E3 2021 Mini-Preview: In choice-driven Road 96 no two road trips are the same
As part of our E3 coverage, we'll be providing a few mini-previews for games that we were compelled to check out further after they caught our attention at one of the events. Many of these games have free demos, so check them out yourselves and let us know what you think!
There's something about a road trip that is inherently stressful and calming all at once. Despite everything going on in your life or in the world, you are focused on the path ahead and little else. Music's on the radio. Maybe you've got a companion at your side. It's all long stretches of road and scenery and the meditative zone of traveling.
But Road 96 doesn't feature your run-of-the-mill travels: You're on the run, hitchhiking your way to the border to escape an oppressive government. This procedurally-generated 1990s road trip simulator captures both the quiet calm and intense stress of a nomadic lifestyle.
Road 96 is being developed and published by DigixArt with support from Hewlett-Packard's Omen Presents initiative. DigixArt is made up of a blend of veteran developers and upcoming talent, with the minds behind games like Valiant Hearts and Memories Retold spearheading this title. The game features procedural generation on a grand scale, with trailers promising thousands of permutations between each run. Locations, characters, and even seemingly the player character, are randomized. A road trip narrative roguelite.
In Road 96, you control a young teenager joining a country-wide movement to make your way out of the fictional country of Petria in 1996. The authoritarian regime, led by President Tyrak, has run the country to the brink of collapse and the only way out is through the border. With teens in particular fleeing the country, dangerous forces are on the lookout for runaways.
You run into any number of interesting characters across your procedurally generated adventure, with at least seven unique ride-along characters you can catch a ride with or pick up at any point in your journey on the road. Each has their own suite of scenes and interactions to experience, but it's impossible to witness them all in one playthrough, which means massive replayability potential.
The demo introduces two of these unique ride-along characters. First, I encountered the raucous Mad Max-costume-wearing, bank-robbing duo known as Stan and Mitch. Riding in their motorcycle sidecar, we zoomed along a mountainous highway, dodging cops along the way. In my second playthrough, I enjoyed a nice breezy drive with Alex, a young game developer who spent most of our ride bringing his latest game to beta.
Tonally, Road 96 toes a dangerous line. Veering between painfully realistic to goofy and lighthearted, you start to wonder how well topics like immigration, refugees, and the brutality of the police force might be handled. The demo didn't show us enough to see how much care is given to these realities, but a few quiet contemplative moments shared between characters in the demo offer up hope for the full release.
Gameplay-wise, Road 96 seems to feature a little bit of everything.
You start each day riding with your chosen companion, learning about their personal lives and making dialogue choices that promise to create big waves down the line, in true butterfly effect style.
After that, you tackle some sort of mini-game section, drastically shaking up the straightforward narrative you've experienced up until that point. In the demo, for example, I was suddenly tasked with throwing bags of money from Stan and Mitch's latest haul at a police car on our tail. And in Alex's section, we pulled over to play his game, a simple take on the Atari classic COMBAT.
By night, your ride-along continues on the road and you set off alone to scrounge for cash and food, then choose the next leg of your journey. These moments are a bit more open-ended, giving off subtle survival game vibes. And with the procedural generation really flexing its muscles here, scattering resources randomly throughout unique buildings that feature their own set of encounters, these scenes feel like they carry the most potential.
I fully expected the demo would just feature a quick run-through of a few stops, showcasing the potential of the narrative segments and introducing some of the general systems.
Instead, in my two demo playthroughs I found two fully different runs. One was loud and action-packed, the other quiet and introspective.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that other demo players had experienced these moments in a different order than I did, and some of them had completely different protagonists (I played as two teen girls while one player complained about only playing as teenage boys).
Without really needing to, DigixArt brought a miniscule version of the "thousands and thousands of routes" concept to their free demo and the approach more than sold me on playing this game at launch.
And that's nothing to say of the beautiful cel-shaded artstyle or the moody and eclectic soundtrack that features artists like Cocoon, The Toxic Avenger, and Robert Parker.
DigixArt created something special with Road 96, managing to capture engaging moments of storytelling alongside periods of randomized chaos. When I first heard the concept, I was skeptical. I expected the game to be a mess of impersonal moments brought on by a commitment to procedural generation.
Instead, a demo that featured only a small slice of the full release showed me how two opposite concepts — handcrafted narratives and complete randomness — could find complete harmony.