Reviewed on PC. Thank you to DigixArt for this advanced copy.
Inspired by the harrowing tales of anyone who’s ever left their country in search of a better life, Road 96 puts players in the shoes of those very people, setting out on a journey they’ll never forget. From the moment I first took control of my unnamed protagonist, I knew this game would be something special. Being a fan of Telltale games and other titles with choice-based narratives, Road 96 instantly felt like something simplistic in concept, and beautiful in practice. Thankfully, I was not prepared for the incredible adventure ahead of me, and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. Road 96 takes a tried-and-true formula and makes something fresh and exciting out of it, with a narrative that’s as gut-wrenching as it is death-defying.
Road 96 takes place in the fictional land of Petria; it’s unclear to me whether or not Petria is the city you are in or the country you are escaping. All that is known is that teenagers keep going missing in Petria, which has been used as a popular talking point for the upcoming election. Road 96 takes some not-so-subtle cues from America’s government of late, with an egotistical, money-hungry President Tyrak – associated with the color red – and his female competitor Florres – associated with the color blue – who vows to bring about progressive change for Petria. One of the coolest things about Road 96’s gameplay hook is the ability to shape your character however you may want, which means you can swing either direction or choose to be more indifferent and fight for nothing but your own needs.
The story of Road 96 plays out over the course of about six days – give or take a couple of deaths – each with a new protagonist. At the start of each day, the player chooses a new random teen to step into the place of, inheriting their current energy bar, money, and distance from the border. Each teen is heading to the border and, in turn, their freedom. However, freedom comes at the cost of certain factors, like the aforementioned energy and money, both of which can be obtained through the story by making proper choices (eating, sleeping, searching for spare change, doing good deeds, etc.) The joy of Road 96 is forging your own path, and unlike a Telltale game where the finale seems scripted no matter what choices led you there, this game changes at the drop of a hat, and the choices really feel endless. For example, at the end of one run, I had five options available to cross the border with. These included things to spend money on, things to spend energy on, or even some paths that were completely luck-based. Every teen has the same goal but will encounter different story choices that culminate in how they’ll get across the border. In one playthrough, I had a full energy bar, so I chose to take the scenic mountain path and experienced a beautiful escape to freedom. In another, I lacked sufficient funds to pay for help sneaking across the border, so I was left to fend for myself against border security – and ended up getting arrested. It’s a tough world out there, and each narrative keeps you on your toes in terms of resource management.
Surprisingly, every teen having the same end goal never feels redundant, as the story is peppered with side characters to keep the action fresh and exciting. Especially after the first day, it’s such a pleasant sight to come across a familiar face as a new teenager. What makes it even more enjoyable is how the game structures the narrative in a way that you cannot cheat the system. For example, one plotline has you trying to stop a murder attempt, and halfway through I knew who the killer would be, using clues from past teenager’s experiences. But, because this teenager didn’t know those things, I was forced to just take it in stride and hope the side characters figure it out. It’s unique, being simultaneously omnipresent and at the mercy of an ever-shifting gameplay experience.
Road 96’s side characters are an eccentric bunch, from a gruff truck driver to a duo of masked robbers, to a conceited talk show host, to an African American police officer. Every character’s story comes with its own set of problems, uplifting moments, and power-ups. That’s right, I said power-ups. Most characters offer some genre-defying mini-game sequence – whether it’s an FPS segment, a rhythm game segment, or a “don’t collide with oncoming traffic” segment, just to name a few – and most of these offer a special power-up in return. These go to the player, not the teenager, and unlock such abilities as “more persuasive dialogue options” or “hacking abilities” or “increased luck,” which can be used for the rest of the game. I love the inclusion of these power-ups because it opens up new possibilities for the following teenagers, and helps add a new gameplay perspective to Road 96’s flow.
My favorite part of Road 96 was ultimately my least, with the side characters offering the best and worst parts of the game. Some characters are just incredibly irritating: I’m looking at you, Alex. Alex is a 14-year-old tech wizard who speaks with dated ’90s references (yes, I’m aware the game takes place in the ’90s, but that doesn’t make it any more tolerable) and is almost entirely unlikeable. His main arc stems from losing his parents in a terrorist attack and wanting to know more about them. He’ll stop at nothing to learn about them, going so far as to side with the same terrorist group that got his parents killed in order to learn more. It should be a very tear-jerking tale, what he goes through, but I can’t help but be pulled out of the emotion with every “yo,” “dog,” and “homegirl” he spews at me. Not to mention, Road 96’s voice acting cast is really quite weak. Except for John, the grizzly truck driver I’d mentioned earlier, nobody really puts their backs into their performance. John is a joy to watch, though, as he flips between a caring father figure and an ominous bearded ball of anger. He’s a softie at heart, which makes it all the harder to decide “do I wanna turn him in for being a terrorist? That $5000 is looking mighty fine right now.” But I digress, it’s just noticeably bad at times how untrained these voice actors are. This is a small price to pay, though, when the game’s writing makes up for it in the end.
Voice acting aside, Road 96’s background elements are quite breathtaking. I’m talking mainly of its visuals and its soundtrack, both of which blew me away with each passing day. The art of Road 96 is reminiscent of Borderlands’s cel-shading, but with less detail added to make it feel even more like a storybook. I didn’t even mind the emptiness of the world as a whole, as driving along the road and watching trees and buildings pop up as the horizon comes into view is such a satisfying visual. Aside from stationary objects, animations like fire and waterfalls look gorgeous, and even the mouths of the NPCs look accurate and realistic. It’s apparent that a lot of care was put into this game’s graphics, and it runs beautifully.
Furthermore, the music of Road 96 is absolutely fantastic. Collectibles are scattered about the environment in the form of cassette tapes, which can be given to the player by NPCs, found in vehicles, or purchased at stores. These tapes play tracks from the game’s original soundtrack, and they can then be played on radios and boomboxes throughout the game. Even certain characters come with their own theme songs. Zoe’s theme in particular – she’s the red-headed free spirit who ran away from home with nothing but her trombone – plays every time she’s encountered, and even though the lyrics can be overpowering against NPC dialogue, it’s such a festive Jack Johnson-esque tune that I welcomed its presence every time and simply basked in it. I just might purchase the separate soundtrack for this song alone.
Road 96 is a charming adventure game with minimal hiccups to throw off its appeal. With a story that plays out over a few short days, there is so much to explore in about six hours, and doing so through the eyes of multiple different characters is such a brilliant, uncharted concept. There are choices you’ll come across that impact the world around you – as well as the primary election story arc – but all in all, I found it fun to play around with the varying story choices with each teen. In my first playthrough, I played as if I were myself, as I do in Telltale games. In my second, I had an aggressively progressive “all cops are bastards” approach. In another, I was a conservative do-gooder who never stepped out of line. In yet another, I chose to take an indecisive approach, only looking out for myself and refusing to pick a side. I got arrested in that one. But hey, that’s the joy of Road 96! I’ve never felt so free in a video game. There are so many choices, and so many ways to go about every scene. Every loading screen gives you an update on each NPC’s story progression, so you can see how far along the entire plot is. It’s helpful, I just wish there were some more NPC’s to talk to and learn from. Every character is so unique, including the player characters, and I would love to learn even more about the everyday people of Petria.
Road 96 is a world that feels lived-in, and for once the player isn’t just playing out a story, they’re playing out multiple in a world that’s already on the brink of disaster. I’m actually excited to replay Road 96. I can’t wait to see it all again through six more pairs of eyes. I can’t wait to see the different spray-painted writings on the cave beneath the waterfall from all of my teenagers. The waterfall is the place they all come before finally attempting to cross the border; it’s the place where all their stories intertwine, if only for a brief moment. Whether you’re stopping by to rest, add a rock to the cairn, or leave some money for the next weary crosser, the waterfall at Road 96 is the cornerstone of the journey you’ve made. It’s a symbolic reminder that we all come from different paths, but we all want the same thing, and that’s a sense of freedom, family, and acceptance – everything Road 96 wears proudly on its sleeve.