There’s a good reason Shakespeare wrote so many tragedies. Tragedy is universal, and reaches us on a human level, if it comes from a genuine place. But we’ve all probably also run across stories rife with tragedy simply for tragedy’s sake, meant to tug at heartstrings without any larger reason in mind, so it’s a slippery slope. So too is taking on the mythology of a culture–if you’re not careful with the subject matter, it becomes tropey or even offensive. Luckily for all of us, the developers of Röki took the time to care about the story they were telling, and the beautiful Scandinavian mythology serves as a backdrop for an at times heavy but very human story.
In Röki, you’ll play as Tove, a little girl who’s faced a lot in her life. Her mother has passed away, and her father has basically checked out since then, leaving Tove and her mischievous but loveable little brother Lars to fend for themselves while drinks and sleeps his grief away. We’re dropped into a day in the life of Tove and Lars, and see her doting on her little brother and taking up the tasks her mother might once have done, from repairing Lars’ toys to making meals and putting her brother to bed–after one last potty break. From the get go, though Röki’s Scandinavian setting is apparent and subtly told through Tove’s house, belongings and surroundings, it’s universally relatable to anyone who’s ever had to take care of someone else.
This “mundane” beginning also gives you a chance to get used to Röki’s various systems. It’s very much a point and click adventure game, with all that that entails, from the ability to flash on objects in a space you can interact with to a bottomless backpack full of things you’ll pick up along the way that may not seem helpful at first, but could later very well save your life. You’ll have a journal, where Tove takes notes about her days, and picks up trinkets from her various adventures, and at least in vague terms keeps track of the various tasks you’ll need to complete, as well as housing the game’s map and badges. You’ll go through the first day learning about Tove and Lars’ life, as she tries her hardest to be a good big sister. Exploring the house reveals the tragedies that have befallen the family, from her father’s absenteeism to the deaths of pets and loss of her Mamma, something Tove initially isn’t very forthcoming about.
At first, I admit, it felt a little overwhelmingly depressing, and I thought perhaps Röki was going to be too heavyhanded, and too depressing overall, using sad circumstances as a shortcut for good storytelling, but I pressed on. Before the night of the first day was over, the supernatural had come to visit, in the form of a frightening attack that completely destroyed the home and left Tove and Lars on the run. One of the things Röki does the best is pacing, and the initial escape from the home into the forest was truly exciting, even in its adventure game format where you’re more often poring over your inventory than controlling the running and jumping.
Unfortunately for the two intrepid adventurers, their time together is short, as Lars is snatched away, leaving Tove lost, alone and distraught in the forest, believing her dad to be dead after the attack and coming to the realization that she’s the only one who can save her brother. Before long, she realizes the creature that attacked her at home has taken Lars to another dimension, and she hops headlong into the portal after him, where she finds a forest full of mythical beings, from trolls to tomtes ,Nøkken and guardian spirits, or jötnar, who protect the forest.
Everything in the forest, though mystical and scary, is absolutely gorgeous. The color palette and simple hand-drawn style and animation are beautiful. The forest in Röki is alive with scary, sometimes silly, and oftentimes sympathetic monsters you’ll need to befriend and work with to find Lars again, and the more you meet the more you’ll come to appreciate the beauty of the mythology and the monsters, and the more you’ll learn about Scandinavian folklore. It’s obvious the care that was taken to properly represent the mythology in everything you experience in Röki, from direct conversations and interactions with mythical beings to the gorgeous parchment and ink renderings of these ancient tales in cutscenes.
As with many adventure games, it’s not as simple as finding a way to Lars to get him back. There are many other dangers in the forest, many more mysteries and of course, plenty of things you’ll need to do to engender the favor of everyone from the trees in the forest to the trolls and guardians.
Puzzles in Röki are frequent but varied. Most follow puzzle game conventions–push a block, line up shadows, or find secret codes, but others are straight out of games like Monkey Island, where you’ll need to get a clue from one of the NPCs, read gravestones and then use that knowledge to say, unlock a chest somewhere else in the game or answer a question someone else asks you. Most puzzles are pretty straightforward, but I did get stuck in a few places–as with most games like Röki, what comes easy to one person may not come easy to another.
That said, occasionally the game itself got in the way of solving puzzles. Once or twice, camera perspective was such that something important to interact with, or even a door to an area you need to be in, was so far on the peripherals as to be nonexistent, and you couldn’t change the camera angle to see more of it. A few other times, the art style of the game, otherwise beautiful, would make an area or item seem inaccessible or flat, making me miss them entirely, and this wasn’t helped by an occasional failure of the “flash” function that lets you see something you can interact with. This was pretty infrequent though and for the most part I was fully enamored with and immersed in Roki’s world, and Tove’s journeys.
Whatever concern I had that Röki was throwing depressing event after depressing event into Tove’s story simply to make players feel something was totally alleviated the further I got into the story. As much care as was taken with Scandinavian folklore was taken with presenting a realistic, relatable narrative and though oftentimes even monsters had sad stories to tell, it was part of a bigger picture that was more about overcoming grief, loss and hardship, accepting what happened and coming back together stronger. The problems Tove and her family face are scarier than any of its monsters, and the triumphs they achieve are more epic, and by the final denoument the things I felt for them were very real. Röki is a real gem full of adventure and emotion set in a beautiful mythological forest I know I won’t forget just because the credits rolled.
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