When we think about fairy tales we tend to reminisce about our childhood and how our parents or grandparents would read us these grandiose stories centred around adventure, magic, bravery and love that would send our imaginations running wild. However, what we as children fail to fully realise is that fairy tales are often built upon dark foundations and themes such as evil, loneliness and loss. Röki, the debut title from Polygon Treehouse (former Guerrilla Games devs) and United Label Publishing is a game that captures everything about fairy tales that makes them so memorable, weaving it all into a magical and touching adventure that will have you captivated until the very end.
An adventure awaits
Röki tells the story of Tove – a young girl who is searching for her missing younger brother Lars after he was taken by the magical titular creature for evil reasons the player will uncover fairly early in the game. But in order to rescue Lars, Tove must navigate the magical forest, befriending its magical inhabitants and solving its puzzles – only then will Tove be able to open the portal to save Lars and face her past.
What makes Röki’s narrative so powerful is that although it’s built around folklore and magic, its tragic foundations instantly make you feel invested in Tove’s rescue mission. You see Tove’s mother sadly passing away not long after giving birth to Lars (a memory she has tried hard to forget), which has taken its toll on the family – none more so than Tove and Lars’ father, who is now a shell of the man he was. As a result, Tove is the primary carer and motherly figure for Lars, a heavy burden for a child to carry, but while it has made Tove mature beyond her years it has only strengthened the bond between brother and sister, which is why Lars’ kidnapping hits Tove so hard.
The narrative is as much about family, loss and loneliness as it is about magical creatures, and the magic of the game’s storytelling comes from how Polygon Treehouse uses these themes to make you care about the characters. I mean games have made me feel pangs of sadness before, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt sad to see a troll that has been turned into stone before.
At its core Röki is a third-person modern adventure game, however it shares much of the DNA of a point-and-click adventure, with Tove required to explore her forest surroundings for solutions to the world’s puzzles. While the puzzles themselves are often gentle and aren’t overly difficult, they can often be drawn out, meaning that players might come across a puzzle at one point and have a rough idea how to solve it, but won’t come upon the item required until later in the game. Some of the game’s later puzzles can feel a little more complex, but there are often environmental clues to help players find their way to the solution. Assisting players further is the ability to highlight all interactable items in an area, meaning that you always know what items you need to investigate.
Early in her journey, Tove discovers an ancient magical tree that reveals its roots have been disconnected from its mother and its siblings and reconnecting these trees’ roots will activate a gateway that essentially acts as fast travel. It’s a huge boon to both Tove and the player given the amount of toing and froing you’ll be doing, but not only this, it also gives the world context – an ancient forgotten world lost to time that is slowly being re-awoken.
The other element to Tove’s adventure is her newfound relationships with the forest’s magical creatures, who vary from gentle trolls to tiny gnome-like creatures, to giant guardians of the forest. But no matter how big or small, they are all integral to Tove succeeding in her mission to rescue Lars. But even in a magical world, nothing comes for free, and in order to earn their trust or help, Tove must complete tasks. These tasks make up the other part of Röki’s gameplay, and whether it’s reuniting a family, helping a creature return to its natural state or making tea for a giant that will send it to sleep so you can steal its flute, Tove will have her hands full but will make friends along the way.
The snowcapped Scandinavian world of Röki is truly amazing. Brought to life with bold colours and stunning hand-drawn visuals, it feels like playing across the pages of an interactive storybook, with its unique cast of characters all expertly designed with a simplicity that fit the world perfectly. Give me this style of art every time over photorealistic AAA graphics. Honestly, if Polygon Treehouse released an art book or an actual storybook I’d snap it up in a heartbeat.
Tove enjoying some classical rock ‘n troll tunes
Where the game really stands out is in its sound design – in fact I’d nearly go as far as to say that it’s some of the best sound design I’ve ever heard in a video game. After playing the game’s demo earlier this year, I waxed lyrical about the game’s soundtrack, particularly the use of ‘emotional gibberish’ and the game’s ability to elicit a response from the player based on sounds rather than words.
While the characters have voices, they are not utilised in the traditional way, with the narrative told mostly via text windows on the screen (the writing is excellent). However instead of hearing your character speak, the characters will utter sounds that emphasise their feelings. For example, whenever Tove thinks about her mother she’ll utter a sad “mamma” which is emphasised by some brief sobbing, or whenever Tove finds an impressive item she’ll say “woah” in a surprised yet excited manner. It’s a design choice that has paid dividends for Polygon Treehouse, with Röki’s narrative enhanced thanks to how well the soundtrack and sound design wells together, especially in its more poignant moments (of which there are plenty). I seriously cannot write enough praise for how great this part of the game is.
For all that Röki gets right, the only slight on the game is that it’s probably is a touch longer than it needs to be, with the campaign clocking in at around 15 hours. This is felt during the game’s second act, and even the third act, where there are perhaps one too many puzzles/objectives. It’s a minor gripe in the scheme of things, because everything Tove is asked to do fits within the context of the narrative, and once those credits roll you wish you had more, but it does make the narrative feel like it’s dragging its feet somewhat.
Even giant magical cats sleep all day
The indie scene is continuously delivering some of the most compelling narratives set in some of the most unique worlds seen in video games, and Röki is further proof of that. It’s a near-perfect mix of challenging puzzle-focused gameplay and a powerful, emotive and poignant narrative that is heightened thanks to a stunning art style and incredible sound design. If you have any interest in adventure games at all I implore you to play Röki, it’s hands-down one of the best adventure games I’ve played.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher