As if 2020 wasn’t dark and twisted enough, indie games have decided to keep beating the drum of “dark versions of fairy tales” for their styles; from Neversong to The Last Campfire, and now Roki. Nevertheless, this style is one I don’t think I will tire of anytime soon, if the offerings end up being as good as Roki. More than its style, Roki manages to create a brilliant atmosphere, puzzles that are old-school and modern simultaneously, a poignant and impactful story, and become a late contender for my favorite games of the year list.
Before the set up, the most important thing to know about Roki is what it actually is: It is a narrative driven, point & click puzzle game. This is not a platformer or a “walking sim” and it does not have simple puzzles (for the most part) meant to pace the experience and provide variety; these are “proper” puzzles that did leave me stumped a couple of times. These are not pacing mechanisms or trail and error puzzles; there’s an inventory and you can combine items to create a new item needed to solve a puzzle. Even seen as a point & click puzzle game, Roki is fairly modern and accessible, through a brilliant design decision and immaculate execution of their ideas. Firstly, the game is “divided” in three chapters, starting in the beginning with Tove and Lars being attacked in their house by a creature that kidnaps Lars and leaves their father for dead, which leaves Tove the only one able to save her brother. Each chapter has its own set of items and puzzles, so backtracking isn’t really something you need to do, while the items are more organically placed around the level, which eliminates a lot of the frustration that occurs in old point & click games. Furthermore, the team does a phenomenal job at immersing you in this world and uses that fact to their advantage; by the time I was in the second chapter of the game, I was solving logic puzzles that operate within the logic of that world, rather than my own logic. With these two features, the devs make the puzzles a challenge of wits and understanding, rather than pixel-hunting or “dev logic” (a puzzle having an obscure solution that, in order to be solved, one must think like the dev, rather than use their own wits or logic).
As with Hades, Roki is a brilliant merging of genre gameplay with narrative in an extremely satisfying way. The puzzles always feel like they are expanding and progressing the story and the world in some way – whether that is by exploring the world and how it works or deepening our understanding of the characters and their personalities and relationships – while the story is, likewise, a puzzle to be solved and an exploration of numerous themes, of folklore, and of a family. Again, like Hades, it does all of its parts great, but they merge together to create an excellent game. Roki is poignant and impactful in its narrative; the story told and the characters written are meaningful and memorable for both bittersweet themes and sweetly melancholic moments. However, the visual style of the game is something unique and it greatly elevates the entire game through both its gameplay utilization and visual narrative. It is a strange – but captivating – mix of “Lilo and Stitch” and clay-animation like Coraline, which is a beautiful mix, but it also allows for some visual narrative, like Tove’s eyes being red from tiredness and some more spoillery stuff I won’t spoil here. It’s also a much more enticing proposition to play a point & click game when what you are clicking is as expressive and well-realized as any AAA game out there, as well as helping the player get immersed in that world.
Moreover, I love how “smart” the game is with its minimal resources. For example, the budget didn’t leave a lot of room for voice acting, but the studio used their resources to the maximum effect they could; so, the VO is great, for what little there is, but now you know how each character sounds and you can imagine their delivery of the written dialogue, and to stimulate that response, the devs had the actors record emotive sighs and moans to use when their characters speak, giving you a hint to their mood, which works surprisingly well. Moreover, the game is paced brilliantly and features progressively more impressive visuals and “cooler” ideas for puzzles, thus giving you enough good reason to keep going and hopefully feeling pretty satisfied by the end, instead of patting the experience out to ‘hit’ a vague value goal; this is an 11-hour experience and it is worth every penny I paid, just for the visuals of the second to last scene.
Finally, I want to give a huge shout out to the sound designer; without getting into spoilers, there is a specific character who makes a sound when they turn and that alone was enough to make my skin crawl, every, single, time. This is something that they manage to do very well, as culmination of everything I discussed before; this is a game that can make your skin crawl with cute looking characters, it can break your heart with Disney-style animations, and it can deliver a dark fairy tale remarkably well. It is a special feeling, but video games in particular have an upper hand in this department over other mediums.
Overall, I really don’t have too much to criticize Roki for; there are a few puzzles that feel too random at times, some may become frustrated by movement speed and going through the levels back and forth, until the chapter is complete. But, for me, I love these smart ideas and made me fall in love with the game; there is backtracking, but its only for a few screens; there are only 3 areas, but they have more variety and artistry put in them than entire games; it is a point & click puzzle game, but it is modern and learns from previous games and presents new solutions; above all, it is a heartfelt, bittersweet game that is delightful in its design, story, gameplay, visuals, and sounds. Even for how late in the year, 2020 keeps providing fantastic games to experience and exciting creatives to follow closely and Roki is no different. Hopefully, it is a success and the team has even more resources next time to create something as unique and impactful as Roki.