A picture is worth a thousand words, so an animated gif should paint at least 10,000. A feature film should be in the millions, and a triple-A RPG over 60 hours should paint billions, if not billions, of words. But sometimes I prefer words. That’s not to say Roadwarden’s pixel-art maps aren’t worth writing about, it’s just that they’re overshadowed by the beautiful storytelling that accompanies them.

Roadwarden’s art is beautiful, but it’s there for functional rather than aesthetic reasons. It’s a map of the region, the peninsula your titular Roadwarden is tasked with navigating, slowly revealing itself as you explore. You instantly notice that the art takes up about a third of the screen, while the text takes up about half. Your options and stats are in the last part, which is where the RPG elements come in – managing your vitality, diet and hygiene is important for surviving in the wild and making a good impression on the local villagers – but it’s clear that the text is the most important part of Roadwarden.


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The words themselves are also skillfully crafted. All of the game writers are magicians in my book, but the writers of Roadwarden and the leader of the Magic Circle, experts who create a build-your-own adventure that feels more like a grand fantasy novel than a video game. Vivid descriptions of people, places and things evoke a deep sense of history and personality – details like how a soldier takes care of his leotard tell you more about a character than triple-A graphics never could, and the aura emanating from a particularly supple tree root signifies its importance, the phrases sinking into reverence as they describe the towering tree.

Nothing is over-explained, however, Roadwarden is awash with a sense of mystery and suspicion. Once I walked past a bald wolf in the deep forest rather than charging it head-on to save the poor soul whose leg was caught between its ravenous teeth. It wasn’t until later that someone told me the true nature of the beast, and I was doubly pleased with my stealthy approach. However, there were plenty of mysteries, side quests, and narrative threads that were left open when my time was up. You quickly admit defeat, realizing you can’t and won’t uncover everything in the month of play you have to explore this mysterious peninsula. You will get to know many people, learn many secrets, and discover many truths, but just as many questions will remain unanswered.

These narrative threads aren’t necessarily related to each other, but all weave together a vast tapestry of a fantasy world that feels real. The characters feel like they live there, your actions feel like they actually affect them, and the stories have a low-key impact. You get medicine for someone’s daughter, pick berries in exchange for a hot meal. You are not here to save the world, you are here to charter, report to the city and, if you wish, help.

Roadwarden evokes the great narrative RPGs, Disco Elysium and Citizen Sleeper, but in style rather than substance. However, as with the two above, capitalism is a constant and authoritarian presence, but it seems almost more subtle. Your job is to watch over the peninsula so that the city guild can expand its presence there – you are an agent of expansion, an invader in nature. Unless you play this role and redouble your efforts to kick these people, every village you discover and every person you help is tinged with guilt. Whatever your own intentions, which can range from trying to protect a member of your family to wanting to escape your past, the guild is using you to sink its claws into the peninsula and expand its oppressive rule.

I’ve never been happier to see a resurgence of text-heavy narrative RPGs, and Roadwarden is up there with the best of them. While Disco Elysium has its unique painterly aesthetic inspired by the art of Craig Mullins, Citizen Sleeper has the beautiful character designs of Guillaume Singelin, and Roadwarden has its extra pixel maps, but these games are all about the stories they tell in their own words. Whether it’s paragraphs of gripping descriptions, alcohol-induced introspections, or conversations with strangers about the deepest facets of humanity, this flurry of words proves you don’t need to. triple A hyperrealism to tell a great story.

Next: There’s A Disco Elysium Novel, But You Probably Can’t Read It

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