Röki had me from the moment Tove, our protagonist, and her little brother, Lars, arrive home at the beginning of the game’s extended prologue. Home being a quaint cabin near the lake, surrounded by layers of dense trees and, beyond them, snow-capped mountains. The place is beautiful, but look past the halcyon visage and you’ll start to notice the cracks.
The lonely wind chimes. The crumpled well. The depleted snowman. The two grave stones. Each one has a story to tell, each one painting a picture of a fragmented family with a big, mum-sized hole in the centre.
Home brings a new depth to Tove’s vocal expressions (the characters express themselves with aural gestures that evoke context-dependent emotions). There’s a hint of sadness and longing, but also of a strength and resilience that’s a result of that pain. This sense of living with and surviving loss hangs over the entire game, lending Röki real poignancy and emotional complexity.
It’s not something I expected from a game that looked like a fun combination of cute and scary built around Scandinavian folklore, but that’s exactly what Polygon Treehouse have done. It’s what makes Röki one of the best games I’ve played all year.
Röki is effectively a point-and-click adventure game with a highly modern finish. When Tove’s brother is kidnapped by the eponymous Röki and his witch mother, Tove must follow them into a world adjacent to our own – one where magic runs through the veins of its inhabitants and monsters are scarily real.
Lars has always been able to see these monsters, and their late mother would say the mythological beings she regaled and terrified her children with were more than just stories, but it’s been a long time since Tove was able to indulge flights of fancy. Taking care of her whimsical brother and pickle-loving, grief-stricken father has equipped Tove with a set of practical skills but swayed her mind towards the rational. It’s how she’s survived and kept her spirit intact. Now she’s going to have to apply those skills to the strange world she wondered about but never really believed in if she hopes to reunite with Lars and save him.
There are three guardians – the Jötunn – that Tove has to find in order to reach the castle where Lars is being held, but they’ve succumbed to a fungal infestation that’s spread throughout the magical forest and sent them into a deep, nightmare-ridden sleep. It’s an infestation that’s seized the land, blinded the trees, and tainted the waters. Progress in the game involves undoing much of the damage it’s caused, a task Tove ably applies herself to with intelligence, kindness and good humour.
Stepping into her snow boots, this task will take you across the forest, accruing items, meeting its denizens, and being presented with various puzzles to solve. As is standard for the genre, there’s often a few layers to each of the puzzles that requires creative use of the items in your possession. There’ll be plenty of back-tracking as you gradually master the forest and complete its many areas.
This inevitable back-tracking is made far more palatable by a hub system that’s unlocked when rescuing interlinked trees from the fungus. Each of these trees is connected to the Mother Tree, which sits at the centre of the forest, and you travel between them via ancient roots. It’s not the only feature to ease the point-and-click format: the game handily implements a highlight feature, causing objects you can interact with in the environment to flash with the click of a button. It saves tediously brushing against every surface tapping ‘use’, and makes for a smooth, easily accessible experience.
And what an experience it is. In regards to its ambience Röki is exquisitely made, both in terms of the game’s world and how we feel that world as players. Although the game ripples with portentous threat – a few of the characters in the forest have a worryingly malevolent disposition – Röki’s accessibility is part of its spell. The world, the gameplay, and the characters are like a balm, and the unusual forest is a place you can’t help but want to be. It really is like a fairy tale; one where you’re dipped into another realm that doesn’t play by reality’s mundane rules, but is as enchanting as it is frightening in the effect it has on the visitor.
That effect is achieved by virtue of Röki’s excellent aesthetics and rich sound design. Its majestic world is stunningly evoked with a palette of soft blues, purples and greens. The snow carpeting the land glistens with spots of golden light and shadows fall with regal splendour across the woods and mountains. The framing of your in-game perspective is grand and sweeping, and I lapped up every frame. It’s so pretty I actually tended to avoid using the trees to travel just so I could weave through the massive caverns and mountain trails again.
The visuals are accompanied by a stellar score from Scottish artist Aether, which works so well with Röki’s world and set of themes to take the whole ensemble to the next level. As there’s no spoken dialogue in the game Aether’s score does a lot of heavy lifting. Sometimes it’s melancholic, other times it’s haunting, but it’s almost always beautiful. I’ve been listening to it for the whole of this review and I reckon I’ll still be listening to it when it’s over.
Röki shouldn’t take you too long and none of the puzzles are especially difficult, which feels right for the kind of game that it is. Admittedly there were occasions where I found myself staring intently at a few stubborn items in my inventory, nonplussed as to how to properly use them, but that’s par for the course with the point-and-click. I’d almost be disappointed if it wasn’t.
Polygon Treehouse have achieved something quite special here. Scandinavian folklore makes for a compelling and unique framing device (why we don’t see more of it in this way I do not know), but it’s the tale of a broken family being held together by one young girl’s determination, courage and spirit that transforms the experience into something lasting and meaningful.
And the steady rhythm and methodical pace of the point-and-click proves the perfect genre in which to tell that tale. Fantastic.
(Still listening to that score.)
The Verdict – Head Shot
Platforms Available – PC, Nintendo Switch (coming soon)
Platform Reviewed – PC
Review based on Steam media account copy. Please read this post for more on our scoring policy.