Road 96 (PC) Review

By Athanasios 21.10.2021

Review for Road 96 on PC

In a way, many video games can be considered political, as they tend to add some sort of commentary on a variety of sociopolitical issues, whether that's the subject of migration in Papers, Please, or something far more complex like the subject of survival amongst an environmental crisis like in Frostpunk. Of course, the political aspect of these is just the dressing, with gameplay taking the spotlight. In Road 96 everything is political. This narrative-driven adventure by Digixart, which follows a teenager (you) as he/she tries to leave a fictional country that is under the rule of a tyrannical president, delves with fascism in the modern "democratic" system, with your road trip towards the border essentially being a series of choices that many or may not change the country for the better.

One thing must be made clear before continuing. Road 96 has picked a side. It has drawn a line and has stated its intentions from the very beginning: the President is a tyrant that uses all conceivable means to stay in power, and the other side is the only hope for the fictional country of Petria, and the teenagers who try to cross the border to freedom. This isn't going to win any awards for its deep and multi-layered portrayal of modern politics, as it has simply divided the world between good and bad guys, angry and misinformed adults, and cool, rebellious teens and a bunch of well-meaning old folk that sympathize with them. That's not to say that every single story must be a "realistic," morally grey-coloured one. This is just a word of warning for those who want something a bit more complex than that.

Screenshot for Road 96 on PC

You start the journey as a nameless and faceless teen, and throughout this trip you'll make many a choice, with many of said choices being divided between three categories: pro-vote, pro-revolution, or pro-indifference. These choices are usually very simple, like vandalising a poster, or, more frequently, picking a specific line of dialogue. There's also a survival-lite system of sorts, as this hero(ine) must also eat, drink, and sleep. How that will be done, of course, is up to the one in control. Want to spend money on a bus, or save your dollars and walk 10km under the scorching desert sun? Want to buy your meal, steal it, or grab that rotting burger? Want to earn your money, or use a little sleight of hand? You are free to do so. Mostly. Occasionally. Sort of.

Choice is kind of an illusion here. You basically choose how dialogue plays out, but don't really affect your journey that much most of the time. Sometimes your choices are ignored, other times you have two options that lead down the same path, and, sadly, there are many, many occasions where you aren't even given one. This sadly ruins the, otherwise, very strong immersion at hand, erasing the tension from many scenes. This lack of choice affects the political theme as well. As mentioned before, there is no pro-government option, or at least a way to disagree with the opposing faction. Generally, this steers you along a narrative that you can alter… just not that much, and it's a shame because this is at its best when it lets players experiment, and receive different outcomes.

Screenshot for Road 96 on PC

Here's the thing about Road 96, though. Its strength lies not on the choose-your-own-adventure system, or its political commentary. This is, above all, a deeply emotive experience. Not so much about overthrowing a tyrant (or surviving), but interacting with a number of characters of all kinds, and "seeing" the world from their eyes. From the petite hacker that tries to hide his obvious fragility under a thinly veiled "coolness," to the uber-obnoxious TV presenter (this critic's favourite by far, along with her extended family), these fantastically voiced people become something more than just NPCs in just a few minutes. Quirky, likable, strange, annoying, intimidating, funny - in one word: memorable. Moreover, despite their cartoony exterior, they feel like actual human beings.

Now, each step of the way is basically a mini-chapter, where the protagonist meets up a new character, in a new place. A cute girl with which you'll hang out in a trailer park and sleep under the stars; a scary taxi driver who may or may not be a serial killer; a well-meaning cop who "is just doing her job;" and so on and forth, with their stories many times being interconnected. This "fragmented" structure comes as a blessing, as it cuts many corners, and goes straight to the core of the whole thing, never letting this end up like a walking sim. Note, however, that you don't just make one trip to the border. Instead, you follow many anonymous teens up until Election Day. Each trip plays out differently, and as you bump into the same handful of characters, their subplots advance, and you learn more about them. You basically meet old friends, but with you being a new person.

Screenshot for Road 96 on PC

It should also be mentioned that this nails the road trip aspect of it all, and nails it really, really good. Those in control will really feel as if they are hitchhikers, traveling along the highway of a land with some very strong Americana vibes, with cheap motels and neon lights reflected on the rainwater, old-looking diners next to dry, Nevada-like plains, and Maine-like forests where you can almost smell the soil - and all these served along some cool, neo-90s aesthetics and sounds, with the varied OST being e-x-c-e-l-l-e-n-t, by the way. Those spoiled by triple-A productions will find plenty to nit-pick about here, but no amount of weird animation, lip sync, or low-quality texture, can ruin how good this looks. Additionally, Road 96 knows when it's time to have some fun. The dark and serious go hand to hand with the ridiculous and the light-hearted in here, which is admittedly a hard trick to pull off correctly.

Where this fails, like… totally, is in replayability. This just isn't as fun to play after your first playthrough. In fact, it outstays it's welcome even sooner, because, while you are constantly on the move, and doing different things with different people, in essence you repeat the whole thing all over again. The first time you cross paths with Jarod, the creepy taxi driver, for example, can really glue you to your seat. What about the fifth time, though? He'll do his typical shtick again and again (not talk, creep you out, or hold you at gunpoint), but the lack of any actual "forks" in those scenes means that the immersion will soon wear out. Does this mean that you are advised to avoid this? No. Buy it now, or wait for a good discount, but make sure to get a taste of this flawed, yet unique adventure.

Screenshot for Road 96 on PC

Cubed3 Rating

7/10
Rated 7 out of 10

Very Good - Bronze Award

Rated 7 out of 10

Toothless as political commentary, and with its, supposedly, big focus on choice being almost non-existent, it would be alright to assume that this isn't a big recommendation - and yet it is. Digixart's anti-fascist indie might not be as good it thinks when it comes to politics, and the choose-your-own-adventure layer under it all is paper-thin at best, but simply as an experience, as a road trip across a beautiful land, filled with interesting (to say the least) characters, yes, this is one of the best indies that have been released this past month, warts and all. Its replay value is, unfortunately, very low, but do yourself a favour, and try it out when you get the chance. Road 96 is a flawed but undoubtedly memorable journey.

Developer

Digixart

Publisher

Ravenscourt

Genre

Adventure

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  7/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date None   North America release date None   Japan release date None   Australian release date None   

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