When CI Games announced their indie division United Label Games alongside four indie titles back in January 2019 I was excited by what I saw. All four titles, Röki, Eldest Souls, HORAE, and Tails of Iron, looked great, but none excited me as much as Röki – a dark fairy tale adventure inspired by Scandinavian folklore with a touching narrative and puzzles. On paper it sounds like Pan’s Labyrinth (my favourite film) the video game, but after going hands-on with the game’s short demo on Steam it plays like a 2D mix of Pan’s Labyrinth and emotional narrative adventure games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which has only increased my excitement for the game’s release.
Developed by Polygon Treehouse, whose founders consist of ex-Guerrilla Games artists Tom Jones and Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou, Röki tells the tale of Tove, a young girl who is looking for her missing brother Lars in the Scandinavian wilderness. Instantly the game’s art style sticks out – it’s a gorgeous snowcapped world full of detailed hand-drawn assets and contrasting colours. It’s an art style that feels a million miles away from Jones and Kanaris-Sotiriou’s work on the Killzone series, and one that works brilliantly with the game’s setting.
Tove will explore her surroundings to solve puzzles and learn more about the world and its inhabitants. During the demo, I was tasked with removing a thorn (sword) from a troll’s shoulder, beginning a sequence of exploration to find the tools required, which included searching a graveyard where Tove will discover a number of children are buried or went missing. The world has a sombre tone to it and an overarching sense that the history buried beneath the snow is best left there, however I can’t help but feel intrigued and curious to know more.
Gameplay-wise it’s a mix of old-school point and click and modern adventure titles. Tove has the ability to highlight items that she can interact with, removing the frustration of having to search every nook and cranny for answers. It’s a design choice that makes Röki more accessible and one that helps keep the story moving at a steady pace, especially considering part of the story and lore is gleaned from interacting with items.
While the bulk of the narrative is text-based, Polygon Treehouse has expertly crafted the game’s sound design to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to eliciting an emotional response from the player. Tove will frequently utter words and sounds that are full of emotion when interacting with the world, and it reminds me a lot of the emotional gibberish (also known as Hopelandic) that the band Sigur Rós is known for. It may only be little things, such as inspecting an item that reminds Tove of Lars and saying his name as a result, but it’s said with such sadness that it’s hard for it not to have an impact on the player. The narrative is further elevated thanks to a stunning soundtrack composed by Aether, seriously I was standing around simply listening to the soundtrack when playing the demo.
The demo comes in at roughly 15-20 minutes depending on how quickly you explore everything. I may have only scratched the surface of the world that Polygon Treehouse is creating, but it’s enough to convince me that Röki is going to be one of the year’s best narrative adventures.
Röki is scheduled to hit the Nintendo Switch and PC in 2020.