Scandinavia — anyone who’s been there will tell you it’s a magical place. Wild and untamed, it’s a region steeped in history and mythology. A place where the two intertwine. A place where nature comes alive and feels tangible. This is Röki’s setting, and the backdrop against which the game’s heavy narrative plays out. There isn’t much in the way of action here, but if you’ve read this far and think it sounds good, then you’re in for a treat.
The story centres around a single family: daughter Tove, son Lars, and their mother and father. For most of your time with Röki, which will take around ten hours, you control Tove, but later you gain the ability to swap to another character, too. It starts normally enough, with Tove and Lars playing out in the snow, but they soon get themselves into trouble and Lars goes missing. As Tove, you take off into the woods, hot on his trail. And so begins your encounters with all kinds of weird and wonderful “monsters” in an attempt to get him back.
See, Röki was described to me as a “non-violent” adventure by one of its creators, Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou, back at EGX 2019, and it’s a point that comprises the central theme of the game: what is a monster, and why are we, as a society, always trying to harm things that we don’t understand? In one instance, Tove meets a female troll named Trollhilde under a bridge. She’s been stuck with a sword and tells Tove that it’s just the way humans behave. You, of course, help remove the sword and befriend Trollhilde. She goes on to tell you that she stopped using human bones for soup a long time ago, too, which is helpful. All of Röki’s cast of characters have nuances like this, and you will be rubbing shoulders with all kinds of magical and mythical beings.
Social commentary rings throughout the whole game; it’s done well, and forces the player to confront their preconceived notions in a way that is subtle and doesn’t detract from the experience. And like the works of Stephen King, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it calls into question what makes something a monster. Funnily enough, none of the so-called monsters are mean, and we see this play out with another troll. It has a frog-thing captive, and when it finally gets free, the troll, instead of being angry, comments that he undid the frog-thing’s chains a long time ago, and that he is glad it left. Which brings us to the core tenets of Röki: love and kindness. As Tove follows the trail of her brother, she helps and gets help in return. Removing the sword from Trollhilde, for example.
Let’s talk puzzles. This game is full of them, and they’re good. It requires you to combine items in your inventory then use them on objects and characters most of the time, but there are also environmental puzzles which require you to solve riddles and place blocks with symbols in the right order and decipher things. In adventures, this is usually where things start to get frustrating, with illogical puzzles ruining the experience. This wasn’t the case even once with Röki — every puzzle manages to be new and interesting. Removing the sword from Trollhilde requires you to combine a rope and a bear trap; both objects are logically linked to the situation, and there is the added commentary of using something which is meant to harm — the bear trap — for good. The puzzles manage to fit so perfectly and are some of the best you will play in the genre.
The controls are great — if you play with a controller. Y on an Xbox pad will show your inventory at the top of the screen, and holding A on an item will allow you to drag it, with the thumbstick, onto the world for interaction. Holding B lets you sprint, and X allows you to read Tove’s journal, which contains up-to-date information on the world and its events. Mouse and keyboard play, however, is not recommended. WASD to move feels off, and when you open your inventory, you have to use the mouse to scroll left and right through your items. It’s not a good feeling. That said, use a controller and it’s one of the most innovative adventure game control systems available, and one which all adventure game developers should be utilising from here on.
Röki is split into three chapters. As you broach its second chapter, the whole world opens up to you, and it’s somewhat open-world in design. There are many locations, and you unlock fast travel to move quickly between them. It’s also at this point that you have to enlist the help of three “guardians” to progress Röki’s story. This is Röki’s weakest area — you’ve unlocked the whole world to explore, but you must backtrack and solve puzzles, which feels like it goes on a bit too long. And by the time you’ve finished helping all three guardians, you are more than ready to move on. Luckily, the third and final chapter is the most interesting of all three. The puzzles get more intricate, you get to explore new areas, and the story gets even more engrossing.
Navigating Röki’s world comes with its own frustrations. There is a map in Tove’s journal showing you places you’ve been, and a page with updates on what has happened there, but nowhere does it easily tell you your objectives. If you take some time away from Röki, coming back can be confusing. You open the journal and flick through the pages, unsure of what you were trying to track down and for whom. Then there is the issue of remembering where to go and how to get there. Yes, there is fast travel, but the locations only have a symbol representing their destination, not a name. This can also lead to frustration as you try to associate where you want to go with what that squiggly thing means. It doesn’t ruin the experience, but it’s something that feels overlooked.
Röki’s art is beautifully stunning. Perhaps the best I’ve ever seen in an adventure game. The stark, bright-white landscape allows objects and characters to stick out in an eye-catching way, like Tove’s red hat. The animation is likewise brilliant, too, with movements and physics remaining smooth. Combine these aspects with the satisfying sound design — the Sims-like noises of characters, the crinkle of ice and snow underfoot — and it’s an immersive experience. If you love winter, you will adore Röki.
Röki’s world comes alive in such a way that there’s hardly anything to fault. Sure, there are niggles with navigation, but when the world is otherwise so interesting and full of life, it’s a small price to pay. The heart-warming story is captivating and makes you think, the characters are interesting and subvert your expectations, and the puzzles are some of the best-designed on the market. Every moment with Röki feels like a wintery, magical treat, and its kind values make it a lovely, safe place to be snuggled up.
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