Road 96 (Computer)
Official GBAtemp Review
- Release Date (NA): August 16, 2021
- Release Date (EU): August 16, 2021
- Publisher: DigixArt
- Developer: DigixArt
- Genres: Adventure, Action
- Also For: Nintendo Switch
It’s Summer 1996, so of course parties are being thrown, road trips are being taken and teens are trying to cross the border. Yes, this is the reality in the authoritarian nightmare which is their country, Petria. Fed up with the corrupt regime and its policies, Petria’s youth flock to the country’s border through Road 96 and try to cross it by any means possible, even if it means perishing in the process.
In their journey, they will meet fellow crossers and other Petrians, some of whom are on the opposite side of the spectrum when it comes to the country’s politics. And along the way, they might take some actions that could collectively build up to manifest into a major event during the country’s upcoming election day.
In Road 96, you are, of course, put in the shoes of one such backpacking, border-crossing teen from the fictional country of Petria. Unnamed and virtually invisible (even as a first-person title, there is no model for your character; not even arms, legs or a body), you start off somewhere in the country with only some cash (or none at all) and from there you make your way towards the border. Being low on resources means that you will need to decide, when the time comes, to hitchhike, walk or even steal money to pay for a bus or taxi ride.
Your journey to the border will likely include a combination of all of these since no single travel route leads you directly to the border. And the routes that you take are actually the “procedurally generated” part of this narrative-driven game. Your journey is broken into segments where you meet one of the game’s 7 colorful characters in each; and once that segment has been completed, you will need to choose a means to travel towards your destination. After choosing one, you will move on to the next segment where you will meet another character.
These subsequent encounters are at random and interacting with the cast in that segment will sometimes present you with choices that will influence the course of the plot. Moreover, while moving towards the border, you might encounter one of the main NPCs more than once because they each have different stories and segments of their own; or you might not even meet an NPC in your first run.
Indeed, you will be put in the shoes of more than one Petrian crosser after reaching the border for the first time. At first, upon reaching and crossing the border, I thought that Road 96 would be a pretty short game but I was surprised to be put in the shoes of another teen shortly after having crossed the border.
Crossing the border as a teen counts as one episode and to reach the end of the game will take 6 episodes. During these episodes you will get to meet the main NPCs again, learn more about them and how their own stories intertwine. Some of their stories will also depend on choices you make and will influence how the story pans out later. Try to free a fellow crosser from the clutches of the police or not? Stall a security officer in order to obtain details about a serial killer or not? When you come across such a crucial choice might not be evident from the get-go but the game displays a conspicuous notification à la Telltale’s The Walking Dead to indicate that your choice will have an impact.
Your actions on smaller events also have consequences later on, such as deciding which politician’s poster to vandalize or whether to grab some food for yourself or give it to a father who’s struggling to feed his son. How you interact with the main NPCs also matter as this can help you unlock skills that will be crucial in your subsequent runs and allow you to take paths otherwise inaccessible.
In fact in Road 96, in-game decisions matter till the very end because there are more than one way to cross the border but you might not be equally successful via every option. When crossing, there’s your life gauge in particular to pay attention to. If it’s not very full (replenished by eating, drinking and sleeping), you might not survive some incidents ahead. I’ve even had some runs where my character didn’t make it. So to put the odds in your favor will involve proper management of your resources and exploration of your surroundings to find said resources. You’ll be able to find (and steal) money, eat rotting food and, if you are lucky, discover other helpful stuff like a car key or a credit card.
But given the game’s nature, your run will be different than mine and that’s what makes Road 96 an intriguing and decidedly original title. It’s a title that is in the same vein as Life Is Strange (whose aesthetics are vaguely reminiscent here too) and Detroit: Become Human where your choices dictates how the plot unfolds. If you’ve enjoyed such titles, you will find much to like in Road 96, as it packs its own original story and an intriguing procedural aspect of its journeys. Granted, Road 96 is not as expansive as the aforementioned titles but given that it’s from an indie team, the experience it delivers is quite impressive.
It also encourages you to replay the game once you’ve completed all episodes so as to experience all of the main cast’s encounters. And a rerun will also help you appreciate how the procedural aspect is well implemented in the gameplay as well as in the plot since each encounter with the cast can happen at any point but the dialogue and progression does not feel out of place. This indicates a well-executed and well-written plot from DigixArt. My only gripe with it is with one key character arc that concluded too abruptly as it was completely executed in a cutscene with no voice-over; and it felt like her story could still be fleshed out after it concluded.
Road 96 also diversifies its gameplay by throwing a series of mini-games at you as you interact with its main cast. I played Bella Ciao on a trumpet, Guitar Hero style; I overtook and dodged incoming cars, Crazy Taxi style; at another point, I played Q&A, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire style, with robbers. These are originally implemented and add to the uniqueness of the title.
Road 96’s OST should also be mentioned. It features the work of a number of indie artists which emulates the indie vibe that accompanies this title well.
While DigixArt’s latest game is surely an original one, there are a few aspects that still show that this is an indie game. For one, there are numerous reused assets like NPCs animations on loop but the most blatant ones being character models. Some characters look too similar, even in the same room! More effort could have been done to diversify the looks and make the reused asset not so obvious.
Moreover, while the game encourages players to replay it and learn the full stories of each character, you will still need to go through encounters you’ve experienced before. But this time you could decide to choose different dialogue options or explore other areas with skills unlocked and can help diversify things a bit.
Don't these character models bear *some* similarities?
And while Road 96’s cast is truly varied, with intriguing personalities of their own, the main character (the one you play) pales in comparison. This is because the protagonist serves mostly as a placeholder to see the events of the game unfold and expand on the story of the main NPCs who are in fact the actual protagonists. You can’t relate much to your character other than with the actions you take but even then you will change shoes after each episode.
The focus is more on the other cast who are much more fleshed out and feel more relatable. There's even a progression gauge regarding how much of their story you've experienced. While these characters are indeed interesting, fleshing out the character your play as would have made for an even more enticing experience. But given the nature of the gameplay, this might not have been totally possible.
That said, as an indie, narrative-driven game with branching storylines, Road 96 is well executed to entice fans of the genre and being a fan of such games myself, I look forward to what DigixArt comes up with next!
ROAD 96 Release Date Trailer
- Interesting branching narrative mechanic
- Colorful cast with their own personalities and backstories
- Fun mini-games
- Blatantly reused character models
- Can't relate much to protagonist
- Repetitive aspects of reruns