STAFF REVIEW of Roki (Xbox Series X)

Thursday, November 18, 2021.
by Peggy Doyle

Roki Box art For most of us, fairy tales are a part of our childhood. We think back on a time when our parents or grandparents would read to us, telling us stories of bravery, heroism, magic and love. I think I could ask almost anyone, and they would have had a favourite fairy tale or children’s story growing up. As we get older, however, we often see that fairy tales are not always as light and innocent as we remembered them being. The stories we know have often originated and been built upon dark themes of evil, loss, heartbreak and loneliness. It would only take you a moment searching online to see the dark histories of some of the ones you remember the most. I know I was shocked when I found out some of the origin stories.

Roki, the debut game from Polygon Treehouse, captures everything that makes fairy tales charming and alluring, while also showing some of the dark sides as well. It easily kept me captivated until the end. Based in Scandinavian folklore, it tells the story of a young girl, Tove, who is searching for her younger brother, Lars. Lars has a vivid imagination and often believes he sees the mythical creatures from the stories Tove reads to him. As it happens, the creatures are real and Lars was taken by the magical creature, Roki, for nefarious reasons that are made clear early on in the game. In order to rescue Lars, Tove must navigate her way through the forest, solving puzzles and making connections to the fantastical inhabitants along the way.

Although primarily built around magic and folklore, the narrative has a very tragic foundation that it is built on. Tove’s mother passed away shortly after Lars was born. Her father spends most of his time grieving and sleeping in front of the fireplace in their family home. These things result in Tove becoming the primary caregiver and protector to Lars, meaning she must take on more responsibility and has a maturity well beyond her years.

While searching for Lars, Tove encounters many fabled beasts and realizes that not all monsters are evil. Some are very complex, have their own problems and are misunderstood. For example, the scary troll hiding under the bridge is not growling to scare you, but she is in pain and hiding. The little gnome like creatures (Tomkes) really held a special place for me, probably because Tove’s mother called her that, and in turn, Tove calls Lars ‘Little Tomke’. Such an adorable and sentimental way to join the stories together.

Polygon Treehouse does such an excellent job of their storytelling, mostly done through text, that I found myself having a massive amount of feelings I didn’t anticipate in a simple point and click game. I still have no idea how they made me so sad when I saw a troll turned into stone, or another troll talking about how they can’t get good tea.

While Roki first presented itself as a point and click adventure style game, it was quickly evident that it was so much more than this. Firstly, it wasn’t nearly as linear as this genre of game tends to be. Exploring and discovery encompass a large part of the game. While solving puzzles in Roki, Tove will find and interact with a variety of objects in a different order than you need them, meaning some solutions to puzzles may not be apparent until you advance the game. As you work your way through the story you discover an ancient magical tree (the mother) that has had its roots (children) disconnected from her. There are many overlapping stories involving family in the game. As you reconnect the roots, you open up various portals in the tree. They then become a sort of fast travel way to the different areas of the forest. Definitely a time saver, although I did find myself forgetting which door went to each location. As soon as I went through, I would realize my mistake, pop back through and grab the right door. Once you had all of the portals open, I found myself happily going through them just for fun, emerging on the other side, feeling a true sense of magic about them.

Secondly, there was no steep difficulty curve for the puzzles in the game. None were particularly challenging, and they were consistent throughout the game, requiring collecting and sometimes multiple forest creature interactions to complete. For example, you had to make a tea to put a troll to sleep. In order to get those ingredients, you had to bribe someone with an item you collected earlier. When he was asleep you grabbed his flute. You traded the flute for another item, etc. I liked that although the puzzles weren’t particularly hard, they weren’t always obvious from the start either. I had a lot of ‘wait, I need that for someone – don’t I?’ moments. The joy of any adventure game is the overlying feeling of what you are working towards, not just what you are doing at a single moment to get there. All through the game, Tove carries a scrapbook where she places items that she finds in her travels, a scrap of fabric, a piece of eggshell, a feather, all contributing to the overlying feeling of how memories are so important to her. The scrapbook also fills in as you open the map and also shows when she unlocks badges for doing things. There are like a substitute for achievements in the game.

Roki uses a remarkably simple art style, scaling back on textures and lighting, and going for a more stylized flat shading effect. Whether this was done for budget considerations, or intentionally, it created a perfect style for the children’s story book brought to life. The sound design was another minimalistic choice. Most of the dialogue was via text on screen with the exception of a few grunts of exertion or when the characters were calling out to one another. This was a highly effective choice in making the family the only voices you hear, making sure that they remained the central focus of the story, Family is everything in Roki. I was really surprised how well the game could elicit as much feeling from me while using very few actual words of dialogue. Tove would often utter an incredibly sad sounding “mamma” when thinking about her, or a surprised "woah" when coming across an item that she examines. The soundtrack itself felt like a collection of melancholic lullabies, also adding to the childlike feel of the game.

Roki was nominated for many awards in 2020 including "Best Debut Game" at The Game Awards. It won "Best Indie Game" at the DevGamm Awards and “Best Traditional Adventure", and "Readers' Choice" for "Best Adventure" at the Adventure Gamers ‘Aggie’ Awards. I can see why. With its childlike visuals and ability to pull you into the fairy tale unfolding on the screen, its roster of characters that make you invested in their outcomes and with a dark tale to discover and overcome, it was so much more than the simple point and click adventure game I thought I had in front of me when I hit 'Start’.

Overall: 8.3 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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