(Road 96 is available now for Nintendo Switch and Windows)
Let’s face it: video games often pull from real life in order to fuel their narrative economy. Not only that, it’s also something that’s become increasingly common in newer releases. Maybe it’s because of my age, what with being in my mid-20’s now and constantly feeling like every action is one that could be judged politically. Maybe it’s thanks to our more-than-ever-before connected world where we’re able to share differing life experiences like never before.
Regardless of the underlying reason, I can freely admit that I find art imitating life in this scenario to be massively appealing. To see other’s interpretation of life events through the lens of an interactive work of art is something unique to gaming. There’s a sort of beauty to it all, and I think that’s why Road 96 appealed to me so much.
The premise in Road 96 is simple and to the point. You take on the role of a series of teens as they travel to the border of the oppressive, totalitarian country of Petria in an attempt to escape and find a better life elsewhere. What helps in diversifying this straightforward premise is an interesting cast of characters who you meet during your various attempts to flee the country. Building upon that further, Road 96 pushes forward an overarching narrative of an upcoming election waiting for the citizens of this oppressive regime. At first, the overall climactic event (or events) at the end of this roughly 8 hour adventure may not immediately seem apparent. However, it’s through the numerous encounters with the aforementioned cast of supporting characters that makes the entire story (and their roles in it) come together.
Now, there’s quite a noticeable (how should I say this) blemish on the entire story and how it’s given to the player to enjoy: that’s the visuals. This game has some of the most wildly inconsistent presentation I’ve been witness to in a while. I should mention that this game was made on a smaller budget and by an even smaller team of indie developers. It’s often not priority #1 of developers to make the highest quality looking game ever, which I understand.
I mean this in a purely critical sense and in an attempt to share my experience with you when I say this: this game often goes from great to not so great at a moment’s notice. So much so that I found it to be distracting at best and cringe inducing at worst. It’s unfortunate that so many emotional moments in Road 96 fall flat for this exact reason. On the flipside, if this is what a team can accomplish on a tight budget and as a first project, then my hope for future releases will remain bright.
Unfortunately, the presentation’s inconsistency doesn’t stop at it’s visuals. Beyond hit or miss lip sync, stiff animation, and some goofy texture action, Road 96 is also guilty of sporting the occasional bout of poor voice acting. Thankfully, this isn’t something that stands out as much as the problems with the visuals do, but it was still distracting nonetheless.
Outside of the moments here or there with the visuals being less than stellar and voice lines being delivered in less than convincing ways, there is a tremendous amount of beauty to be found in Road 96. The environments and the variety of places you visit along your journey are beautiful mosaics of cell-shaded goopy oil painting goodness. The lighting used often helps these locations pop even further, and the fantastic use of Road 96’s soundtrack being weaved in and out at key moments helped bring it all together.
Speaking of the original soundtrack, it’s with great pleasure that I can tell you Road 96 has some fantastic music to help you feel all of the feels while trekking thousands of miles across the country. You’ve got all of the basics covered, from Jack Johnson-type acoustic upbeat jams to synthwave pop goodness that wouldn’t be out of place in the glove compartment of The Weeknd’s car. There is a great mix of music, with some of the songs quickly ending up on one of my playlists over on Spotify. If there’s anything that you explore more of before purchasing a ticket explore Road 96, it should be the music. It’s some genuinely good shit.
Outside of gawking at the scenery presented to you along the variety of roads you’ll travel, Road 96 presents a unique hybridization of both the ever popular choose your own adventure genre of games (aka Telltale Games, Life is Strange) and the never know what you’re going to get randomness of roguelites (aka Hades, Rogue Legacy).
At the start of each attempt to cross the border, you’re presented with a few choices for a no name teen who you’ll play as. Once you decide on a character template, you’re whisked away on your journey. The trip often opens with you in a car or walking up upon a location where you run into one of the supporting characters. They’re generally dealing with some issue that calls upon you to help them resolve. Resolutions boil down to a minigame most of the time, which there’s thankfully a large variety of. In my time with Road 96, I never ran into a repeat minigame, which was a great thing to experience.
You’re also presented with numerous interactions that take place between you and Road 96’s cast of colorful characters. These conversations aren’t as deep or as impactful as I’d have liked them to be, but they were still great at carrying the story along. Thankfully there’s also a new game plus mode once you complete the story, so the option to go back and redo interactions in a different way while still maintaining all of the information you gained in a previous playthrough is available.
Road 96 also mentions that it’s a procedurally generated adventure. That merit is technically true, but there’s been plenty of confusion surrounding it, so I’ll attempt to clarify. Road 96 is procedural in the way it presents it’s events, not so much when it comes to the game’s overall content. What I mean by this is that almost everyone will experience similar or even the same events during a playthrough of Road 96. The locations (at least from what I’ve seen) don’t generally vary much, either. What does vary however, is the order in which these events play out for each player. One player may start out in a truck with the charismatic John, while another person may start out roadside with the upbeat wizkid, Alex. In the end though, both players will more than likely still experience both events.
Personally, I don’t find much frustration in the fact that Road 96 isn’t as varied or procedurally generated as I initially thought it would be. This is due to the fact that the journey Road 96 asks you to take to reach it’s conclusion is one of intrigue. The characters (voice acting aside) are well written and interesting people, who I found enjoyment in learning more about. The numerous little minigames you play, from simple past times like portable Connect 4 to throwing bags full of money at a police officer in hot pursuit of you, are always fun to play. Then there’s that absolutely awesome soundtrack to help bring all of this together even further.
There are smaller enjoyments to be had here as well. I especially enjoyed seeing the world react to my choices, no matter how tiny the change may be. Finding varying ways to cross the boarder as my options became more and more limited was also a nice touch. Talking to citizens and asking for their opinions on hotly debated topics within the game world helped flesh Petria out as a lived in place. Being able to call the numbers on display on billboards, learning abilities that help you interact with things in ways you couldn’t before, etc etc.
There is a copious amount of pure, unfiltered storytelling goodness to be had here. Further backing that storytelling is a wonderfully varied mix of gameplay in Road 96 that keep things from feeling stale, even after numerous escape attempts have gone by. These high points are occasionally marred by less than stellar presentation in both the visual and audio departments, but it was never enough to stop me from wanting to see what would happen next. There was always something new just around the corner, waiting to be discovered.
In that way, I think Road 96 is akin to many adventures people have taken where they get to driving and don’t even so much as glance at a map. Who knows? It may be a secret ingredient that all good road trips need. If it is, then I’d argue that Road 96 is a trip well worth taking.