Road 96 takes the runaway teenager trope and makes it a national phenomenon in the decaying country of Petria. The experience gamifies and politicizes the great American road trip. The game not only paints a not-so-pretty picture of the democratic experience that mirrors our own reality – it also encourages you to exercise your own beliefs within its world.
Developer DigixArt‘s ambitious procedural adventure has a narrative that stretches across different protagonists and several miles. Known for their previous work on 11-11 Memories Retold, they promise a unique and exciting narrative where the player’s choices really matter.
Story – The Roads Less Traveled
Road 96 is like “The Canterbury Tales” of the choose-your-own-adventure genre of video games. You take on the role of different teenagers that have been reported missing – a trend that has been happening in response to the ills of the government. It turns out, they are all heading to Petria’s border to try and cross towards a better life. The premise really holds up your attention and makes you want to follow the whole story through.
One thing that bothered me about the story is they don’t really flesh out the background of Petria and its evil government, and why it’s the kids in particular who are getting the short end of the stick. The writing can really be on the nose, but it’s raw and honest and never hands you a reason to believe either side is the right way to go. You might even find yourself deferring to the “I don’t care” teenaged rebel responses because of how you perceive either side.
As you try your luck crossing the border with various missing kids on the run, you also uncover the intricate web that ties the supporting cast together. These characters are what I believe are the beating heart and soul of the game. As you roll into the next segment of your adventure, you eagerly await who you’re meeting next and what shenanigans will ensue.
The best part is that each segment shows you different sides of each character. For example, in some segments with Zoe, she is friendly and agreeable. In others, she is hot-headed and short-sighted. These two different facets aren’t necessarily out of character, but their reaction to the world around them feels natural with their personality and ideals.
The game relies so heavily on its characters that unfortunately, the country of Petria itself is a bit of a blank slate. Road trips are defined by the places you visit, and there just wasn’t enough flavor to make the country that interesting or memorable. Of course, the game fleshes it out to be a horrible place, but why exactly is that the case? What culture do the people of Petria have? There’s a delightful mix of accents present in the game which made me curious about its make-up. After all, a country is not just its government, a rebel group, and a bunch of teenagers flying the coop. Where is everyone else?
Despite some missing pieces, each episodic experience heading north to Road 96 was memorable. Many of the segments held up my interest and none really bored me, and some twists even caught me off-guard. In a game structured into these mini-episodes, that is a seriously impressive feat.
It should be noted that because you get to see your progress in-game with each episode. What changes is the timeline that you string together these segments, so it’s not as replayable as one might be led to believe. Still, Road 96 has taken this method of storytelling that only video games can accomplish and did something very special with it.
Gameplay – Teenage Runaway Simulator
Road 96 is a series of vignettes strung together to make a single adventure for one missing teenager on the run. Whatever choices you make determine whether you get to cross the border – if you do manage to get to the border without getting arrested or dying. Aside from navigating conversations and meetings with different characters, you will find yourself coming across different minigames. These usually involve playing an actual in-game activity like air hockey or shooting at things with a nail gun.
The camera moves a lot, which is fine. But I found it annoying that the choices also moved alongside the subject that they are tacked on. Unfortunately, this affects you in the most frenetic moments in the game. Twice I’ve clicked on an option that I did not want to pick and had to settle for that unintended result.
I appreciate that the gamification of the typical narrative segments made a lot of sense, and at times were actually a lot of fun. Many narrative-focused games shoehorn interactive segments into their runtime, but Road 96 makes all its minigames and interactive portions relevant and even tense.
Somehow the game makes you feel the menacing task ahead of you. Even if the exploration and even the minigames are straightforward and not very difficult to beat, there’s still a sense of dread as you play the game. You really feel the high stakes at every moment. Getting to the endgame is a long journey, and it only makes victory at the end more satisfying. As a result, you are pushed to consider all your actions very carefully.
Reaching the border becomes your waterloo. Some methods are easier than the others, and you’ll find yourself regretting or patting yourself on the back for all the decisions you made before stepping out of the final cave. Many games claim their narrative prowess by saying their “choices matter,” but there are very few titles that can follow through on a story that feels like the player shaped it. Road 96 highlights this beautifully in all your playthroughs.
Audio and Graphics – A Quirky Mixed Bag
Road 96’s art has a charm that comes from its simple models that have a great attention to detail. Though not everything in the world can be interacted with, everything still looks great. The 3D model work and animation are a little muddy at times, but it gets the job done without a hitch. There are special moments in the game where the scenery and landscapes look well fleshed-out, with the right amount of beauty and chaos.
The excellent character designs really stand out. Their defining qualities are made clear at first glance – John’s “Papa Bear” look and Stan and Mitch’s joint bumbling robbers’ act – hide unexpected complexities in their personalities. The voice acting is also excellent and leveled up each character’s performance significantly. Each individual had a certain affectation that makes them recognizable and memorable.
The road trip music is engrossing, and the game puts in the effort to make it a big part of your run. However, there are times when the music feels a little muddled in terms of creating a character for the setting of the game. While each song is great in its own right, the collective mix is not as cohesive as one might expect. If you were going to compile all these songs for your next road trip, you’ll at least have a tune for every mood.
Overall, the atmosphere that the game builds – using its story, visuals, and music – do come together, especially in the biggest moments of the game. It’s impressive how the developers managed to capture the exhilaration and tension of the flight to freedom in a sleek and straightforward manner.
Road 96 was reviewed on PC with a key provided by Jesús Fabre.