A few blogger-friends kindly helped me with a post about the best games to play at Christmas last month. Several of the stories shared had a similar theme: we often tend to find ourselves returning to titles which invoke a sense of nostalgia at this time of year.
Although I chose The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) as my contribution for that post because it’s so easy for any gamer to pick up, this nostalgic feeling is always brought on for me by fairy-tales. Perhaps this explains why I’m drawn to games like Fable during the winter; the special mix of an important quest, battle between good and evil, and overcoming the odds to bring a loved-one back home. It’s these elements that made Röki by Polygon Treehouse the best release I managed to complete during the holidays.
I first heard about it in a post over on Rendermonkee back in January 2019, but the premise initially seemed a little too cutesy for my taste. My opinion changed however after trying part of the demo at EGX in October that same year where it became apparent there was a fascintating dark undertone to this fairy-tale that made me want to dig into it further. I’ve now had the chance to experience the full game for myself and can’t recommend it highly enough to fans of the adventure genre.
This take on Nordic folklore begins at the rustic home of Tove, a young girl who has become the primary carer for her small sibling Lars. After he wakes up during the middle of a cold night and urgently needs to use the outhouse, a dark force steals him away and takes him deep within the forest. It’s then up to our protagonist to confront her fears and face whatever is waiting for her in the shadows between the trees, so she can save her brother and reunite them with their father Hendrik.
Take all the usual annoyances with point-and-clicks – long conversation trees, pixel-hunting and trying every object with everything in your inventory – and forget about them. Röki avoids these traditional pitfalls in ways that make it feel like a modern adventure. For example, pressing the ‘F’ key will highlight every item you can interact with within each location; and a visit to the Tree of Many in the main section of the game will give you a hint to push you in the right direction if you’re feeling stuck.
In fact, it’s almost as if the developers have done so much to remove the frustrations experienced with traditional adventures that it has actually become somewhat more difficult to use a keyboard and mouse here. This is how I played but it’s not something I’d recommend because it’s clearly a release designed with consoles in mind. Although I managed to get through to the end of the game without too much difficulty, opting for a controller would have made for a much smoother experience.
The solutions to the puzzles encountered by Tove on her journey are all logical and at no point will you find yourself having to use an object in a way which doesn’t make sense. You’re given just enough challenge to entertain those grey-cells but not too much to make you want to turn away. The only minor negatives for me were having to backtrack across a large map occasionally (although there is a fast-travel method if you want to use it), and a puzzle which involved switching between characters (not something I usually enjoy).
Most challenges involve a series of steps. For example, at one point it’s necessary to get a flute from a troll; so you’ll need to create a tea which will make her doze off; but to do that you’ll need to find several plants first, along with a recipe. The best thing about them though is that they’re so cleverly intertwined in the story that they never come across as superfluous. This has the result of making Röki feel like one lovely, big puzzle even though it’s broken up into three smaller chapters.
Tove carries her notebook with her throughout her entire adventure and you can turn to this if you need a recap of the story so far. It also contains a useful map for those moments when you get a little lost within the many scenes and badges that stand in for achievements. Turn to the back and you’ll find the loot the protagonist has collected along the way: an origami wolf, a sharp talon and even dried troll snot. It’s a sweet reminder that this is a story experienced from a child’s perspective and everything is viewed with magic.
Being a tale based on folklore, you’ll encounter many fantastical creatures on your quest to rescue Lars (including tomte, gnome-like beings also known as ‘nisse’ which inspired the title for this review). The influence may be Scandinavian fairy-tales but they’re likely to feel familiar to players of all backgrounds. We came across characters who reminded us of movies such as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, and there’s something about the whole game which recalls the atmosphere of ICO and The Last Guardian.
In those titles mentioned there, it’s the protagonists who hold everything together and the same is true for Röki. Tove and Lars have gone through so much in their young lives but neither of them have truly dealt with their sorrow and this sense of loss surrounds their relationship. There’s a genuine love between them and Tove is devastated when her sibling is taken from her; the voice-acting may be minimal and reduced to individual words, but my heart broke a little more each time she said his name.
Their father Hendrik isn’t left out and his character is given space to grow through the narrative too. Themes of grief, fear and abandonment are woven so delicately into the story that what begins as a simple rescue mission turns into something far more profound. In helping the characters who inhabit the world around them, these three protagonists also manage to help themselves and by the end of the game, you witness a family who has suffered so much emotionally but come out stronger together on the other side.
If you’re looking for the magic of a fairy-tale this winter, do yourself a favour and spend around ten hours with Röki.