Roadwarden game review: The power of words

They don’t make ’em like this any more. But it’s more than novelty value that entitles Roadwarden to stand out from the crowd as it harks to text-adventure classics of the early 1980s.

ou may have only heard of seminal entries in the genre such as Zork or Colossal Cave Adventure (the latter of which is being remade for release by the end of the year, incidentally). But the creators of Roadwarden must surely have played them exhaustively, learning how to build evocative moods, landscapes and characters with eloquent text descriptions.

You play the role of a roadwarden, a sort of roaming guardian whose job is to map and patrol a medieval peninsula for your shadowy paymasters. Trouble is, the last roadwarden disappeared and may have met a sticky end. Perhaps he somehow annoyed one of the communities he was supposed to help. Maybe he grew weary of his badly paid, uncomfortable life on horseback. Or did he flee the many fantastical beasts he would have encountered on the uncharted trails that make up the gloomy peninsula?

Whatever happened, no one you meet is willing to venture much information but few have a good word to say about him.

Unlike those early text-based epics, Roadwarden relies mostly on picking action and dialogue options from a list. It also incorporates role-playing elements familiar from modern RPGs. So you can build your character as a warrior, a mage, a healer and other classes. Obviously, that affects how you approach the game’s problems but also how people react to you. Most of the peninsula’s denizens treat you with a least a little suspicion. Some default immediately to outright hostility. But you can win many over with your appearance, your conversational responses and, of course, the inevitable side-quests.

Supplementing Roadwarden’s charm is its subtle use of pixel artwork to complement the vivid text. Most of your attention will be consumed by the excellent writing within the descriptions of the locations or the piquant dialogue. But sitting alongside this window into the world lies an occasionally changing depiction of the building or locale, adding another layer of insight to your adventure.

In common with the 1980s vibe, you’d be well-advised to keep a physical notebook to hand. A built-in quest log records some useful details but nothing beats your own observations of characters’ needs or the arc of your adventure.

Confusingly, the game asks at the outset where you’d like to play Roadwarden according to season of autumn, which limits your mission time to 40 days. It acts as a form of difficulty level, ensuring you’re always second-guessing your moves and forcing you to miss out on some key encounters. Without this restriction, the game loses some of its tension but can also feel more satisfying in that it enables you revisit interesting quandaries you might have rushed past otherwise.

Roadwarden is designed to be replayed so you can explore different choices. But even one playthrough of its unconventional story supplies plenty of memorable moments on an absorbing journey.

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