Backlog Busters: Road 96 Is A Surprise At Every Turn

Welcome back to Backlog Busters, a column dedicated to clearing our never-ending video game backlog. We finally crossed off Road 96, the choice-based narrative game that people hailed as the best indie release from 2021!

Here’s what you need to know: It’s the summer of 1996. You risk everything to join the mass migration of teenagers crossing the border out of Petria. But every mile you take opens up a new choice. Your decisions will change your adventure, change the people you meet, and maybe even change the world.

Developed by: DigixArt

Played on: Steam

Length: 10 hours

The open road is perilous & procedurally generated

The term “roguelite” often conjures images of a side-scrolling pixel kingdom and a legendary warrior hacking and slashing through hoards of enemies. Quite different from the cartoonish, low-poly art style that defines Road 96, but this narrative-heavy road trip game is a roguelite in all the ways that matter.

You play as six faceless, nameless teenagers trying to cross the border. Each teen’s journey begins with a random amount of money, energy, and transportation to kickstart the trip. Either cross the border, or die trying, then begin the journey all over again — sometimes with a few new skills that will make the next trip a little easier.

In true roguelite fashion, no two journeys are ever the same. The game randomises the next encounters based on seemingly simple choices, whether you decide to hitch-hike with strangers or catch the bus. Your playthrough can abruptly end at any point too, like when you accidentally anger a murderer or poorly manage your energy levels and pass out. But hidden away from the player’s view is an algorithm that feeds the encounters in a specific order, ensuring story and character continuity as we inch closer to the overarching climax.

It’s not a perfect system. Some players have encountered jarring issues with the random encounters that immediately shatters immersion. Many have felt that the game’s overcommitment to a linear storyline breaks the illusion of a purely procedurally generated experience, leading to low replayability. Then again, it’s easy to ignore these discrepancies in exchange for what the rest of the game offers.

Maybe the real journey was the friends we made along the way

Most of Road 96 rides on the strength of its characters, a cast of eight NPCs that range from a loveable truck driver with a dangerous secret, to a young tech prodigy trying to figure out his past. Each of them are linked to each other in some way, weaving an interconnected plot that continues to thicken as the game progresses.

Together with each character comes the best part of the whole experience, the mini games. From mixing suspicious energy drinks to keep someone awake, to playing a weirdly intense trombone solo under the stars, to helping test out a video game inside of a video game, each encounter is a fun and lighthearted way to get to know the characters better. Good voice acting and a great original soundtrack only adds more layers of enjoyment.

The dialogue isn’t too shabby either. Although occasionally repetitive — considering it’s one of the only mediums for the game to establish its overarching story — the dialogue choices are often interesting and impactful. Each decision deepens the character’s backstory, determines your political stance in-game, and sometimes even contributes to additional money or energy for the road. In an industry oversaturated with inconsequential choice-based games, it is refreshing to play a game where most choices matter.

A thought-provoking story that hits close to reality

It would be a disservice to talk about Road 96 without addressing the thinly veiled allegory that is its political plot. The entire game takes place in the months and days leading up to the fictional country Petria’s national election. Although players are immediately given the goal of escaping the country by crossing the border, there are three political stances you can take along the way: Democracy, Revolution, or Escape.

Each stance is pretty self-explanatory, and results in a different ending, but the road to get there requires a bit of consistency. In a game that places so much emphasis on taking a stand, there are surprisingly few things you can do to strengthen your stance. You can vandalise posters of the controversial President Tyrak, make the right choices in conversations with NPCs (even if not everyone will like it), and you can spray paint a cave wall.

There’s a real irony to the level of change you feel like you’re making in Road 96. If not for the meta knowledge that it changes the game’s ending, would you really go through the trouble? Part of me can’t help but wish the game had gone more in-depth with its story, and that our protagonist was a larger piece of the puzzle, but I’m starting to think that wasn’t the point.

Road 96 reflects reality in a lot of ways. When it comes to nation-wide change, very few of us have the platform to make a major difference. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do about it. We can have open conversations with others, we can learn about different perspectives, and we can exercise our right to vote. Maybe change doesn’t come immediately, but it will when everyone does their part. No matter how small it may seem at first.

Verdict: A thoughtful road trip that’s worth the gas

Road 96 isn’t the most polished game, but it’s perfect in the ways that count. Its deeply political story is one that needs to be told, especially through the lens of its loveable, eccentric cast of characters. Fans of choice-based games will love the wealth of character dialogue and meaningful decisions. Even as the game falters in mechanical execution, it’s easy to fall back into the surprisingly immersive and thoughtful world that DigixArt has created. Personally, I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Did we add a game to your backlog – or do you have one to add to ours? Let us know in the comments below! You can also watch this writer’s playthrough of Road 96.

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