Road 96 review | Adventure Gamers

On its surface, Road 96 appears to be all about a destination. It puts you in the role of a rather anonymous young person (a series of them, actually) moving toward a goal that is nearly mythical in its importance. The entirety of the adventure is about progressing in that one direction, ever closer to your target, by any means necessary. And yet while the destination is an essential element in a story overburdened with polarized political weight, what really makes this game a fascinating and immensely enjoyable experience is not the end point or even the surrounding conflict motivating you to get there, but rather the bizarrely compelling journey taken, and re-taken, with all the fellow travelers you meet along the way.

You are a teenager (and that is the extent of your character, an otherwise blank slate for you to define) in the fictional nation of Petria, circa 1996. The country is currently under the rule of President Tyrak, a boilerplate fascist dictator who rules by all accounts with a violent and remorseless iron fist—though in Petria there are at least still functional elections. This year will bring an electoral clash between Tyrak and his revolutionary opponent Florres, who drives her supporters to spirited and sometimes dangerous protests, and who the supporters of Tyrak accuse of being the source of the nation’s real violence. Fascist vs. revolutionary with extreme supporters on all sides and little moderation is the type of combustible political situation playing out in many parts of today’s world, and as you journey through the land of Petria, you’ll find that the entire population is seemingly caught up in this conflict.

And why are you taking this journey? You’re a “crosser” simply trying to escape the country, which does not just allow its teenage residents to leave, for reasons not much clearer than there’s a really mean guy in charge. You start off at an arbitrary point in the southern half of the Petria map and wind your way north through a series of scenes that introduce you to the eight primary supporting characters. They include Sonya, the obnoxiously upbeat celebrity news anchor who is eagerly supportive of Tyrak’s regime; Jarod, the sinister and occasionally terrifying taxi driver; Stan and Mitch, a goofy pair of masked motorcycle bandits with a penchant for armed robbery; two sympathetic teens named Zoe and Alex; John the papa bear truck driver with a heart of gold; and Fanny, the troubled police officer. Almost all of your scenes are focused on one of these characters.

Screenshot for Road 96 1

What makes this game so different from a standard adventure is that its individual components are all randomly chosen and sequenced, so no two journeys are the same and events never specifically lead into each other. The entirety of Road 96 is ten chapters, ten equally anonymous teenage protagonists (you select age and gender from a listing of three at the beginning of each chapter), and ten unique trips across different combinations of roads through Petria, comprising somewhere between 50 and 60 scenes in total. (Each chapter is about 75 minutes, so the game played through once will likely take 12 or so hours for most players.) The first time through a chapter you will encounter most of the supporting characters, but not all of them.

Avoiding the loss of life is really the only challenge; while there are puzzles that involve finding an item and then discovering its use, these are not difficult at all with even the slightest bit of environmental observation. You’ll also need to pay attention to your money; exploring carefully will often turn up small quantities of cash, which can be very useful in paying for a taxi ride or purchasing food or water. Once you’ve accomplished whatever the goal of the current vignette is, to complete it you’ll have to get back on the road toward your destination—maybe you’re calling a cab, assuming you have the money to use a payphone; maybe you’re hitchhiking; maybe you’re just going to walk for a while. With the right skills (more on those later), you could even use illegal means to take someone else’s transportation for your own. Once you leave, the world map appears and bounces you randomly on a few northerly roads until your next stop, all the while keeping you aware of your remaining miles to the border.

Screenshot for Road 96 2

The other kind of situation takes place during many of these vehicular transitions—you may be in the back seat of a taxi, hitching a ride in a semi-truck, or picked up from the roadside by a limousine. These scenes are very dialogue-intensive, whether you’re participating or just eavesdropping, and the only other interaction allowed is to look around the vehicle for loose change, discarded food, or other collectibles. And that’s fine, because the characters and conversation are consistently what make Road 96 shine. It struggles somewhat with bloat—some segments go on a bit too long—yet the people you meet are eccentric but memorable, offbeat but interesting, and are extremely well-written and well-voiced, without exception. The fact that the protagonist has no visible face, no voice, and no distinct traits other than those you ascribe through your dialogue choices allows the rest of the cast to consume all the available personality in every scene.

I didn’t feel that way when I first started playing the game; my early impressions were that Stan and Mitch were intolerably offbeat, Sonya’s vapidity was dialed up way too high, and Jarod’s one-note creepiness had no dimension. Gradually, however, the more I saw of each character, the more I began to understand the depth of each of them and appreciate their peculiarities, especially as their stories became more developed. Without necessarily liking or feeling great sympathy for anyone, I understood their motivations within the world better with each new interaction.

The only thing letting the narrative down is an attempt to tie the current fight for Petrian power to a tragic event of ten years prior. It turns out that each of the primary supporting characters is connected in some way to the Black Brigade Bombing of 1986—named after a quasi-terrorist group of violent revolutionaries that are still active in Petria. Peeling back the layers of the story and filling in the gaps of the core characters’ history is frequently interesting, but the crisis felt largely superfluous to me. Influencing events in the troubled country never felt like my true motivation; I was merely trying to escape. It’s all fairly standard heavy-handed political fare that seems to rely on current American stand-ins rather than wholly original ideas, and some scenes also have a feel of over-exposition; they are much more enjoyable when personality instead of narrative becomes the focus.

Screenshot for Road 96 3

After five or six total scenarios, the culmination of your journey is arriving at the northern border, at the end of a lush and beautiful forest, where the idyllic natural landscape gives way to a procession of trucks exiting Petria—but not before each vehicle is inspected for potential human cargo. So how will you get out? Is there a way to interact with the guards that would let you get through? Will you need to find a path somewhere near the truck inspection point? Can pretending to be an offshore worker get you through? Certain elements may only be present in certain chapters, so each border experience is unique, though still within the context of a narrative choice-driven adventure rather than relying on tricky puzzles. The game has a clear ending (multiple endings, actually), but playing through to the finale offers very little ultimate reward—and depending on your decisions, it’s very possible you’ll find it to be an unsatisfying conclusion.

One really interesting twist on the random distribution of scenes is the game’s ability system. Specific events shared with others lead you to learn things from them, and all the future teen protagonists will possess that same knowledge from the start. Stan and Mitch will show you how to pick locks, and Jarod teaches you a skill called Cleverness that allows you to convince people to do things you ask. You’re likely to gain all of the skills by the fifth or sixth chapter, but of course that won’t help matters if there are stubborn locks—or stubborn people—in your early experiences. Fortunately Road 96 does an outstanding job of designing puzzles with multiple solutions, so that while your abilities may provide the simplest solution, objectives can always be completed without a great deal of difficulty even without them. Sometimes, as in a particularly dramatic situation at a gas station where the police have taken one of your friends into custody, the solutions can be peaceful or violent, and can have a significant impact on your relationships with the other characters, which carries through to future chapters.

Though Road 96 may sound like (and indeed, is being mismarketed as) the type of procedurally generated experience that can lead to nearly unlimited replays, in reality it’s far more limited. Your choices may lead you to see certain scenes a different way or miss some scenes entirely, and your experience will certainly differ from that of someone else who plays to completion. They may not see the Stan and Mitch highway chase until the eighth day, while you saw it on your second. They may miss the connection you observed between John and Fanny entirely based on the choices they made and/or the random distribution of events. But does the randomness really matter? Would it affect the experience at all to be told that the sequencing and structure of each journey had been entirely predetermined? It’s unlikely that anyone will actually start the whole game over right away to have a different experience (there simply isn’t enough variance of substance overall to warrant it), and I felt just fine seeing my full-game journey as being the definitive one.

Screenshot for Road 96 4

Many conversations also present dialogue choices to make. These decisions are helpfully coded with icons to make it extremely clear whether your choice furthers your support for the violent revolution of Florres or the peaceful election process—or whether you’re only interested in self-preservation. Each time you make a selection, the game disregards subtlety to inform you “This choice has an impact.” I found this profoundly irritating; I do not need to know each time something I do could affect circumstances later—just develop the story and show me rather than telling me. What’s worse, despite all these insistent notifications, I eventually came to question whether my choices really did have an impact, and I became annoyed enough with the over-simplification and cheap emotions regarding the nation’s conflict that I found myself remaining neutral in most interactions, trying to play the part of the sane one in the room.

Providing an interesting emotional contrast to the generally dark tone of the story is the bright, slightly cartoonish look of the 3D graphics. Petria is meant to feel like a very large country (otherwise your road trips wouldn’t exactly be that impressive), and the outdoor visuals convey a real sense of beauty and distance with the northern mountains frequently visible far in the distance, often enveloped by beautiful sun and a cloudless blue sky. Most scenes take place during the day, but there are quite a few at night when the low blue light of the starry evening is even more visually appealing. It’s a shame, then, that many scenes feature substantial time inside of either a building or a moving vehicle. The less detailed aesthetic here does not hold the same appeal, though there is something rather soothing about just sitting in the car and watching the sparse landscape go by your window. The best artistic elements are the lush forest surroundings when you near your border destination, though the frequent invisible walls remove some of the joy of exploration.

Screenshot for Road 96 5

The strongest technical achievement of Road 96 is the exceptional music, which forms one of the more varied and consistently interesting original soundtracks I can remember. From beat-heavy techno to ambient acoustic guitar, from upbeat “road music” to sinister darkwave, and even a bit of singer-songwriter balladry, there’s something for everyone and it’s all really fantastic. The songs can be “collected” in-game in the form of cassette tapes scattered around the environment (and yes, cassette tapes were absolutely still common in 1996) and not surprisingly the 28-track, 90-minute soundtrack is available on streaming services.

Ultimately, Road 96 is very much about the journey rather than its destination. The backdrop of political conflict may provide the necessary context, but enjoyment comes not from the overarching story but from the many individual scenes and the unique, well-written, well-voiced characters you meet in your travels. Any dissatisfaction with the lightweight gameplay or larger narrative framework is easily forgiven when each encounter results in such offbeat, compelling fun. The border wall at the north end of Petria represents the final goal, but in reality, it’s little more than a diversion from the beautiful and enjoyable adventure that is the true engine driving you down Road 96.


Road 96 is available at:

We get a small commission from any game you buy through these links (except Steam).

Source link