Road 96 from Digixart starts off innocuous enough. Players will take on the role of an unnamed teenager that wants to hitchhike their way to the border. Why do they want to get to the border? Well, you see, the country of Petria, which you reside in, is ruled by a tyrannical leader and there are elections coming up soon. Everyone in Petria that isn’t a supporter of Tyrak, the president, has all but given up on hoping for a change of regime. Teenagers across the country are disappearing and you’re one of these missing teens.
As a missing teen, Road 96 slowly builds up its overarching narrative. You don’t know the above-mentioned details about Tyrak until you’ve sunk some time into the game. Players will start out being exposed to a news reporter named Sonya at a political rally for Tyrak. Sonya however is the target of a hitman. More about this is explained later in the game’s story via other characters and interactions with them. If you want to go into Road 96 blind, the following three paragraphs will deal with some plot points so best avert your eyes.
Sonya, as a reporter for GNN, is a propaganda mouthpiece for Tyrak. Her entire personality on camera and off camera are quite different. It’s really well done in-game with Sonya’s two personalities showing through via a change in her tone of voice. The game makes this known to you quite early too. Other characters you encounter in the game display a similar layer of complexity to them.
Road 96’s narrative is built up in short story segments that deal with a major character. There’s Stan and Mitch, Alex, Jarod, Sonya, Zoe, Fanny and John. Each of these characters has their own progression arc which ranges from 0-100% and in a playthrough, your main playable character will come across these characters on their journey to the border. Each time you come across a character, you’ll play through a story segment of the game which revolves around these characters.
The first time you encounter Stan and Mitch, you could be given a lift by them on their bike. These robbers are quirky and while they may look like thugs out to rob a bank, they have an ulterior motive which is only revealed to you through questioning them. Then there’s the taxi driver Jarod. This guy comes across as an extremely creepy weirdo and his story segments can get rather intense since they deal with some hard-hitting and downright shocking events which are completely unexpected. Alex, the genius kid with a portable computer is another complexity since he’s helping an anti-government resistance group. Fanny is a likeable conflicted police officer, John is an on-edge trucker with some shady dealings and Zoe is a runaway teen just like you are. Road 96 truly excels in its storytelling and explaining it any further will ruin the game’s narrative. And yes, you can die on Road 96. This game doesn’t hold anything back.
The gameplay in Road 96 involves players walking around in first-person view exploring their environment. These environments can be trailer parks, petrol stations, motels, the desert roadside and more. While exploring, you’ll see interactable options pop up which usually involve picking up items or speaking to other characters. Speaking to characters reveals a lot more about the game’s story and world. Each story segment features a major character and the segment may feature some mini-games or other interactable content to get through before it reaches the crux. You can then either progress further into the game or would have reached a conclusion.
The mini-games you play in the story segments can range from extremely simple to rather complex. The gameplay variation is welcome and for the most part, you won’t even realise that this is what the game is doing to keep you entertained. It blends in perfectly with the storytelling and because of this, it never gets boring. There’s always something new to experience in Road 96 even after multiple playthroughs thanks to a level of “procedural generation” involved with each run through the game since you will play as different teens leading up to the eventual election day in Petria.
With that said though, the main plot point of reaching Road 96 at the border and escaping Petria still holds true. The short story segments on offer in the game are great to play through but once you’ve played through the game a few times and unlocked some new abilities, that’s when things really get intriguing. For example, gaining the lockpicking ability will allow you to access areas that you previously wouldn’t have been able to if you didn’t have one. Obtaining the “Cleverness” ability unlocks additional dialogue options and the “Lucky charm” grants you additional luck in interactions that have a percentage based chance of success. Therefore multiple playthroughs are encouraged since it reveals deeper aspects of the game.
Road 96 has gorgeous art-styled cartoony graphics. The game is very reminiscent of Firewatch in some aspects and falls within the same “Walking Simulator” genre. There are plenty of moments throughout the game where you will just stand and be in awe at the gorgeous visuals being served up. It also helps that the game runs absolutely beautifully with no frame rate drops. One major gripe to be had though is that some NPC character models are recycled and this breaks the immersion of the game somewhat when you’re arrested by a cop that looks exactly like a person who was selling you items a few minutes ago just with different clothing.
The soundtrack of Road 96 is fantastic with synth-heavy tracks, 80s retro vibe music, orchestral themes and far more being used. This game leans heavily into using music and atmospheric sounds together to craft its narrative. You’ll realise this when playing when suddenly a countdown might appear on the right-hand side of the screen and the music gets incredibly tense as you try to escape someone during a story segment. The voice acting in the game is also great with a solid range of accents, tones and great voice work throughout. The voice work helps develop the character’s personalities too with Stan and Mitch sounding like they are really good guy criminals and Jarod the taxi driver sounding super creepy with his monotonous voice.
Overall, Road 96 is a must-play indie title. It does lean quite heavily into political aspects with its narrative and there is a lot of talk about revolution, voting, tyranny and freedom which might upset some gamers who were expecting a happy road tripping journey game. This isn’t that. This is a quirky, adventure game with story segments that will make you laugh, make you tense up, make you think about life itself and make you want to play more as you seek freedom from Petria and deeper truth about story events. It’s gripping stuff and when characters mention your previous actions as a different playable teenager, it’s quite hard-hitting to see in-game. Actions have consequences and Road 96 drives this point home immensely well. If you’re a fan of highly story-driven games, Road 96 is it.
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows
Publishers: Digixart, Plug In Digital
This review is based on the PC version of the game which can be purchased here for £16.96.
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