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PLATFORMS: Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows
RELEASE DATE: August 16th
PUBLISHER: Digixart, Plug In Digital
ESRB: T for Teen
NOTE - A review copy for Steam was provided by Digixart for the purpose of this review.
Your wandering along a dusty road. You barely know where you are but what you know for certain is you are hungry, homesick, and tired. Oh, and that there is no turning back now. There are only three ways this journey of yours can end. The first is you make the long trek to road 96, the only road leading past the large wall that isolates your country, and somehow makes it to the other side. The other two options are pretty much the same, you die or you get caught and sent to the iron mines never to be seen again.
Road 96 only makes up a small portion of the road you will travel in Road 96. Along the way, you will make decisions that affect the people around you and the future of your country. Make no mistake the game has its flaws, plenty of them in fact. It isn't just the vast desert you are hitchhiking through that can at times be dirty and run down.
"Keep going! Don't turn back!" (Story)
Road 96 is a procedurally generated narrative drive adventure about trying to cross the border by any means necessary. You inhabit the role of multiple Hitchhikers each starting from different locations as they make this long trek. As the game begins this world is established and while you learn more through the characters you meet much of what drives the character is used as a backdrop for the player to reach to in the role of this character.
Essentially, President Tyrek is a totalitarian dictator who rose to power in the country through a fair and open democratic election process. Shortly after winning his election, he built a wall on the border as a means to keep people from leaving as opposed to preventing people from entering. A series of bad faith laws later, Tyrek has complete power over his country and has remained in office for over 10 years. Due to these laws, many people have tried to leave the country, especially teenagers looking for a better life. While nobody can say for certain the rumors circulating is that any teen caught trying to cross the border is sent to the iron mines and into forced labor with no notification given to the public or their families
An upcoming election has pitted him against a challenger Florres who has promised to repeal his laws and to attempt to roll back the country to what it was before Tyrek got his hands onto it. Standing in her way is the state-sponsored media channel anchored by the well-liked Sonia who serves the role of vilifying the rebel group known as the Black Brigades and by extension Florres as well. Make no mistake here, as a character fleeing the country the game does little in the way of casting Tyrek in a positive light but along the way, everything else will be met with shades of gray. As they say, everybody has an opinion and when it comes to the upcoming election there is just no shortage of them.
Along the way, you will meet six major characters that cross paths with your hitchhikers. The way these encounters were structured at first annoyed me and honestly felt incredibly out of place but honestly by the time I got to the end of the game this was the best feature. You see, in all your journey you really don't play the lead character of the story as you might expect in a traditional sense. These characters are all connected and each time you cross paths with them you are given one piece of their puzzle. This includes who they are working with, who they are working against, and what their goals are for the country if they even have any. Your characters come in and offer minor takes on the state of the situation which helps affect the state of mind of these characters, before parting ways.
At one point during Road 96, another young teen named Kate was locked in a police van. I will not go into the particulars as to why she was, though as the player I knew why since it happened on another journey. I tried to free her only to get caught myself. Suddenly the transport was under attack from the Black Brigades and they were opening the door to free us. In any other story the player might very well be the character they went through all this trouble to free but not here. In this game, you are not the hero, just the character that comes into contact with them at just the right moments. They freed me incidentally, taking kate for some future hitchhiker to meet and learn of where they took her and what they wanted.
On the converse side of this, I found myself at a hotel that acted as a secret hideout for Brigade members. Among the people staying here was a cop named Franny. Now Franny is one of the good cops unlike many who are not troubled by sending teens to the supposed iron mines. Here though, she was looking for a member of the Brigades she has been tracking and enlists your young hitchhiker's help. Now, you the player will take one look at the suspect sheet and know who the person you are looking for is. But as you wander around asking for information you are given the choice to manipulate the sheet. Now Franny is a good cop just trying to do her job but will you actually help her in this case, or will you lie to her? Only you can answer that because your journey to this moment will define how you react to it.
Where the game truly excels in the more somber moments of the player's journey. A silent walk along the side of the highway in the middle of the night, stars shining above, as cars speed past you offers a brief respite from the craziness. Stopping at a hotel, low on money, and trying to figure out a way to get a room instead of sleeping in the cardboard shack around back. The moment however I truly became invested was at a payphone in which I called home. The man on the other end, this hitchhiker's father, recognized the voice and quickly stated "Oh hi Stacy," which of course was obviously not the character's name. He continued "No, we don't need anything Stacy. Thank you for calling." It was at this moment another voice screamed out "Is that her!?" It was male, probably a cop. A scuffle breaks out as the last thing the father proclaims is "Keep going! Don't turn back!" After this the phone disconnects. It is the micro-moments that will keep you invested, and the micro-moments that will cut the most.
Then she popped in her cassette tape (Audio & Visuals)
On my first night in Road 96, I was introduced to Kate and her trombone (I think?) as I wandered into a rest stop. She asks me to play a song on the trombone and naturally I was awful. Then she popped in her cassette tape and had me play along to the music and, if you couldn't guess, I did not perform better. If I am being honest I think I did worse but it was good for some laughs before we were kicked out of that side of the road dump. the point is, that introduced me to just how important music was going to be to this journey. Sure you meet people along the way and interact, but you would go crazy too if you had no beats to listen to and the characters in here are no exception.
Once again it bears reminding that the year is 1996. For you kids out there that don't know or remember, before the MP3 was this thing known as a Compact Disk or CD, and before that was the good ol' fashion Cassette Tape. You know, that thing you have to rewind yourself. The game makes use of its era by putting its music on collectible cassette tapes that you will have fun during character interactions, while searching buildings, or by buying them from other teens looking for some cash for their own crossing. It's a tangled web that the road can weave but the great unifier is the music filling the void.
Driving in a car, or even riding in somebody else's, a tape deck is usually on hand to play any of these cassettes you find. In the case of riding with somebody else they might offer to let you play something, or you might be able to ask. There is also the chance that they will bite your head off if you even look at their radio so take these things on a case-by-case basis. But in this way music doesn't just feel like a soundtrack, it feels like a living, breathing element to the game. There is music that will fill the void as you transition between the menu, or the camera pans up to the sky as you leave an area but outside of that the game chooses a minimal approach.
The lack of sound can be just as engaging as the use of it however and that has never been more apparent than here. Wandering the road to a pit stop gives you nothing in the way to go by. As you begin to explore the location is allowed to give you its own personality. An empty gas station or an abandoned building all speak volumes with the quiet, while a fundraiser with a booming bassline does the same to let the player know they are going to have a fun time. A drive in the car with a character might see you popping in some tunes for a road trip anthem, or you might end up listening to the Sonia show on your radio, both help to engage players in the active narrative.
The voice acting, even as I write this, I cannot make my mind upon. First, let's be impressed that everything in the game is voiced apart from your characters. Of course, this is important as you need them to have the personality to really engage you in their plight. And for the most part, they did, but it is clear that they are not exactly a professional voice cast. Mitch and Stan, two bumbling thieves managed to make me laugh, make me smile, then make me hit my head against a wall. Their voices became a source of endearment as I became invested in their bizarre story, but not a single dialog went by where I couldn't notice some off-putting choice in performance. It's not just them as most performances do have that lack of polish. It's a small indie game, and for what I got, even at its worse was memorable... I would not replace listening to Jarod's gravelly voice asking if I like dinosaurs for literally anything.
You can also expect the animation to lack in the same way. Generic movements of characters in the conversation being the most glaring but there were some lip-synch issues as well. If they are the kind of thing to keep you from enjoying a game like this I feel bad for you, they are noticeable but I was able to make peace with it quickly.
There Are No Second Chances (Gameplay)
So I did not expect the gameplay to be what sold me on this game. Even in early trailers where you see everything happening in a way you can take part, I still expected this to not make as strong a case for the game as it did. Now the gameplay is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. My experience did have some framerate dips here and there, the occasional glitch or two, as well minor gripes. That said, on the whole, this is an emotional game that you will absolutely find yourself want to return to again and again.
Your two greatest assets are your stamina gauge and your money. Money not only makes your travel easier in terms of how you can travel but gives you the ability to buy food to restore stamina. Your stamina gauge on the other hand only has seven segments. Moving from an area usually drains 2 or 3 bars and they only get replenished by eating or sleeping. If they run out, your journey is over and we already discussed what that means.
Basically, the gameplay is structured into two different segments that players will have to play through to some degree. We will simply refer to the first of these segments as The Road while the other we will refer to as The Pit Stop. Keep in mind that the game does not use these classifications to describe these segments, I am simply doing so here because I feel it will make this simple. Pit stops in the game consist of an area the player will wander in which some form of a narrative beat will take place, however they are open to exploring within their small confines. The road Segments take place majorly in cars and are narrative-driven.
The road segments will most likely be where you begin your game so let's start there. While random characters can pick you up, it should be expected that most of these events will involve you with the main cast of rogues. Sitting in the passenger's seat you can look around, interact with things like pictures and the glove box, and most importantly talk with your driver. Most choices are split into three categories when talking about the current politics of the country, and that topic will come up a bunch. The first choice is more selfish and depicts the character as not caring about what happens because they will be gone. The second throws support to candidate Florres and pushes the idea of supporting the system and using it to remove Tyrek. The final choice is for a full-out revolution against the powers that be. Choose wisely as these choices have an impact, but since you play multiple characters it is fun to switch this up for each.
That isn't to say being on the road is just some straight drive to some next location as even these have mini-events to help diversify the journey. For instance, the first ride I got was in a big rig. Bandits attacked and I was forced to hop in the back and take aim with a nail gun. It was an intense moment for sure that really helped start the game on a high. Now were the controls in the segment perfect? no, but was it fun as all hell? You better believe it was. There are no second chances as you travel the road to Road 96 so some of these events carry a sense of urgency if you don't get it right you may very well die, or lose everything you have earned to this point.
On the flip side, we have The Pit Stops. These are where you are going to find the things you need to survive the road ahead, though not always which creates the balancing act. I got recruited as a bartender mixing drinks for tips in one pit stop, and in another, I was a camera operator for the Sonia show. I made money doing both, but only one of these made me feel like I sold my soul. But sometimes you have to make those choices in this game because that is the only way you make it. And later on with one bar of stamina left, filming that show got me the food I needed to push past the last stop and to the ending.
Everything in Road 96 kept me active and engaged in a way that I was not expecting it to. I was ok with narrative, I like those kinds of games, however, this is definitely not a walking sim with some narrative choices.
Road 96 feels like it could work as a movie. It has the story, the lore, the setting, and the adventure to make that work. Yet as a game it offers more than a film ever could. You don't get to watch a character risk everything on a lonely road, where every choice carries weight. No, you are the active participant trying to carry this character to freedom. Sure there are moments of simple narrative that slows Road 96 down, but when the game gets serious, and it will, it will challenge you both emotionally and physically.
Anything bad I have to say about this game from animation issues, to lip-synching, to some glitches or gameplay grips all come with one major addendum... I did not regret playing Road 96, nor will I regret playing it again.