Developer: Moral Anxiety Studio
Release Date: 12 September, 2022
Platform: Windows, MacOS
By Chris Picone, 14 October 2022
Roadwarden’s an extraordinarily well-made (and well-written) text adventure that also features what I can only describe as “live mapping.” The developer’s opted for a retro, pixelated aesthetic, which suits me just fine; I love pixel art anyway but I also find there’s something really special about pixel art that fires up the imagination in a way no other art style can.
The story’s vague to begin with, but for good reason. The general concept is that you are a “roadwarden,” tasked to look after a particularly rugged peninsula – but how the story actually plays out is totally up to the decisions you make on the way. Well, almost totally. The people of the peninsula have a bad habit of maintaining their own goals and ambitions which may not always align with yours. Your first decision is what sort of character you would like to play, the options being a warrior, mage, or scholar; this is something most roleplayers will be familiar with and will obviously determine how you approach the game’s challenges. What’s less familiar is that, while you know your job is to be the roadwarden for the region, the game doesn’t tell you what your actual mission is. Are you supposed to make the roads safe from wild animals and bandits? Establish trade? Convince rural communities to ally themselves under the banner of your employer? Your story, including your background, religious affiliations, personal goals and ambitions – and even your over-arching quest – is determined by your choices and actions as you play. It’s a unique approach that really puts you inside your character’s head. And of course there are plenty of side-quests along the way, which Roadwarden has done a spectacular job of weaving into the story organically. For example, you might find yourself helping some villagers try to locate their missing hunters in order to win their trust so they might help you solve a bandit problem which will in turn open a trade route elsewhere in the peninsula. Roadwarden is a world that is full of mystery, and one in which good and bad, right and wrong, is a matter of perspective.
I want to add an additional note here that I’m blown away by the grim and gritty but also very realistic (as far as fantasy games go) attention to detail throughout. The developer has clearly done some thorough research into the times portrayed, and this is reflected throughout the game. The villagers feel alive, animal encounters play out in a realistic rather than fanciful manner, and you really get a feel for the harsh realities of a traveller navigating a treacherous landscape and seeking hospitality from small villages. The story is interesting but the delivery of that story is a real work of art.
A large text-box dominates the screen, with a tab on the right indicating your current state of being, and the right margin either illustrating the scene your character faces, or else providing a sort of topographical view of the area. The background’s a nice dark blue thoughtfully designed to not burn your eyes out while you’re reading huge chunks of text. Otherwise, the palette’s a very under-stated assortment of yellows and browns that the developer has somehow manipulated to illustrate all manner of buildings and landscapes. It’s nicely detailed but not overwhelmingly so, allowing your eyes to drink in the scene but also focus on all the winthrop points and key details. There’s also a separate screen for the world map. The music’s very fitting for the mood of the game and provides a nice ambience that never seems to get repetitive.
You have an over-world map to make travelling a little more convenient but otherwise the entire game is played out through text with accompanying illustrations. Most of Roadwarden is presented in a manner that will be familiar to any table-top gamers out there: The Game Master describes the scene in great detail, explaining where you are, what’s around you, what you can see/smell/hear, and you are presented with a set of possible reactions to choose from. Choose-your-own-adventure, standard fare. One of the features that set Roadwarden apart are the illustrations, which are not just there to provide a nifty visual to accompany the text, but are also a living, breathing part of the game. As you approach a gated village, for example, you can initially only see the fields outside the main gates. To fill the rest of the picture in, you actually have to wander through the area – but that takes times and often comes at considerable risk. Roadwarden’s grim and gritty and likes to constantly force you into tough decisions through circumstance. Food’s hard to come by and money’s even harder, and good honest help harder still. Not because people are mean, but because they’re just as desperate as you are. Exploration might yield rewards but there’s always an element of risk. Most of the time these exploratory encounters utilise the game’s base choice-and-consequence system but occasionally the game throws you a parser. Now I’m going to be shamefully honest here and say that I didn’t explore these parser interactions very thoroughly. That’s nothing against Roadwarden, just a result of my getting burned by poorly implemented parsers in the 90s. I did sneak a peek in the game’s comments section on Steam though, where a user has posted an list of accepted commands, and it’s pretty extensive. So that’s promising.
Combat is also text-based, and involves the same choice-and-consequence system, usually providing you with options to flee, approach cautiously, or attack aggressively. The “correct” action will come down to trying to work out how you think the animal might react while also considering the risk and reward potentials. For example, charging at one animal might be suicide whereas charging at a group of animals might gain you the initiative – or the show of bravado might even be enough to intimidate them and scare them off. You will frequently find yourself outnumbered and outgunned and will need to utilise the environment and rely on your wits to get by. Battles are over very quickly, one way or the other: This isn’t like most fantasy roleplaying games where you leap into battle and sleep off your wounds. In Roadwarden, any injury, any encounter, can be fatal. And sometimes your actions can have far-reaching consequences so it always pays to be thoughtful.
Finally: As I’m sure you can imagine from any game full of exploration, choice, and consequence, Roadwarden is full of lots of interesting places and those places are full of interesting people. While those interactions could have been handled using the same choice-and-consequence system found throughout the game, Roadwarden utilises an involved dialogue system which reminds me of Bard’s Tale’s snarky/nice system except with a few more approaches to choose from. It’s always a gamble no matter what you choose; do you come across as confident and friendly but risk over-extending yourself? Or as desperate, which may invoke either sympathy or apathy. Or as conservative – often the safest approach but also not one that invites trust. It’s not all about you though. It pays to learn about the person you’re talking to, and to approach them in a way that’s compatible with their own personality. Characters reactions to you are then further adjusted by how clean or smelly you are, whether or not they trust you (have you done anything nice for them lately?), your loyalties and actions toward other communities, and so on. Like I said, it’s an involved system. And people of the peninsula have a hard life; they’re survivors with little to spare and do not trust easily.
Fun Factor / Replayability
Make no mistake, Roadwarden is a full-length 30+ hour RPG. And there’s no grind or filler, so we’re really talking about a solid 30 hour text-based roleplaying experience, which is impressive enough in its own right. But Roadwarden offers width as well as depth. Those choices you make early in the game have a significant impact; want a different experience? Try playing as a different character, picking a different religion, or selecting new goals and ambitions. Likewise, the majority of the game’s challenges can be solved in a number of ways and with varying results and impacts later in the game. It’s plenty replayable.
Roadwarden is an amazing, memorable RPG experience. I think the term “RPG” gets bandied around a lot these days so I want to clarify that this is a hardcore RPG experience. If you’re only really into hack-and-slash or monty haul or simlar– and there’s nothing wrong with that – this probably isn’t the game for you. Likewise, although Roadwarden does feature some lovely illustrations, make no mistake: This is a text adventure. Be prepared for a lot of reading (at least a novel’s worth!) and plenty of tough decisions.