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Road Not Taken has lots of things I like: Queer relationships, ambiguously gendered protagonists, randomly generated challenges and characters, spooky-cute hauntings, and adorable kids with animal ear hoods. Unfortunately, none of these things can save it from its single great flaw: It gets kind of boring.
Road Not Taken is, at its core, a puzzle game about throwing objects next to each other. This simple fact dictates almost every single interaction the game has to offer: Want to cut down a tree? Throw an axe into a tree. Want to get honey from a beehive? Throw three of them together. Want to beat the game? Throw those kids next their moms. The mechanic is simple and intuitive, and while different objects in the game may have different behaviors, at the end of the day the solutions to all of the game’s puzzles always boil down to some combination of “Throw that thing over there.” The difficulty comes from a demand to be efficient: The game has an energy meter that goes down whenever you carry an object without throwing it, get bitten, or pick up something too heavy. Leftover energy after a stage gives you bonus energy on the following stage, and if you run out of energy you start the game over. Between stages, you are taken back to a town-like area where you have a selection of randomly-generated characters who will love and marry you if you give them enough rice, or bunnies, or money, or whatever that character happens to like.
It’s fun at first, but like a song you’ve heard too many times on the radio it you start to hate it after a while. Eventually I just said “No” and started throwing all objects aside in a series of inefficient solutions to the puzzles just so I could speed the game up, but when I arrived at the end of the game the ending was probably the biggest anti-climax I could think of: Early on in the game you are informed that you have fifteen years to live, and after the final level on year fifteen your character just dies. No dramatic tension, no resolution to the subplot with the spooky ghost girl haunting the woods, you just die. There’s a funeral, the NPC’s cry around your grave, and the game restarts.
Before I decided to beat it, the game was excellent. The cute art style, witty writing, and humorous interactions between ingame objects contributes to a very laid back and friendly feel. The feel-good premise of rescuing kids is kind of pleasant, the non-violent solutions to puzzles can feel witty, and the game just in general gives a very familiar feeling. This is a game about human relationships, and in that respect it’s a breath of fresh air.
After you snap, you’ll want to do anything other than play it. Every time you walk through a room you’ll see the same set of objects and sigh, thinking “Oh not this shit again”. Every time you’ll get to town and feed your fiance a sack of relationship tokens, you’ll think “Hurry up and love me!”, and every time you finish the game you’ll think “Why am I doing this…?” The game just ends up feeling pointless and all the cute kids in the world won’t save it.
Ultimately the game’s rogue-like elements conflict with its real appeal: In rogue-like games, when your character dies you simply roll up a new one and try again. In a game ostensibly about human relationships, dying and starting over constantly feels fruitless and pointless, leading to a “groundhog day” sensation. If Road Not Taken were a tragedy, this could be a brilliant design decision to inflict a sense of hopelessness on the player. Here, however, it’s just frustrating.