Genre(s): Narrative, First-Person
Platform: Nintendo Switch (Also available on PC)
Age Rating: PEGI 16
Release Date: 16/08/2021
A code was provided for review purposes
I’m on my first of many road trips in DigixArt’s “procedurally generated road trip” game Road 96. I’m trying to cross the border of the authoritarian country of Petria and I’ve found myself in the passenger seat of a young hacker’s car. His name is Alex and he’s making a new arcade game: “Furious Tanks”. We play a few rounds; I make some suggestions on how to improve the game and we go our separate ways. I run out of fuel and my escape attempt comes to an end.
The game shifts to a newsroom and I play as a new teenager, another young person trying to flee the country. I forget about my game developing venture until weeks later when I meet Alex again. He’s started selling Furious Tanks commercially and it’s been a success! However, one roadside diner is allowing its patrons to play the game without giving a penny to the young developer. So, I join Alex to take on a heist. We hack our way into the manager’s back office, unlock the safe and flee with money and car keys. I have some more cash for the road (and a new car to get to the border with) so I say goodbye again to Alex and we go our separate ways though it’s inevitable that another teenager will meet him again. This intricate weaving of narrative journeys is Road 96, and it’s glorious.
Freedom for Whom?
As someone who enjoys narrative games, I’ve often found the notion of the “Choices Matter” genre highly interesting. Some games attach themselves to the genre but offer little interactivity through scripted events and narrative. Fortunately, Road 96 is the true epitome of the “Choices Matter” in that I genuinely found that my actions were having an impact on my character, those I interacted with and the world as a whole.
Beginning the game, the premise of Road 96 seemed simple: cross the border and use whatever help you can get to arrive there but as I journeyed through the five-hour experience, my motives changed. Sure, I could pretty easily achieve my border-crossing goal by staying quietly nomadic, not taking sides and reaching the bordering country by stocking up on food and independently trekking across the mountain range to freedom. Or, I could ally with the “Black Brigades”, a rebellious opposition who would stop at nothing to overturn the government.
I found myself originally opting for that quiet lifestyle, making acquaintances – but never friends – I could trust and finding freedom for myself. But as new truths came to light, perhaps the greater success came by providing freedom for all and not just myself. Sacrifices had to be made and though my personal journey ended in failure, perhaps the country as a whole could be improved. The game’s final outcome once again comes down to the notion of choice. I had as much impact on my own journey as that of the entire country. Avoiding spoilers, when key events and decisions were made, the game highlighted these to me by pausing the game and displaying my choice in big bold letters as if to say, ‘This is what you have chosen, how will this impact them.’
Games on the Road
Yet, with the deep and meaningful political backdrop, Road 96 still manages to provide light-hearted and approachable gameplay. Between moments of genuine, palm-sweating tension, minigames such as Connect 4 can be played whilst a gorgeous 90’s inspired soundtrack strums and synths in the background. The soundtrack so perfectly evokes the 1990’s era that I found myself searching for where I’ve heard the song on the radio before, only to realise that the music was created specifically for Road 96. Light acoustic vocals capture the essence of a road trip which quickly shift to something much more darker and sinister with the arrival of blaring synths at tense moments.
Road 96 plays in first-person with floating dialogue boxes presenting the choices to players. Most responses are split into three options, indicated by varying symbols. There’s a choice to respond democratically, nomadically or rebelliously. Every character in Road 96 has various political beliefs so their response and decision to help will vary depending on how you behave.
To make these choices, the dialogue buttons move depending on the position of the respondent’s head which I sometimes found frustrating whilst playing on controller via the Nintendo Switch. A little jolt up from the character would make me sometimes click the incorrect dialogue box. This issue was more prevalent in key timed events where interacting with objects was a matter of life and death. Frustratingly, I found that the joystick just didn’t give me the level of precision to interact with a moving rectangle under tense timed restraints. But when my main issue with a game is due to how I can interact with a moving rectangle, it stands as a testament to the quality of Road 96.
Landmarks of Pietra
Visually, Road 96 takes on a low-poly art style where colour grading is wonderfully used to distinguish locations and emotions. At least on the Nintendo Switch, the game plays at a low resolution but I actually found this beneficial in replicating the 1990’s atmosphere. As well as being set in a road named 96 in the year of ’96, the game’s low-fidelity mirrored a game of ’96.
That’s not to say, the game looks bad; in fact, the visuals of Road 96 are fantastic with frequent stops at vista points showing how excellent graphics don’t have to have the highest fidelity assets to look good. On the Switch, there’s the occasional frame rate drop but again this appeals to the ambience of the game rather than hinder. You may have noticed that aside from the opening paragraph, I haven’t discussed any other characters as I believe they are best experienced unspoiled by yourself. But be assured that they’re all brilliantly voice acted, wonderfully developed and most are at least slightly zany.
Road 96’s meaningful choice system, the wonderfully developed relationships between characters, and the stunning sights and soundtrack of the world of Petria has made this procedural road trip adventure one of my favourite games of this year. Like all good road trips, I feel all the better for taking Road 96 for a ride.
Rapid Reviews Rating
5 out of 5
You can find and read our reviews on OpenCritic.