Road 96 Review
One of our more anticipated games for this April is Road 96, an indie narrative adventure game from DigixArt that follows a group of faceless teenage runaways hitchhiking through Petria, a country run by a totalitarian government, during its contentious presidential election.
If there’s a way to describe this game, think of it as a political Oregon Trail where you control an anonymous teenage runaway from their point of origin to the eponymous Road 96 where they attempt to cross to freedom.
Throughout your journey, you’ll meet a motley cast of quirky characters connected through the timeline and story of its world who would either help or hinder you to your final destination.
Your interactions with these characters in their interconnected vignettes make up the meat of the story as you tackle the election period throughout seven episodes where each road trip is unique and each choice determines your runaway’s final destination.
Road-lite or a Road-like?
For a narrative adventure, Road 96 is surprisingly enjoyable. I, for one, could tell you right now that the story may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s how Road 96 is structured and filled with so many entertaining moments that keep the momentum running.
There’s a tendency that narrative adventures may drag on too much or wagers their audience’s attention on a story where a contentious plot point makes or breaks the overall enjoyment of the game. While Road 96 really lays on its message too thick (more on that later), it doesn’t forget that it is a game first and it lays enough of its groundwork to make it an entertaining interactive adventure.
Road 96‘s gameplay loop would involve between 40 minutes to an hour of each teen’s journey as they trek through the Petria landscape, doing whatever it takes to reach their destination. While the actions of each character and their moment-to-moment choices are quite straightforward, you can choose to not act on them and just keep moving forward.
You’ll need to balance your energy and your resources in Road 96 because once your energy bar goes to zero, you’ll either get caught by the oppressive police force or meet your death in precarious situations. If you have a lot of money, you may be able to restore your energy better by being able to afford to eat, sleep, or allow for better accommodation. Even if your adventures stop with one runaway, you can try again in a new chapter.
Your ultimate goal in Road 96 is to cross the border, and if you’ve managed to escape capture or death, the border itself is its own challenge with its own ways of fulfilling your journey. Each successful border crossing makes the succeeding episode a little harder and your choices much tighter. If you exited the border by hiding in a truck, the next crossing would find all trucks inaccessible, so you’d have to look for another way.
What makes each road trip in Road 96 unique is that the world’s story will continue to move and the circumstances affecting each new runaway will be different. It may be easier to get around earlier in the game, but later in the story, the choices become more morally challenging or resources will be a little more scarce. Perks make the progress easier, sometimes too easy that certain mechanics like karma and luck become outdated at a certain point.
What really annoys me is that the game doesn’t provide dialogue options to clear up some contrived interactions. For example, a recent encounter with a mother arguing with their runaway son via radio could’ve been resolved when you meet the son on the next encounter, but you’re forced to watch a scene unfold that could’ve been fixed easily with a simple dialogue choice.
Road 96 is full of these forced interactions that stick out like a sore thumb. In its defense, however, the narrative prevents you from being too smart for your own good. When compared to other narrative games like Martha is Dead and Weird West where entire quest lines could be gated because of getting ahead of yourself, it’s an easy fault to let go.
Team Flores or Team Tyrak
Road 96 doesn’t hide the fact that it has a political story, as it is clear in all of its marketing that it is sending a message. For the most part, like Mass Effect and games of its type, each of your hitchhiker’s choices contribute to the overall result of the country’s political landscape. In a sense, your moral choices give you a second to reflect, which is an interesting mechanic where you can seriously think about your choices.
Personally, I find the message of Road 96 a bit too heavy-handed for my taste, which could’ve used a little more nuance to encourage a more well-rounded conversation. It may alienate gamers of a certain political standing, as the message the writers are trying to convey is beaten into your head too often.
While the characters are definitely likable, their characterization lacks layers but works well in delivering the message the writers want to convey. Obviously, the characters who are more questioning of their positions are the more interesting ones to follow, whereas the one-dimensional characters are stereotypes that many times get on your nerves.
One aspect of Road 96 that works really well is the mini-games you play with certain characters that break the monotony of the narrative. Each character has their own schtick and by completing them, you can either earn more money, earn an easier route to the border, or for some of them actually let you live. One of the characters is quite menacing in their unpredictability that they truly bring fear into your future encounters.
The complete run of the game is 6 hours long with multiple endings depending on the critical choices each of your characters makes. It’s quite easy to come to the narrative outcome of your choosing, and you’ll probably use the New Game + to see other iterations of the same outcomes, but some story beats become repetitive on your second try. You can most probably see all outcomes in a 9-hour playthrough and an easy platinum trophy to take home.
What We Liked:
- The structure of the game being able to control multiple faceless runaways presents a rogue-lite structure that elevates the narrative adventure experience.
- Most characters are likable and the mini-games add to the enjoyment.
- Choices made in the game actually affect major parts of the story.
What We Didn’t Like:
- Heavy-handed political message may alienate some players.
- Contrived way of how the story avoids certain logical conversation choices.
- After a while, the karma system becomes useless because of bonuses.
Verdict: Buy It!
Road 96 is an enjoyable narrative journey that makes the most of your first run to the best of its presentation. While it may not win over gamers of certain political mindsets, its strengths are more derived from how it made a narrative game entertaining enough that doesn’t forget that it’s a video game first.
I’m always looking for creative ways to tell a story and these vignettes that chronicle a country’s turning point through the eyes of its disillusioned youth are what inspire me to continue perusing interactive media as it pushes the boundaries as a storytelling medium. Long story short, Road 96 is certainly a journey worth taking.
*Road 96 was reviewed on a PS5 with a review code provided by the publisher.