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Road 96

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Digixart Entertainment
Release Date: Aug. 16, 2021


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PC Review - 'Road 96'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Aug. 20, 2021 @ 11:00 p.m. PDT

Road 96 is a procedural narrative adventure where you must escape a country on the brink of collapse and reach the border, thousands of miles away in the mountains.

Hitchhiking can be dangerous, since it involves getting into a stranger's car in the middle of nowhere and trusting they have good intentions. There's always a story, either with the drivers or with the places you end up. Road 96 is about the in-between moments, the small (and large) encounters that happen on the long, dusty stretches of road. Delightfully, it succeeds.

Road 96 is set during 1996 in the fictional authoritarian dictatorship of Petria, which is under the rule of a tyrannical dictator. A terrorist attack 10 years prior was all that he needed to consolidate power. Anyone who opposed him, especially the youth of the country, vanished and were sent to terrifying concentration camps. You take control of teenagers from this country as they desperately try to find some way to survive. Their biggest hope lies in Road 96, the one exit from the country, but it's a dangerous journey, and even if you survive, getting out of Petria isn't as easy as it sounds.

While Road 96's plot revolves around the country, the story is about a handful of characters, each with their own interconnected storyline. For example, one character is a police officer with an adopted child who is on the run, the officer's adopted child is looking for his biological parents, and a trucker is unknowingly in contact with both characters and his fate is wrapped up in theirs. Each interaction can sway the characters differently, and their stories can end in multiple ways, depending on how you respond. The title doesn't shy away from politics, and characters you can empathize with can still seem like monsters when you realize who they support — and why.

There is one piece of writing that I found to be particularly engaging. One of the eight main characters is a serial killer and possibly the most tense and unnerving depiction of one in a game to date; this is rather surprising considering how silly other elements of the title can be. At first blush, he seems ridiculous, but the moment you end up alone with him, he is incredibly terrifying. He is unhinged, ruthless, and capable of doing terrible things; there's a good chance that one or more of your characters may end up on his victim list. These moments felt among the most engaging in the game because they nailed the terrifying feeling of being trapped with a driver who might murder you because you said you didn't like the music on the radio.

If there's one thing that didn't work, it was the plotlines focused around Not Fox News Really reporter, Sonya. She's an exaggerated character who the game expects me to like or empathize with, but she's a terrible person, and the game knows it, but sometimes it seems to luxuriate in her terribleness. One of the core plotlines involves a stalker who is trying to kill her, but since she is a willing and eager participant in the torture of children (in addition to being the most awful kind of TV personality), it was really difficult to want to save her as much as the plot seemed to think I wanted to, and the few moments of empathy she shows don't make up for it.

Something that can catch people off guard is the game's sudden changes in tone. One moment, you might be helping a drunk guy play soccer. The next moment, you may be in a tense standoff with a police officer as you try to convince them to not take a sobbing child to The Pits. It can feel like whiplash when you go from a casual scene to being murdered in the back of a taxi. It sells the many dangers of hitchhiking, but the sudden shifts can make some scenes fall flat.

The best way to describe Road 96's gameplay is "roguelike visual novel." You start a run by picking one of a variety of randomly generated, nameless teen runaways, each with different starting points, cash flow, and health. From there, you travel through a series of randomized vignettes. How you act in each one influences the plot, the rewards you may get, and even if you'll make it to the next stop.

Once you complete an event, you're able to choose how to move forward, with available options depending on where you are and what you've done. You can walk, take a taxi, wait for a bus, or steal a car. Each leads to a different potential plot event for the next story beat, and some events only occur if you've fulfilled certain criteria. Early on, you may run into two burglars who force you at gunpoint to help them burgle a taxi company. Depending on what you do, they may be successful at getting what they're looking for, fail miserably, or succeed but leave you holding the bag. If you steal a car, you might not run into the burglars, but they could ambush you and force you to drive them.

These sequences are engaging and varied. Some involve talking and exploration, encouraging you to gather information and make decisions that influence later plot events. Others involve minigames that can range from steering a motorcycle through oncoming traffic to fighting off bandits with a nailgun. There are a variety of puzzles that task you with figuring out clues to pump gas, mix drinks, or identify a potential location for an assassin's murder plot. These minigames are straightforward, and success can yield additional cash or special information. The minigames are infrequent enough and simple enough to not get in the way. It might be weird to suddenly get a rail shooter segment, but it's a nice diversion.

Success matters because your character has a health bar, which represents their total condition. It increases when resting, eating good food, or drinking, and it goes down as you travel, do risky things, and in stress out your character. If it goes down to zero, your character passes out and could end up robbed or arrested. Since this is a sort-of roguelike, it's possible for your character's journey to end at any point. Having money means you can buy rations or bribe officials to turn the other way.

The segments don't only have one outcome. Depending on what you do, there are various ways to solve problems. Sometimes you can turn your back, but other times, you can falsify information or intentionally fail to change the outcome. By moving certain events forward, you can unlock skills such as hacking keypads, picking locks, finding special items, opening up dialogue options, and more. The skills persist across all characters once they are unlocked, and they are even maintained through a New Game+ to give you more options for a new storyline.

The story is on a timeline and gradually builds up to election day. Each character you control appears a little further down the timeline and sees newer parts of the story and the influence of each character's actions. You can influence each character's plot and the general tone of the world. You can try to argue that fair elections are the only way forward, smash the state rebel, or push the idea that there is no hope for the country so we have to get out. These decisions build upon one another, and your ending is determined by your characters' attitudes.

Of course, the game isn't just about changing the world. Each character's end goal is reaching Road 96, the lone (and heavily guarded!) exit from the country. Once you reach Road 96, you have a variety of options to escape, which you'll have to weigh based on resources. You can try to pay smugglers to get you out, but if you don't have enough money, they might run. You can climb a treacherous mountain path, but you won't survive if you aren't in optimal shape. You can try to talk your way through a citizenship test where a single wrong answer gets you arrested. Regardless of whether you succeed or fail, that path is permanently closed to all future characters, so you need to think carefully.

The title's visual style does wonders with a smaller budget. While the character models and environments are not super complex, they're done in a very appealing cartoonish art style and make great use of colors, camera angles, and lighting to sell the scenes. The aforementioned scene with the serial killer is done entirely in dark blues except for the cigarette lighting his face to give him an unearthly, demonic appearance. This is bolstered by excellent voice work from all of the main characters. Each one nails their role exceptionally well. The soundtrack is also wonderful, featuring a mix of '90s-inspired songs that set the tone and atmosphere for the game.

Road 96 shows that it is possible to do a "roguelike," narrative-focused story and do it well. It's a shockingly engaging and well-written game with likeable characters. It's sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying, and sometimes thought-provoking, but no matter what, it never gets boring. Each setback or revelation made me eager to see the next, and my ending felt like a satisfying resolution to the plot that I'd been building. If there were ever a game that defined, "It's the journey, not the destination," it's Road 96, and if you're a fan of quirky, narrative-driven games, then this is well worth a shot.

Score: 9.0/10

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