fun.

The big picture

The basis of the game seems simple, but the concept behind it seems to tie back to real life scenarios not traditionally experienced in games. Where exactly did the idea come from? I talked with Spry Fox’s Chief Creative Officer Daniel Cook and Chief Executive Officer David Edry to get a better idea.

“We found a cool little puzzle mechanic and I started thinking about some of the stuff that was going on in my life. ‘Wait, I’m not doing what I should be doing with my life. I’m doing this game thing but I’m supposed to be raising a family. But we don’t have kids!’ I thought, how I could apply some of those themes to this little puzzle game. And so the weird merging of those two ideas turned into Road Not Taken,” says Cook.

Given that it’s a puzzle game, the story of Road Not Taken is deeper than I expected. The world is filled with interesting characters and mysterious objects. When you bump into an object, you learn more about it. When you encounter a new enemy or object, you’ll unlock more info about it in your journal.

“I expect most people won’t end up reading the journal, but it’s there if you want to explore,” says Edery.

On top of that, there aren’t many cutscenes that take you out of the gameplay, which is how games traditionally present a story. Instead, Spry Fox chose to sprinkle bits of the story throughout the game rather than beating players over the head with it.

Road Not Taken spiders

Relationships with non-playable characters are another interesting factor that have an impact on gameplay. In the short demo I played, I chose to share my rice, coins, and blueberries with a few townspeople. In return, some gave me gifts. Unfortunately, gifts aren’t always readily accepted; if you give someone something they don’t like, they will react negatively to you.

In fact, you can even fall in love and marry someone within the game. Or it could go terribly wrong, just like in reality.

“It’s actually a horrible thing when you’re building up a relationship with somebody and they say ‘You know what? I actually fell in love with this other person and I don’t think I’m going to be with you anymore.’ So there’s all these interesting outcomes that can happen as you’re building up these relationships with the characters.”

Something else you typically don’t experience in games, Road Not Taken makes you live with your mistakes. Should you build up more relationships, or save your resources for the battles ahead? It’s up to you, but you’ll have to live with your choices.

“It’s about the experiences that you have going through life and looking back on those and saying, ‘These were good, despite being different than what other people had, but these were good,’” says Cook.

Because your character has a 15 year life-span, again, like real life, you’ll have to choose what you accomplish before you die.

Road Not Taken creatures

Much anticipation

It’s odd that Road Not Taken isn’t launching on mobile, but I can see it working perfectly on an iPad. Mobile is still a possibility, but Spry Fox wants to gauge user reaction first.

“It’s just that [the PlayStation and desktop gaming] communities seemed to be excited about it. Sony reached out to us immediately and said ‘This trailer is gorgeous, we’d love to have this on the PS4′ which, honestly, was a pleasant surprise. We had no idea they would have that reaction,” says Edery.

Road Not Taken will be released simultaneously on PlayStation 4, Vita (but may be delayed), Mac, and PC sometime this summer. The game is expected to cost around $15 but that can change as the game readies for release.

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