STAFF REVIEW of Road 96 (Xbox One)

Friday, April 29, 2022.
by Peggy Doyle

Road 96 Box art Very rarely will you see games be so obviously political as Road 96 is. Sure, games have had hints of political undertones, some more than others, but most often PR for games will be adamant that they are not being political. Road 96 is literally a game steeped in politics. Let’s get this out of the way; if you don’t want a game that makes you consider real life situations and politics, this isn’t the game for you.

A fascist dictator is in control of the fictional state of Petria and they are kidnapping dissenting teenagers and brainwashing them through torture. There is no way to sugar-coat this, that is the story. It’s not hidden in undertones or in lore read through the game, it’s fully 100% obvious that this is the story. Fun fact: advertisements for Road 96 were pulled and banned from Facebook because of their political content. Playing as one of such teenagers, your only option is to try to run away and try to escape by crossing the well guarded Northern border. You will meet many people along your journey and how you interact with them can mean they may help or hinder you in the future.

Originally released on PC and Switch last year, DigixArt’s Road 96 has finally made its way to consoles. It’s a game well worth playing through multiple times and seeing how different choices play out. It also seems quite relevant given the political climate we are in currently. It’s hard not to think about people fleeing their current countries and situations as you play through the game.

Road 96 takes place in the summer of 1996 and sees you playing as a runaway teen in the months leading up to an election. In each ‘act’ you play as a separate teen, starting from a variety of distances (up to 2000 miles away) from the border you are trying to cross. Road 96 said it was an ‘ever evolving story’ featuring ‘thousands of roads’. Although I’m not too sure of the accuracy of those claims, you will cover many miles over the full play through consisting of about six runs, and who and what you encounter along the play though will vary on which teens you play as. As you start each act you have a basic segmented health bar, and this is your life for each teen. Walking along the road will normally take 3 segments at a time, hitchhiking is normally 2, but if you take a cab, you can often rest and recover some health. Taking a cab however costs money, of which you have almost nothing at the start of each act, so you must earn or steal to get money, food etc.

On each stop along your road to the border you will meet one of the game’s seven characters. Each of them has their own stories, situations and problems that you will uncover through the multiple acts you play as the different teenagers. Stan and Mitch (considered one character as you never encounter them solo) are a couple of slapstick robbers trying to find out who is trying to kill character number two, TV host Sonya (also a mouthpiece and supporter for the current president). Third is Fanny, a cop struggling with her morals to keep her job while fourth, Big John “Papa Bear”, is a kindhearted trucker deeply conflicted over what he is doing. Fifth is Alex, the teenage, followed by Jarod the cab driver, and finally Zoe, another teenage runaway. Each of these characters have a series of stories that will piece themselves together as you wind through the main story. The small cast is endearing, and the voice acting is stellar.

Their unique quirks in their personalities and they way each talked made them more unique, and I connected with each of them in a very different way. This was something that isn’t common for me in a lot of games. Normally I am drawn to a few specific characters, but in Road 96, I connected with each and liked all of them (and disliked them at times too). Each person had their own faults, strengths and motives for doing things. Your perceptions changes through the game and how you first felt about one of them may not be the same at the end after you fill in their stories. I loved parts of the stories that you came across that connected two of the characters from other acts that you only saw parts of. It was a very ‘6 degrees of separation’ type of thing.

As you move through the game you can see the percentage of each of the characters stories at the bottom of the screen. As you move through the stories you'll also earn and open perks from them, each giving you one of the abilities as you open their stories. This could be lock picking, a government pass, the ability to hack, etc. While you can influence what characters you meet by picking a particular type of transportation, like the cab, it is mostly random. If you are missing parts of the story, replaying and choosing different decisions can help fill in those missing pieces. Once you get the perks/abilities, you keep them permanently, so once you hit the endgame you can continue on without losing them. Road 96 captures a real feeling of teenage rebellion and uncertainty. As each act is procedurally generated, you never truly know what is behind each corner, each stop, even if you’ve played it once or twice before already. Will you end up sitting at a campfire talking about the future? Or possibly in a cab where the driver clearly has someone in the trunk?

What you see and do from character to character can vary. You may be having a simple conversation or shooting down road pirates from the back of a semi truck and using a nail gun. You may even be helping someone get intel to help (or hinder) the election or searching a motel for terrorists. Your outcome will vary depending on choices to a certain extent. For example, do you turn the terrorist in to the cop, or lie and help them escape? Both have consequences so I won’t dive too much into the stories as to avoid spoilers.

Taking place in the 90’s, the game truly captures that feeling with its colorful animation and exaggerated character models. The ever-changing locales really give the feeling of an actual road trip, the natural beauty is captured in a manner similar to the game Firewatch, and although not realistic, is reminiscent of retro National parks advertising and postcards. The original soundtrack is simply spectacular. It features The Toxic Avenger, Cocoon, Robert Parker, Daniel Gadd, Volkor X, Kalax, Alexis Laugier and S U R V I V E, and also includes bonus tracks by composer E-Boyz and Xilix. If Road 96 doesn’t win at least one award for their original soundtrack it will be a huge shame and I will be disappointed. This music is pure 90's in the feel and vibe. If I didn’t know it was an original soundtrack, I would have sworn I listened to it cruising around the city back in the 90s. Speaking of music, there are cassette tapes you collect through the game. Make sure you grab them all for the achievement.

While it’s clear where Road 96 stands on the political spectrum - you are literally playing as teens trying to escape the ‘bad’ government - you choose 3 basic stances in the game. For the current president, against them (and supporting voting), or stay independent and not caring what happens since you are planning to leave anyway. I mostly stuck to one side but did flip flop and tried to follow what my conscious really told me to.

Interweaving themes of political turmoil, family and freedom, along with capturing the romanticism and freewheeling chaos of the road trip isn’t something easy to do, and DigixArt has managed to do all of that and more. While each character you meet isn’t with you for long, they leave a definite impact. Road 96 has fantastic pacing, creating lulls of relaxation and moments of heart racing and adrenaline pumping panic. My only wish is that I had more time with the game. When it reached the end I still wanted more.

The team of around 15 developers created a 15-20 hour game that is heavily influenced by the works of Tarantino, the Coen Brothers and Bong Joon-Ho and inspired by many stories, including The Goonies. Although unlikely, I would very much like some extra content featuring the loveable bumbling team of Stan and Mitch. While the game fell a bit short of it’s promises of your outcomes drastically being different because of your choices, it really doesn’t matter. You could strip away all the decision making, and you’d still have a gripping and intense story that you struggle to put down.

**Road 96 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 8.9 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 10.0 / 10


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