It takes a lot of guts to announce that your latest game draws inspiration from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers and Bong Joon-ho. After all, that type of boast basically opens the door for a lot of comparisons, and all but states that your story has to be no less than a masterpiece. Still, there are some developers who could pull something like that off, and DigixArt just might be one of them, having showcased their storytelling prowess with games such as Valiant Hearts and 11-11. But their new first-person adventure game, Road 96, sees them leaving the trenches of World War I for third-world desert landscapes in an alternate version of 1996.
Road 96 is set in the fictional nation of Petria, where things aren’t going so well, to say the least. The brutal authoritarian regime has become even more brutal in the ten years since a supposed terrorist attack by the Black Brigades, a revolutionary group, and has become extra brutal in the lead up to the upcoming election, with President Tyrak seemingly looking for any excuse to chuck any teenagers who might be inclined to vote against him into a place known only as the Iron Pits. And this is where you come in, as one of the many teenagers deciding to screw all of this nonsense and just get out of Petria with whatever savings you have, hitching your way to the titular Road 96 in order to cross the border…where there’s a massive wall and an overzealous border patrol in your way.
When you arrive in the game, Petria is torn all to hell, with a clear divide right down the middle, with one side being extremely oppressive, violent and using all kinds of propaganda and strong-arming to stay in charge, while the other side has to resort to illegal and even unethical tactics (especially as the game goes on) just to even have an edge. Even with an election on the way, everyone seems to believe it won’t matter, since Tyrak will do whatever it takes to rig things. At one point I was asked what course of action I’d take to solve things, and when I said I’d just vote for the opposing candidate, I got a reply along the lines of “Oh, I see, so you’re a moderate.” This is a world where hope in basic democracy has been crushed so much that the simplest, most direct approach is seen as foolish.
Of course, being on a road trip, you view this story through the likes of taxi rides, motels, diners, makeshift camps, gas stations and more. While Road 96 isn’t exactly a technical powerhouse when it comes to graphics (with some animations being stiff and the occasional texture and model being off), it makes up in that department when it comes to style, with its bright, cartoonish graphics and settings that evoke a twisted Americana vibe of sorts rocked by various states of ruin, be it vandalism, lack of maintenance or more. Even a festival you come across for wealthy donors has more of a cheap carnival vibe, which felt like it said a lot through just one look at this world.
But while the graphics in Road 96 are pleasant and vibrant, the music is on a whole other level, filled with straight up bangers from the likes of The Toxic Avenger, Robert Parker and more. Aside from just being catchy and sounding amazing, the songs all nail the road trip atmosphere, be it fast-paced electronica jams perfect for a chase scene or more chilled-out synth tunes that evoke the imagery of driving along the desert road, maybe late at night with some neon. The soundtrack is phenomenal and fits the setting perfectly, and made me want to hunt down every hidden cassette in the game.
Let’s get into the game proper, though. I began my initial journey finding myself earning money quickly as a cameraman, hanging out at a trailer park and playing the trumpet, helping to try and hack into a fast food chain in order to get people free burgers, and other cute little bits with assorted characters along the way. Finally, though, I had reached Road 96, and thus began my attempt to cross the border. Unfortunately, while I successfully passed a skill check in order to earn assistance in being smuggled across the border, a misunderstanding meant I couldn’t pay for extra assistance, having to go the rest of the way on my own. Eventually, though, I ended up sacrificing myself in order to hoist up another teenager across the wall and found myself arrested. My initial journey ended there and that’s when Road 96 played the ace up its sleeve.
Everything you’ve seen of Road 96 so far, mainly the fact that it boasts a procedurally-generated trip each time with a lot of variables, might suggest that how it works is that you play as one teenager, make it all the way to the border, end the trip one way or another, then just begin a newly-generated journey with different incidents and outcomes. But after the first journey’s end, the game lets you know that this isn’t just one kid’s story. There are more teenagers like the one you played as, trying to cross and they have their own stories. Oh, and different dates on which they travel.
Road 96, you see, is actually the journey of several people, told over multiple chapters throughout an entire Summer, leading up to the election. The several people in question including not just the various teenagers you control, but also seven individuals at the center of the overall narrative (technically eight, as one is a duo, but still) that you encounter over the course of the game. We have a fellow teenager also attempting to cross the border; a younger teenager and child prodigy doing work with electronics for some potentially shady people; a pair of rather chipper masked robbers hoping to hit it big; a trucker who’s a member of the Black Brigades and clearly has some regrets; a news host that’s actually a seemingly uncaring party girl beneath their public image; a crazed taxi driver with anger issues triggered by a tragic event; and a police officer who seems to be the lone good apple on the force, but still has to hunt down revolutionaries who may be a threat.
With each passing chapter, time advances, and so you meet them at a later stage in their story, this time as a fresh face. Each encounter is an opportunity to know more about them, what they’re up to, their history and how they’re more connected than some of them think they are. And they are indeed a colorful bunch, each with their own unique quirks, ideologies and more, and while certain parts of their journeys are predictable, they can take some rather drastic twists by the end.
The writing and character work is, unsurprisingly, possibly the biggest draw here in Road 96. Each major stop along the way lets you meet them under different circumstances and I was always left wanting to hang out with them more. Some of them were just outright fun to be with terrific comical dialogue (especially the affably evil semi-bumbling burglars Stan and Mitch, my personal favorites who likely provide the more Coen Brothers-inspired stuff), some excelled at more dramatic moments and could even get downright scary with their behavior, and even the least likeable of the bunch ended up having some hidden depths towards the end. Throw in some terrific voice acting and you have one of the year’s best casts of characters.
Of course, it helps that you bond with all of these characters in several unique ways. Each trip involves traveling to the latest scene/location (via hitchhiking, walking, a bus, or even stealing a car if you can), sometimes said scene being part of the drive, and finding a new activity to try out. Basically, this is where DigixArt gets to flex the mini-game muscles they showed off in the past with the likes of Valiant Hearts. Sometimes you’ll be doing something as simple as playing a game of Connect Four, playing old video games or smashing things with a baseball bat, and sometimes you’re doing detective work or shooting a nailgun at road pirates from the back of a truck. They’re brief moments, but they all play like a dream and are memorable, and they further ensure that no two trips are ever the game.
In between chapters, the news also reports on the developments that have occurred, how certain choices may have impacted things, and reminds you that successful escape or not, whatever method you used to try and cross the border is now blocked off. Road 96 won’t allow you to just reuse the same way out each time. It also gives you three random kids to play as, each with their own amount of starting money, maximum amount of energy, distance from the border and day they begin their hike. This is where the procedually-generated gameplay does stumble, since while this is a nice touch, there was always one kid to choose who felt superior to the other two, which made the choice obvious.
One thing that does always carry over between kids, though, are the various skills you unlock in the game. The better an encounter with one of our main characters goes, the more likely they are to grant you one of their signature skills. These allow for even more dialogue or gameplay interactions, including cleverness that lets you deduce connections, lockpicking skills that break down doors, government ID that comes in useful with cops and extra energy…if you link your OMEN account (having assisted with Road 96), an option that wasn’t active at the time. This took away from the experience, but still, the skills are still a simple-yet-fun gameplay mechanic.
The energy mentioned earlier is important as well, since naturally, running out of it means death. Each part of the trip means losing some energy along the way, so you have to regain it either via eating, drinking or taking a nap. Sometimes it’s as easy as being able to walk up to a counter and buy a burger. Other times, you’re rummaging through garbage for a shot at spoiled food or looking for a cardboard shanty in the back to rest in. It doesn’t become difficult once you get a feel for things, though (or as long as you can find a good source of money), but it does keep you on your toes a bit. But even when on your toes, sometimes one little slip-up or incorrect response can mean death, even before you each the border, so this means you have to manage your words as much as your health.
Another reason you should manage your words, mind you, is that your actions will have consequences and influence the world around you…even if it’s hard to tell. There are major binary decisions to be made over the course of the game, as well as discussions with each character that involve one of three different kinds of responses (being rebellious, being civic and not caring as long as you get the hell out of Petria), but sometimes it felt like certain story beats still have to happen regardless of your choices. There’s also a karma meter in play based around regular actions like stealing or donating money, but I couldn’t tell you how it influenced things in my initial playthrough.
And yet I always felt like something was progressing with every movement, every choice, even if I couldn’t see it. As I said in the beginning, Petria starts out as a world where seemingly all hope has been lost. Bringing back that hope requires a light of some kind, which needs a spark, and that spark is in the younger citizens of Petria who can grow up to be the future. By the end, it’s clear that the message isn’t about fixing things immediately, but getting the ball rolling so that all of your peers can one day improve things even further, even if you’ve already long since crossed the border. And really, isn’t the message of creating a brighter future through even the smallest of ways something we need right now?
It might be a stretch to call it a piece of work on par with that of some of the most-acclaimed film directors of the modern age, but Road 96 is an incredible adventure game that succeeds thanks to a strong narrative, a superb cast of characters, one of the year’s best soundtracks and its unique procedurally-generated approach that might see you coming back after the initial eight hours or so, just to see what could possibly be on any other routes. Everyone will walk out of Petria (if lucky) with their own unique stories to tell, and they’re certain to be entertaining ones.