PC Gaming Reviews

Road 96 Has Some Of The Best Storytelling In Gaming

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Road 96 - Microsoft PC

Road 96

Developer: Digixart
Publisher: Digixart
Release Date: August 16, 2021

During PAX East, I got a chance to play the Road 96: Mile 0 demo which captured my interest because it was a rhythm game with composers that I recognized, like The Offspring and others. There were two playable characters, Zoe and Kaito, each of whom had a different story and a different soundtrack accompanying them. Zoe's soundtrack was very Punkish, rebelling against the lavish lifestyle given to her. Kaito on the other hand is accompanied by thumping bass-heavy EDM music as he escapes the tyranny of Tyrak.

Speaking to the developer, I found out that Mile 0 wasn't a standalone game but it was a prequel to Road 96, a game I hadn't played before that weekend. Before engaging with the full version of MIle 0 and enjoying the Sayonara Wild Hearts-style gameplay, I sought to play the first game just to become familiar with the source material. What I didn't know was that it would lead to the most interesting weekend in gaming I've honestly enjoyed. A very quick thanks to Digixart for allowing me to embark on this road trip.

Other games may deter you from eating rotting food, but it's beneficial in Road 96. Food is food.

Rarely is there a game that I struggled with, not because of its difficulty, but because of its progression and premise. Road 96 was one of the most unique experiences I've ever felt in a video game and I still hadn't discovered quite everything the game has to offer. It wasn't something that I thought I could immediately "pick up and play" although the gameplay was very simplistic. On an elementary level, the player is an unnamed teenager attempting to cross the border of Petria, a totalitarianism-like country on the verge of social collapse. Initially, the player's only goal is to reach the border location on Road 96 and escape. As the game progresses, while one teenager's story may resolve, the general plot slowly begins to unravel itself.

In the beginning, the player is asked some questions about their life values, personality, and political preferences. While these all seem random to ask a fleeing teenager, these are themes that are highlighted throughout Road 96. These questions mainly serve as "food for thought" when playing and aren't things that directly influence stats like Disco Elysium's beginning. That's because there are only two resources to watch out for and that's the player's stamina and their cash. During the game's release,

Why do I hear sirens?

HP wanted to promote their new Omen brand and players who installed the program earned a free perk that granted them two extra bars of stamina. These two bars go a long way for free and if it wasn't for it I'd surely succumb to exhaustion due to my negligence so I recommend all first-time PC players to do the same. Road 96 is a procedure-generated first-person adventure game where the goal is to cross the border and escape Petria. There are a total of eight main characters, each with a unique encounter that may take place at different parts of the player's journey. No two playthroughs are different even though the events have the same outcomes.

My very first event introduced me to Alex, a young teen with a knack for electronics and gadgetry. Moments before starting the game, I had picked Alex up as a hitchhiker, according to his dialogue, as he was fiddling with a game he was creating. The game itself was a simple "battle tank" style game, which introduced me to Road 96's minigames. Certain events ask the player to do tasks that are one-off events. In this case, being a brief "beta tester" for a game and playing it live in front of him net me a few dollars for my time.

One of the first encounters in the game requires some virtuoso horn-blowing. At least in spirit.

The second encounter was with Zoe, one of the main playable characters from Road 96: MIle 0, as she too is on the run. Making a brief home in a trailer park, she and my character interact by (loudly and terribly) playing the trombone until we're both forced out of the park. Again, another minigame ensues where I was tasked to play Trombone Champ. Being as Road 96 came out before the game's release, I wonder if Trombone Champ took inspiration from this one scene and decided to base an entire game on it. Before this scene, the player has the decision to make, whether to save money and sleep outside or rent an RV for the night.

Everything in Road 96 is a risk-reward system and the player usually gambles with their stamina because of it. While resting on a cot will save money, they are warned that their neighbor snores loudly. This will result in not recovering as much stamina as they would sleeping indoors. But renting an RV costs money, something the player may or may not have. Money is arguably the most important in Road 96 compared to other games as players can buy guaranteed ways to cross the border if they have enough to afford, say, a smuggler.

Certain events provide context for other seemingly unrelated events, especially later on in the story.

However, with every action, the player uses stamina as a resource. Trucking it on foot will cost a great deal more than trying to hail a taxi. But that taxi driver may also be a serial killer in disguise, so you may need to use clever deception to ensure your survival. Depending on how the player handles these situations, they will learn skills passed down from the main characters such as how to lockpick from a pair of thieves or the Cleverness skill for outsmarting said serial killer.

Certain events can only happen once conditions are met, depending on if the player boards a bus to get closer to the border. This could lead to the player having to solve a dispute between a police officer and a bus filled with anti-police passengers. At this point, the player just wishes to get to their next destination so they can attempt to de-escalate the situation. Fanny, the police officer, has a sensible heart of justice but knows her status as a police officer automatically makes her an antagonist to some. Unfortunately, this can cause her to lose her cool, but it's in your best to be peaceful as everyone just wants to get to their destination safely.

Road 96's graphics and music are stunning once the player takes in the atmosphere.

Eventually, the player will reach Road 96 should they survive their trip across Petria and this serves as the final frontier for the player. A player's final stamina and cash amount will greatly decide the best way to escape. There's the mountain climb in which one small misstep can spell disaster, the classic "hide in the back of a truck," lie about taking an exam to be a BP worker, or sneak through the caves. In my first run, I did the latter as I had enough money to purchase a keycard. So, that's it right? We escaped through Road 96 and made it through to the end! It was a very quirky journey but I'm happy to say I enjoyed---Oh wait, there's more?

There's a lot more, as that first run whether the player escaped, died, or got arrested was but a prologue. Following this, a news reporter, Sonya, chronicles the events of the past week including the shenanigans of the player and their peers. The fate of the player is also revealed, which in my case was escaping through tunnels. This is something that the reporter vehemently denies, of course, as the main man in power, Tyrak, doesn't want to admit that someone got away of course. The broadcast ends with the report of three more missing teenagers that the player can decide upon with varying starting stamina and money, starting the second episode.

Each completed "run" allows the player to pick from other possible runs with different parameters.

What prevents Road 96 from being a "roguelike" or even a "roguelite" is that although each run is procedurally generated, the outcome depends on how smart the player is at managing their resources, saying the right things, and springing into action. Each run follows a different nameless teen on their path to Road 96 leading up to the election where the events of each run determine the fate of Petria. There's a lot more that goes on with the story, but it begins to unravel itself from its closed "get from Point A to Point B and escape from a dystopia" to potentially being a part of a revolution to topple the corrupt government.

But nothing is stopping the player from absolving all sense of responsibility. They can choose not to engage in politics and ensure each teen escapes Petria but that's not solving the grander issue at hand. Would it be best to fight for a world where other teens wouldn't feel like escaping is the best option? Is the "other option" in the election a good choice or will it be more of the same? The answers to these questions lie exclusively with the player, therefore each ending is neither good nor bad. Lowering the magnifying glass into the lives of each of the eight main characters as they encounter the fleeing teenagers shows that the world of Petria is vast. These are but eight figures and countless teens that serve up tiny fish in the big bond of corruption.

Doing odd jobs not only help with revenue, but it may also help the main characters achieve their goals.

Road 96 left a lasting impression as it allowed the player to make long-term choices that would affect future runs and future runaway teenagers that the player would control. The relationships made with one teenager wouldn't carry over with the next one as Zoe witnessing one teenager would give a different response to another one. While we, the player, get to intimately know each character, it's still the first time the protagonist would have met the characters. I have to commend the narrative team for keeping these encounters within its universe rather than going for a meta approach. Road 96 is something I recommend to those wanting a twist on the adventure narrative genre as well as learning about Petria's world before tackling the prequel-sequel, Road 96: Mile 0.

Road 96 is available on the Nintendo Switch, Sony PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC

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