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A ‘Road’ that crosses genres

‘Beguiling” is such a cheap word. It’s how you might describe an indie movie you didn’t understand at all to impress your date afterward. And yet, in trying to sort through my thoughts about “Road Not Taken,” a recently released game by Spry Fox that’s available for PC, Mac, and PlayStation 4, it’s the one word that keeps traveling through my head.

In “Road Not Taken,” you play a traveler who looks a lot like one of the Jawas from “Star Wars” — cloak, glowing eyes — that’s just arrived at a wintry village whose children have a habit of wandering into the wilderness and getting lost. Winter after winter, you have to rescue them. The better job that you do and the more stuff (berries, copper, etc.) you acquire (to then give away), the more the villagers will like you, which yields all sorts of benefits and goodies.

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The game has a top-down view, and you travel from screen to screen, trying to figure out how to get to the trapped kids. There are all sorts of different creatures and objects along the way, and to succeed you have to learn how they act and interact with other objects. Your main power, contained in the staff you are carrying, is the ability to lift just about anything next to you, carry it (often at a cost of the energy points that are keeping you alive), and hurl it away.

A big part of the game is understanding how to use this mechanic to your benefit. For example: Usually you have to carry a child to get him back to a parent (you can return kids to any available parents you find hanging out in the wilderness). But if you build a fire by placing two pieces of wood next to each other, and then put a child next to that fire (don’t try this in real life), the child suddenly becomes a “precocious child” who will automatically follow you, which makes the effort a lot easier. Other combinations are a bit more intuitive: String together a few beehives, and they’ll yield some delicious, potentially life-saving honey.

There’s a lot of this kind of thing, a lot of figuring out how a fun, weird world works. We frequently talk about games that blend genres, but what’s going on here is some sort of genre pileup or genre explosion. The game’s a little bit “Zelda” in a strict aesthetic sense, a little bit of a role-playing game. It’s a lot “roguelike,” since you have to go all the way back to the beginning when you die and because there are so many recipes to learn, and a lot puzzle, because of all those vexing attempts to line up two or more (often uncooperative) objects next to each other.

This genre-splosion could have gone poorly, but Spry Fox made the slow-discover process (newly discovered items, creatures, and recipes are stored in an encyclopedia of sorts) enjoyable. It doesn’t take long for you to figure out better, more efficient ways to get to the kids. I could see completionists becoming obsessed with running through these levels as smoothly as possible.

It’s also a really pretty game. The village, its denizens, and the surrounding wilderness all have lots of visual flourishes reminiscent of European folklore (at least to my untrained eye). As you would expect in a story about rescuing children from the elements and mythical creatures, the “Road Not Taken” is pretty whimsical, and it does a wonderful job of establishing a sense of place. It’s a fun, extremely creative — and, yes, beguiling — game.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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