Road 96 Review
I think all of us have, at some point, had an idea for a game concept and searched high and low only to find it had not yet been done. Yes, I know — go make it yourself. I have actually started working on my first ever video game with a very similar concept to the one that drives Road 96, and I’m delighted to see that the folks at Digixart Games have made it work better than I ever imagined. This game has been a thrill, a validation, and an inspiration.
Road 96 is a pretty high-concept work, and that makes the elevator pitch much harder to conceive. Perhaps the best description is a narrative roguelike, where finishing a run progresses the overall story and players take control of a new character for each run. The story is somewhat procedurally generated, but in such a way that each of the chapters in each run can happen in any order and events will play out differently depending on what your previous characters did on previous runs. No combat here — which way you choose to act branches the story into a road trip completely unique to you.
The world of Road 96 exists parallel to our own, where an authoritarian president who is an obvious analogue for Trump (they even have the red baseball caps) has ruled the nation of Petria (America) for decades under an iron fist. Our story begins in June 1996, as we quickly approach Election Day in September. Presidential terms have been extended to run for ten years in Petria, so the election of ’96 is the first chance people have to overturn President Tyrak’s reign by electing the liberal candidate, Florres.
Unfortunately, through a mass campaign of years of fake news, radicalization, retraction of voting rights, banning of immigrants, destruction of the lower classes and climate change-induced drought, Petria has reached its apocalypse point. Although it takes place in 1996, Road 96 is in a way a historical fiction piece on what America would look like after 10 years under Trump’s rule.
Tyrak has built his famous wall, but it’s not on the southern border to keep Mexico out — it’s on the northern border to keep Petrians from escaping to the fictional analogue of Canada. The alt-right extremist party in charge has created a veritable nightmare of a nation, and teenagers are fleeing the country en masse as the democratic rights of adults are slowly stripped away — and most people seem to welcome it.
If teenagers are caught trying to escape, however, they are sent to labor camps (The Pits) to work until they die. The scariest part is that most parents welcome the enslavement of their children; after all, if President Tyrak says it’s right, then it’s right. This world shows America in its final death throes, and you may begin to clock more similarities to our current country than differences.
Calling the story of Road 96 totally procedurally generated would be doing it a disservice — probably better to say the structure of the narrative is procedurally generated. Each run, you take first-person control of a nameless, faceless teen that is trying to flee the country. Each run, the overall narrative progresses in accordance to your actions, since they each take place chronologically after the previous one. Your character has a stamina bar as well; consuming food or drink or resting recharges stamina while different activities cost different amounts. You’ll also need to collect money to make purchases, pay for transport or information, or to access new areas with bribes. Riding the bus the next 400 miles may cost 2 stamina and $7, but hitchhiking will cost you 3 stamina even though it’s free.
There are seven main characters that recur in the story (if you count idiot crime brothers Stan & Mitch together), but each time you meet them on a different run you are playing as a different person. In addition, they change dynamically during the story based on what you have done during interactions in previous runs. Meeting each of the wonderfully written characters this way on each run is distinct and different, and calls into stark relief how different we become when around different kinds of people.
For instance, one of my teens didn’t make it, and was killed tragically at the wall in order to save another character, Zoe, in the climax of the run. My character’s death was co-opted by the right wing media in the next run as a terrorist attack by the Black Brigade (the resistance group) while he was actually gunned down by Tyrak’s border patrol. This opened up new avenues, new dialogue, and new relationships with characters I’d met previously. On one run, you’ll know Sonya as a radical alt-right talk show host; the next she’s a drunk party girl seeking validation; the next she’s a broken woman who lives on the edge of suicide due to her inability to save a young girl’s life ten years ago.
Each run is made up of seven chapters, each scripted dynamically so that it changes depending on what your previous characters have done. The way you progress between chapters generates the contents of the next chapter; if you choose to walk alongside the road, the end of the story will be very different than if you were kidnapped by Stan and Mitch again.
This style of presentation allows for no two players to ever experience the same story, but still showcases the excellent writing and character work within each chapter. Uncovering the secrets of how each of the characters are connected to each other, to the terrorist incident at the wall ten years ago that killed hundreds of innocent citizens, and to the upcoming Election Day is exhilarating. It feels scripted and directed, but the beauty is that it is not. It’s your story. No one else gets to live it.
The music is absolutely top notch in Road 96. The soundtrack is comprised of original music from many different artists, all with their distinct own vibes and styles. My personal favorites are The Road by Cocoon, Chase by Volkor X, and Sonya’s Mind by Xilix, but I assure you it’s bangers all the way down. The sound mixing is incredible; the way Road 96 controls and shifts the tone with its music is impeccable.
One of my very few issues with Road 96 is the mediocre quality of some of the voice actors. The actors playing John and Zoe in particular were obviously inexperienced, and it did take me out of the game a little bit. Some voice acting, like for Stan and Mitch or Sonya, was fantastic. Overall, it’s mostly good voice work with a few standout duds. My other small issue is that textures were constantly clipping, but that can likely be fixed with a patch in the future. Another note I need to make is that I played Road 96 on PC, at 1440p 60 FPS without a single frame rate drop. The Switch version, however, as of this writing, is pretty unplayable. If you don’t have a mid-range or better PC, I’d wait on a patch before getting the Switch version. It’s rough.
I’m not surprised by the 7s and 8s that Road 96 has been receiving — I can understand that this type of game for most people would result in a “hey, that’s pretty cool” reaction. For me, this is the manifestation of my dream game. A set of narrative building blocks that you can keep continually stacking in new ways, but always in a way no one else is doing. You may know my love of the Arkane Studios games like Dishonored and Prey ; my favorite type of video game is the kind that no two people will ever play the exact same way. Coupled with decision making and amazingly written characters similar to Life is Strange or the Telltale Games, and Bethesda-like tools to build a narrative that I (in some capacity) created and still brought tears to my eyes — this is the video game I always dreamed of, and Digixart finally made it. I know this game won’t hit you as hard as it did me, but I think you’ll still find it well worth your while to play.