REVIEW: In Road 96, the real fun is the friends you make along the way
Updated: Feb 8
When we previewed Road 96 during E3 this year, we came away deeply impressed with it artistically, curious about its high levels of randomization, but skeptical that the political road trip simulation could stick the landing and provide a complete experience from end to end.
Just over two months later, after multiple trips through the highways and byways of Petria, we're left fairly satisfied with our trip. Though, just like any road trip, there were a few messy moments and bumps along the way.
Just the Facts
Platform(s): PC* and Nintendo Switch *platform reviewed on
Release Date: Aug. 16, 2021
Key provided by Evolve PR.
Road 96 was developed and published by DigixArt with support and sponsorship from the Omen Presents initiative. The game released on August 16, 2021 for PC and Nintendo Switch, after being revealed just a year ago during The Game Awards.
In Road 96, players are trying to flee the fictional nation of Petria, a vaguely European country in the middle of political turmoil during the summer of 1996. With the tyrannical President Tyrak in charge, political dissidents are disappearing to a place called "The Pits." And it just so happens a lot of those dissidents are the nation's youth.
With a freedom fighting crew known as the Black Brigade behind them, teens are rising up, fighting for change, and fleeing the country en masse after a terrorist attack just ten years prior ratcheted up Tyrak's despotic rule. With an election upcoming, it's up to the player to try to influence the nation and make change for the people of Petria.
Players step into the shoes of several of these teen refugees as they make their way to the border, using whatever transportation method possible. As you hitchhike, steal cars, ride the bus, grab taxis, or simply walk your way to freedom, you're introduced to the weird and wild cast of Road 96. The bulk of the story is told through a handful of randomly selected and unique interactions you have with each of the seven supporting cast and each one represents the spectrum of what Petria has to offer.
From the bumbling duo of criminals known as STAAAN AND MIIITCH to the slightly murderous cabbie, Jarod, the cast of characters runs the gamut of endearing to chilling. Each one has been deeply affected by the situation in Petria and by learning their stories, you learn what's at stake for the nation.
The characters are all engaging, each with their own take on what's happening in the nation — but thanks to some stumbles in writing and performance, a few suffer. One to highlight (or lowlight) is Alex, a teenage hacker with a tragic upbringing who turns out to be extremely influential in the game's main story. Sadly, Alex's impact is undermined by his poor writing and a weird overemphasis on poorly executed slang.
The problem isn't centralized to just this one character, with generally clunky writing present in nearly every character's main story, but Alex stands out as particularly out of touch when silhouetted against a story with such political intrigue. That said, you develop a genuine bond with some characters that transcends many of the relationships attempted by games with a narrative focus.
The story can feel too fluffy at the start, with some bits bordering on slapstick, but suffice to say there are some appropriately chilling moments on your journey to political freedom. Crossing the border, no matter how you choose to do it, is an inherently stressful prospect and it never feels like it's taken lightly. With the current political state of our real world, these moments hit harder than even the developers intended and made the whole story feel even more impactful.
That said, if you choose to pursue a "good" ending for Petria and its characters, there's a simplicity on display that feels dishonest for the complex situation and the horrifying moments littered throughout. With the political realities faced around the world today, there's only so much an oversimplified story can do to create a realistic solution to centuries of border-based violence. If you find it unrealistic, you won't be alone.
But with Road 96, it's definitely more about the journey than the destination, and it was a journey well worth having, full of fun characters and enjoyable moments.
In the lead up to release, Road 96's marketing was all about procedural generation. Trailers talked about the thousands of possible permutations between each player's journey, promising that no two playthroughs would be the same.
In practice, the procedural generation is less obvious and more ancillary to the overall experience. It can change the resources you find in the world, the character you play as (when you select them from a lineup at the start of each new run), and when and where you meet characters and get their unique scenes. But otherwise the engine keeps itself fairly hidden.
DigixArt could have put the random generation front and center, developing something of a narrative roguelite, but it would have been to their detriment. It's an impressive engine when you consider how restrained they were in using it throughout the game.
Each leg of your journey is made up of a few phases. First, you start the day riding along with one of the seven characters you can meet along the journey, making dialogue choices and getting information about the path ahead. Almost every dialogue choice you make influences both the character you're talking with and the greater culture shift happening in Petria. You have one of three options in shaping the future of Petria: 1) Making change as non-violently as possible, advocating for peaceful change via democracy and in supporting the left-leaning candidate. 2) Blowin' things up and taking radical steps to overthrow the tyrannical government and supporting the Black Brigade. 3) Doing nothing and letting things stay the same as you find freedom for yourself across the border.
Having played through the game twice, your choices don't seem to manifest in drastically different experiences in the moment-to-moment interactions with people and the world. But they can deliver vastly different endings come Election Day. Your personal choices reverberate throughout the nation.
After these chats, you're treated to some minigame-like scenario. They can range from a rhythm game that has you dance to tunes with your ridealong to something more action-packed, as you throw stolen cash at a cop car chasing you to fill their corruption meter. Each one is fairly unexpected and breaks up the normal Telltale style dialogue-choice-and-consequence gameplay. Oftentimes, these unique encounters stood out as the thing we looked forward to most while playing.
There are also some very light survival mechanics (eating food to keep your energy up, finding places to sleep or deciding to travel through the night, etc.) that come into play in the moments between stops on the trail. These mechanics were intriguing at the start, but quickly faded away after just a few runs, when each of the game's six unique perks were unlocked, eventually eliminating the need to maintain almost anything. Money, stamina, resources. All made irrelevant with the varied powers of these perks, which made all between-runs exploration expendable.
After you pick a new way forward, you meet up with a new character and the cycle begins anew. It's an easily consumable gameplay loop that celebrates sessions of all lengths, which is something to celebrate in an era of games that dominate your time.
A single run to the border, complete with at least 5 or 6 stops, takes about an hour. You need anywhere between 6 to 9 runs to finish the game's mandatory story beats and roll credits.
Again, for a game so heavily marketed on its randomization, I was surprised by just how much scripted story was packed in here. The game manages to tell a fairly cohesive story, with a genuinely engaging mix of contemplative conversations and fun and unique minigame breaks. It in no way feels randomized, which should be a success. But I think that's more a testament to the quality of the scripted segments that almost all players will be subjected to in their first 7 to 9 hour playthrough, rather than some masterclass of procedural generation.
On the other hand, something that does feel like a masterclass is Road 96's neon-tinted and cel-shaded aesthetic. Both in the art and the soundtrack, the 90s vibes ooze. There are some beautiful skyboxes that definitely stole my attention throughout my playthrough. Petria may be under tyrannical rule and the need to escape can feel overwhelming, but damn if the trip isn't enticing. And with 90s inspired tunes from more than a dozen different artists, your trip is accompanied by rad snippets of vaporwave, rock, and indie tunes.
From beginning to end, I found myself waiting for the moment where Road 96's wheels fell off — it never came. With its ambitious randomized engine and political storyline, they had more than a few opportunities to fumble the concept. Instead, Digixart provided an interesting and human experience that we'd recommend to all fans of story-driven releases.
video games are good and Road 96 is . . . GREAT. (8/10)
+ gameplay variety is high for this type of game, beautiful art and music, story is solid and appropriately chilling when needed
- a few awkward performances, randomization doesn't manifest in ways you think, some mechanics eventually become irrelevant
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