Review: Röki

22 Jul 2020

There are lots of ways to do adventure games badly, but there are also lots of ways to do them right. Sometimes, it’s as simple as giving you a set of problems where the protagonist simply can’t overcome them with obvious physical force – such as, say, the protagonist being an average young girl who is definitely not any sort of martial expert.

That isn’t the only trick Röki has in its wheelhouse, of course. In fact, Röki manages to pull off a ridiculously effective balancing act across a wide spectrum of different design points. Far from feeling light on gameplay or puzzles, it’s a remarkably seductive adventure that carries the feel of being curled up with a familiar story and getting to see it play out in unfamiliar ways.

Röki launches on July 23rd on PC via both Steam and The Steam version was played for this review.

The Raven is Silent

I was impressed by Röki pretty early… because it managed to depict some of my own childhood trauma in a way that feels neither exploitative nor romantic. And it does it subtly, immediately, and clearly.

Our protagonist and our immediate point of view character is Tove, a young girl whose father, Henrik, has sank into depression and unavailability following the death of his wife. Tove’s younger brother, Lars, still needs parental attention… but Tove has slipped into the role of being a functional adult despite her youth. And while this early setup is brief in many ways, it’s also… honest in a way you don’t expect to see often.

It’s very clear that Tove is too young to be a mother to her younger brother and a caretaker to her father. It’s also very clear that she also needs parental attention that Henrik isn’t providing. But… at the same time, it’s clear that Henrik doesn’t resent his children. He’s shut down from grief and neither he nor Tove have the tools to breach that gap of understanding. Tove is knee-deep in ongoing trauma, but it feels just like life to her, and she hasn’t really processed that in any fashion.

The game would be a heavy trip if that were the core of the story, of course, but it isn’t… or at least, not directly. Things happen, and before long Tove is stuck in a world fully of mystical creatures out of Scandanavian lore and myth as she tries to find Lars. It’s a realm of monsters, but it’s also a realm that is… primarily lonesome, not dangerous. This is not her place, but none of the monsters are particularly interested in threatening her.

As such, the danger is generally not about overcoming threats (though there are threats) but about working through the logic of the world around her. Tove establishes herself as someone willing to solve puzzles and explore, to try new things, and with a hearty respect for the mythical creatures she encounters.

Which isn’t to say that family trauma ever moves into the background. Indeed, this is the game’s delicate balancing act, and one it pulls off with aplomb. Tove is trying to find her brother and rescue him from immediate danger; at the same time, she is also dealing with a broken home and how it broke down, and even how her own actions have contributed to that breakdown. That’s a difficult road to walk, and it requires a lot of subtlety and care in storytelling.

Fortunately, Röki has exactly that. Tove, Lars, and even Henrik all get a clear picture of where they are, how much they have possibly harmed their own relationships, and what can be done about it. It’s a story about the way that our loved ones can hurt us and how we can hurt them, but even more than that it’s about how we recover from that harm. Accepting our roles in said harm and healing it, and compromising, and embracing what needs to be changed.

And it is also a story about helping out trolls and tomtes and strange spirits of the forest. Which definitely earns it bonus marks.

The Bear is Alone

So the story is good. But what about the gameplay? At its core, Röki looks like a point-and-click adventure game, and that would be the broadest description of what it is. But in actual play, the game it reminded me of the most was actually Braid.

Some of that is down to tone; both of the games have a gentle and welcoming feel to them through art, sound, and general setting. But even more than that is the sense that in both games, you’re facing an escalating series of puzzles that are slowly laid out to you but require you to simply pay attention to information you have. Sure, sometimes that information might not be immediately obvious, but you always have it.

I’m also reminded of Braid because the game’s mechanics steadily ramp up. In the earliest stages the puzzles you have to solve are all single-room “use item on thing,” but as the game expands you have more multi-stage puzzles to clear and eventually you find yourself shifting between multiple states of being in order to solve some puzzles.

And yet at the simplest level, it really is just as simple as “drag object from your inventory onto an object in the world.” That is the extent of your interactions. It’s a very straightforward and low-key interaction, but it’s a key to the game’s elegance that so much manages to hinge on even these simple mechanics.

The game is also substantially helped by excellent in-game guidance. Tove’s journal contains not just entries about every single location you can visit, but hints and reminders about important things happening in locations, items you may need, and what your overall goals might be. Especially in the very open-ended middle section of the game, it helps ensure you can take on challenges as you see fit without fear of getting lost along the way.

Heck, at one particular point I was a little bit stuck… until I remembered that there were, like, people in the world to talk with. A few conversations and the problem was solved. You get so used to these puzzle games treating everything like an obstacle to overcome, and then using a bit of actual logic instead of “the game wants me to use items” logic solves things easily.

Even at my most stuck points, though, it always felt like the solution was there. Heck, I never found myself stuck for very long. That’s not to say none of the puzzles were ever difficult, but all of them were fundamentally based upon playing along with the logic of the game world and made sense based on readily available information.

The drag-and-drop interface wasn’t even a problem considering that the whole thing defaulted to using my controller instead of just mouse-and-keyboard. That alone is a mark in its favor. And since many items have multiple uses, they feel like there’s an extra bit of narrative heft; when I finally lost access to one particularly useful item I felt an actual sense of loss, even though the game never made me feel as if I would be locked out of progress as a result.

So yes, it’s a drag-and-drop item puzzler, but it manages to handle even that somewhat slight genre convention with aplomb.

The Stag is Blinded

This game is a visual treat, top to bottom. You can’t see it as well in the screenshots, but during most of the game you have freedom to roam across the map and explore, with everything in a stark not-quite-cel-shaded style that looks utterly gorgeous. Character designs and animations are distinct and fun, and everything manages to feel like a storybook illustration simply by virtue of being so obviously itself.

Music, meanwhile, is quiet and moody in ways that enhance every moment of gameplay. Very few parts of the game are silent, but all of them are soft mood pieces that feel so subtle that they could almost be part of the scenery. That’s not a bad thing, though; it means that the game knows exactly how it’s supposed to be played and matches the emotion to the setting.

Even better is the voice acting. The game is not fully voiced; in fact, most of the voices just consist of a few grunts for tone. Tove gets the most voice clips, and aside from her little vocal sounds gets a few tones for important names like Lars. But the voices are astonishingly well-done. Yes, all that she’s technically doing is saying “Lars” in a sad voice, but it manages to capture exactly the feel of a young girl scared for her brother and trying to find him.

It is here, unfortunately, that we do have to cover a couple of things that do drag down the game as a whole. The first is that there are some technical issues with the title; I had at least one game-destroying bug that forced me to restart from the beginning that didn’t even seem to be based on my actions, unfortunately. Some of this is due to the earlier-than-launch build I played, and the developers are still squashing bugs; hopefully this one will already be squashed by the time you play it.

That doesn’t change the fact that it still has weirdness like having no borderless windowed option or even a basic windowed option, required me to set my language and resolution every time I started the game up, and so forth. It’s a good game, but there’s some technical jank there.

It is also… well, brief. Yes, the middle portion of the game is big and sprawling and you can take on the challenges there in multiple orders, but only to a certain extent. This is not a game overburdened with abundant replay value beyond the simple reassurance of getting back into its charm. That’s not a huge flaw, but if you’re expecting to sink 20+ hours into the game… well, don’t.

The Wolf Remains Home

On one level, just looking at Röki makes it look like a slight and stylish thing, fun to see and experience but not blessed with any particular degree of depth. This is incorrect. Röki is definitely fun to see and experience, yes, but it also has a surprising degree of narrative crunch and mechanical depth to engage with as you navigate the game’s puzzles.

Indeed, part of my joy at playing the game was not just its own virtues but the way in which it evoked the best memories of old graphical adventures. No, it didn’t play like any of them, but picking up objects and combining them in unusual ways as I searched room to room brought back memories of the time before walkthroughs online, when everything felt like trial and error.

But the game never felt like it was an exercise in arbitrary brute-force or anything of the sort. The word I keep using and keep coming back to is welcoming. This is a game that feels welcoming, inviting you to explore and try new things and stop back in for a carefully told and lovingly crafted narrative.

If you really can’t stand puzzle games like this, then Röki is not going to be what changes your mind… but I definitely encourage you to take a look at it. This one will use your time in a rewarding way. And I had a blast with it.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Game provided by Polygon Treehouse for PC. Screenshots both taken by review and courtesy of Polygon Treehouse.