“Rootwork” iPad Game Review: Into the Woods

The autumn colors are all right with me. It's the shadows I worry about...

Hard to see the forest with all these trees in the way…

Within the last few weeks, I have taken on the challenge of mastering Rootwork, a new solitaire-style card game on the iPad with a unique, creepy atmosphere.  The gameplay is good on its own, but I have become more interested in following the story the game tells through the art depicted on the cards and through the movies unlocked after completing successful hands.  It all adds up to a palpable combination which I am quite happy savoring a little bit at a time.

As I said,  the story behind Rootwork is the main reason I keep playing.  After all, it drives just about everything you do in the game.  The basic premise is that you are lost in a dark, mysterious, fog-enshrouded forest filled with weird creatures, unsettling stick sculptures hung from the trees, and ruled over by an omnipotent being simply referred to as “She” who narrates all of the movies you see throughout the game.  Whoever “She” is, this entity does not want you to survive this night as it keeps sending powerful monsters your way and manipulating the very woods themselves to trip you up.  Fortunately, a nice father and son who were already consumed by the woods before you (which begs the question: How did they survive?) teach you about a special kind of enchantment called Rootwork (What are the chances?) which utilizes objects you find lying around in the woods to beat back the baddies and get out of the forest alive for one more night, at least until you wander back in again for another hand.  As you keep winning hands and escaping the woods, “She” tells you stories about the various creatures you encounter and how they came to the sorry state they are in, with the ultimate revelation apparently being who exactly “She” is (I haven’t gotten far enough in the game to find this out yet, but I hope it will be worth my while).

This drama plays out on a more basic level when you start playing the actual game.  With each new game, you are tasked with escaping the woods by finding three “Milestones” (familiar landmarks) before all of the time cards at the top of the game screen run out or before the monsters in the woods consume you.  Using your “Survival Cards” (the cards you put into your hand each turn), you match up the four colored symbols on your cards to those of the monsters and Milestones.  With each Milestone, you need to match up two monsters or “Sticks” as well as the Milestone itself, a goal which is often easier said than done.  Some cards need only one symbol to be matched while others need two of that type and are a bit trickier to deal with.  Some of your cards have one or two symbols as well which can help or hinder you depending on if they are the right colored symbol.  If they aren’t the right color, you can play them face-down to tick off half a symbol on a monster or Milestone, but trust me, you don’t want to get caught in a situation where you have to play four cards you wanted to save for later hands face-down to get rid of a two-symbol monster.  You only get to carry five cards in your regular hand as well as two or three more in Freecell-type holders off to the side, but if you can’t get rid of a “stick,” it will take up the space of one of those holders, preventing you from using it and reducing the number of cards you can keep in your hand.  With so few cards to work with, you might be able to get the right symbol combinations you need to advance, but chances are you will not have those, in which case you need to be diplomatic about which cards you want to use up in stopping the monsters and which ones you want to keep in your hand for the next deal.  It is this continuous balancing act and the ramped-up tension that accompanies each new hand that you must learn to deal with if you want to become a true survivor of Rootwork.

At first, I  lost more games of Rootwork than I won.  I hadn’t quite gotten the feel of managing all of the symbols I was given.  On top of that, I was working against the high levels of memorization required to succeed in the game.  You have to memorize where each Milestone you want is first in the four decks of “Site” cards you draw them from, then what six monsters and “sticks” comprise your opposition for that particular game.  If you don’t know where each “bad” card is and can’t bring up the cards you need to get rid of it, you could have a very tough time winning the game.  I remember losing five games in a row precisely because of this factor, and it only ended when I started paying attention during the sixth game.  Of course, the luck of the draw needs to be on your side, too.  Many of the games I have played so far have hinged on drawing the right cards at the right time and learning how to hold onto important cards for later hands.  Sometimes the draws work out in my favor, and sometimes they don’t.  Successfully moving cards between my hand and my holders and getting rid of cards that were taking up valuable space became one of my keys to victory after a few days.  Now, while I still lose some games because of the action on the playing field getting too out of hand for me to deal with, these losses are starting to become few and far between.  The path out of the woods is still treacherous, but at least I know how to look for the bumps in the road.

At the end of the day, the biggest success of Rootwork in my view is in terms of creating a suitably unsettling environment.  The backgrounds and card art provide illustrations of dark, gloomy forests, swampy terrain, slimy denizens, and other things designed to make you think twice about where you’re stepping.  The game’s soundtrack wonderfully compliments this weird imagery with sounds of crickets chirping, soft thunderstorms, gurgling swamps, atmospheric New Orleans-style zydeco music, and occasionally a taunt or two from “She” goading you on toward your possible doom.  The movies you unlock add considerably to the dark mood, mostly because they tell the sad stories behind many of the cards you play with.  It amazes me that all of the cards I encountered in the game was utilized in some way in these stories, making their appearances in the regular game much more meaningful for me.

Rootwork is a solidly built, psychologically disturbing, yet strangely inviting game.  True, the hands can get short once you know how all of the mechanics work, but for me, the age-old story of learning how to survive in a strange wilderness is a big part of this game’s appeal and the reason I want to keep running into the woods.  Maybe one day, I’ll find out who “She” is and fully understand the rhyme and reason why everything is chasing after me.  Then again, maybe I don’t really want to escape.  Why else would I keep running back into the forest?  Maybe “She” has already trapped me forever, and I don’t really care what happens next.  Only time will tell.

If you’re interested in Rootwork, you can currently find it on the Apple App Store (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch owners, take note).  I bought it for about two dollars and I think it is a premium-quality game at an inexpensive price, an excellent value if you can manage it.  If you have played Rootwork, I would like to hear from you what you think of your experience with the game.  What do you like or not like about the game?  Do you have any tips or strategies for escaping the woods safely that you have picked up on?  Leave your thoughts in the comments.

[One last note: don’t let “Her” get the best of you!  You start each game with the “She” card in your possession.  You can use it to obtain one Milestone without the fuss of matching up all the cards in your hand, sort of like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in Monopoly.  The catch is, if you use “Her,” “she will  sometimes cause a lot of bad cards to come your way, and she will negatively affect your character’s appearance for the rest of the game, and sometimes even beyond that.  I’ve never actually used “Her” in this way, though; I just play “Her” face-down so “Her” effects won’t kick in.  Besides, there’s an achievement if you win 1,000 games without playing the “She” card face-up (Why not face-down, I wonder?), so there’s not much of a point to using “Her” anyway.  If you want to use “Her,” though, just remember that “She” comes with a steep price.  Good luck!]

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2 Responses to ““Rootwork” iPad Game Review: Into the Woods”

  1. Rob Eiben Says:

    Thanks so much for this review! May I quote it on the app description?

  2. Benjamin Kellogg Says:

    Yes, please do! Your game has become one of my favorites; count my vote among the positives.

    Ben Kellogg

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