- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2014

A rogue ranger embarks on a multiyear mission to save children in the confounding adventure Road Not Taken (Spry Fox, rated Everyone, reviewed with PlayStation 4, $14.99).

Within a cartoony, hand-drawn world, our robed hero, a compacted cross between a Jawa and He-Man’s buddy Orko, stumbles upon a village chronically plagued by snowstorms. The weather events blow the town’s youngsters into the wilds requiring a brave adventurer to rescue each and return them to a portly mother.

With this odd and foreboding premise, what follows is a methodical series of strategic maneuvers mixing puzzles with just a bit of role-playing elements.

Spread over a span of 15 years (akin to levels), our hero goes from a village hub into gridded areas (looking a bit like a traditional chess or checkers board) where he moves on squares and must use his magical staff to levitate and either push or move objects, humans or creatures adjacent to him (above, below or to his sides).

A player can position items in rows to unlock other areas, bump objects with surprising results, craft new items and move a child into a square near a parent to be taken home.

The strategy comes in place as the ranger arrives with a set amount of energy points and loses them from moving objects (no penalty for throwing an object) and being attacked by creatures hanging out near him. He also can only move when he has objects in tow (grabbed in unison) onto unoccupied squares for the entire group.

Thankfully, he can combine objects on the board to help the ranger replenish energy points. For example, three beehives (avoid bee stings from angry inhabitants) will create a honeypot to eat and gain back points, or pushing logs together will create a fire to enlighten and thaw an area, reducing the object moving penalty.

Additionally, as a player bumps into objects, he unlocks a huge collection of formulas (collected in a book of 200 secrets) that show him what items to combine to help conquer scenarios quests such as three fire spirits can transform into an axe to cut down trees, or mix a fire spirit with a cute rabbit to produce a demon bunny that eats the living and turns them into gold.

To increasingly complicate matters, the game adds role-playing elements in the town. A player converses with citizens, builds an attraction with some of the females (eventually marrying one by offering her the right combination of stuff), trades resources and even can store items in a house to use on missions.

However, despite the cartoony elements of the game, it becomes pure hell, as well as slightly morally depressing, as a player plunges into the latter years.

By the time he succeeds past a handful of rescues, he finds areas overwhelmingly loading with creatures and objects. The mess can quickly ruin any strategy as bumping or moving the wrong object can easily create a scenario where it’s near impossible to rescue all of the children.

Although, the village mayor is happy with less than perfect results and will toss gold coins and energy the ranger’s way, I felt pretty bad stranding a toddler in a dangerous forest.

Difficulty further increases with puzzles never repeating the same design. Go back to an area and take a deep breath: It’s a new layout of objects. That’s an awesome concept in theory until the player gets stuck over and over again in this snowy purgatory.

Even more pain arrives knowing that dying means starting back at the beginning of the game. An option does occasionally exist through using shrines to save but dying still costs the hero all of his accumulated goodies.

However, my grumblings are exactly what kept me coming back for more sessions as the game’s addictive puzzle quality never bored. Road Not Taken is easily worth dozens of hours of time to find all of the secrets and appreciate the minute detail of interactions created by the developers for the player to discover.

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