Road 96 Review | TechRaptor
Travel is a great thing. It’s often been quoted that “travel broadens the mind”, and journeying around the world to engage with new cultures, languages, and places is a great way to learn about new perspectives. It’s no wonder that so many stories are based around the idea of travel, as the physical journey that characters go in, can easily be mirrored in the journey they take as they change as a person. Road 96 is a game with a story that truly embodies the theme of travel, but is the road trip in the game also reflected in the change of the main characters? Well, that’s sort of a hard question to answer.
Road 96 is a first-person adventure game from Digixart, the studio behind 11-11 Memories Untold and Lost in Harmony. The story is based around a group of teenagers who are all trying to flee a country under the control of a right-wing totalitarian government. Most of the teenagers in question don’t have the money or resources for travel, so must make their way across the country in any way they can, meeting other travelers and learning their stories as they do their best to escape the corrupt police forces and dangerous rebels fighting for control of the country.
The main gameplay of Road 96 involves decision-making. As you journey across the country you have to decide your method of travel, how to interact with the characters you come across, and how to acquire the resources you’ll need to stay alive while you’re traveling. You can usually also freely explore the locations that you visit, searching for secrets and different ways to advance the story. The game is also split up into two different kinds of encounters. Traveling encounters happen while you’re on the road, and location encounters happen as you reach each individual location. Some of your decisions are only available once you unlock skills, but once unlocked skills remain with you for the entire game, as well as during any New Game + runs.
These encounters are selected semi-randomly. The location encounters are random each time you arrive at a new place, while the travel encounters are randomly selected from a pool of encounters based on the type of travel that you’ve selected. For instance, you’ll only get bus encounters when you’re traveling by bus, with a pool of different encounters for each travel type: hitchhiking, walking, driving, busses, and taxis. This is where the game gets its procedural nature from, with your route being randomly generated, while the destination, the titular Road 96, being the same each time you make the journey.
You’ll also be making the journey in Road 96 several times, with each of your journeys being in control of a different teenager hoping to cross the border out of the country. Not that it really matters too much, as each person you control is completely silent and faceless, for the most part. After your initial journey, you select your character from a list of 3 different options each time you start again, with the only thing that changes are your initial method of travel, your starting finances, and the pronouns that people use when they’re referring to you. Other than that, all of the encounters will play out mostly the same, although depending on the order in which you receive them, some characters might make references to your previous player character journeys.
Because your main characters are completely blank slates, the idea of having a character arc that mimics your journey is completely missing here. Even worse, you’re sort of actively encouraged away from playing each of your distinct playable characters differently. You see, as you complete your various journeys, you can affect the world around you. Basically, there are 3 different paths to take. Apathy means you’re running away because you don’t think the country can be saved or is worth saving. Rebels think that some sort of revolution, violent or otherwise, is needed to force the country to change. Finally, there’s the vote-affirming path that believes getting out and voting is the real path to creating change in the country.
At various points in your journey, you’re asked your opinion or can otherwise take actions that will align with one of the three paths. Taking these actions affects the world around you, giving you different endings and encounters as the game progresses. The problem with this, as with any black-and-white choice system like it, is that if you try to play each character as distinct people, you’ll end up with a weird mixture of the different choices and probably an ending that feels like a bit of a mess. There’s also a typical binary moral choice system at play, with certain actions you take flashing blue or red in the top left corner of the screen to indicate their morality.
Unfortunately, the morality and paths systems in Road 96 don’t help the game at all. After all, you’re a teen trying to escape a dictatorship that is known to do horrible things to people trying to escape if caught. Despite this, taking abandoned cars or stealing money you need to survive is still labeled as a morally bad decision. This completely ignores the complexity of the moral situation involved and makes the game worse as a result. In all honesty, the game would have been better without it. That’s not to say that consequences for your actions aren’t necessary or an interesting addition to the narrative, but the flashing colors that judge your actions could certainly have been left out. Even worse, despite the flashing blue/red colors, I never once experienced a real consequence for my ‘bad’ decisions outside of a 2-minute encounter that resolved easily.
Luckily, there is still plenty to enjoy in Road 96 thanks to the characters you encounter. While the person you’re playing changes each time you play, the people you come across remain the same, and in many cases, they’re the real highlight of the game. There are 7 different characters, and the real point seems to be to meet each of them enough times to unlock their full character arc, and often times what’s happening in those characters arcs is really interesting and keeps you wanting to play more, up to a certain point. Again, the choice to make the character encounters procedural sort of hamstrings the flow of the storyline in places, as well as the characters’ development.
When I reached the end of my first playthrough, there was a character reveal that showed a strong connection between two of the characters you’ve met on your journey. However, either because I hadn’t had enough encounters with one, or both, of these characters, this reveal came out of nowhere and wasn’t even hinted at or built up in any way. It made the moment come across as a bit forced, and I didn’t really know how it was supposed to affect the story or make me feel. That’s also a problem with several of the other important character moments. One of the characters seems to change their personality out of nowhere, with no definable arc at all. While this isn’t a problem for every character, it happened often enough in my playthrough that it ruined some of the more enjoyable characters.
The randomness also makes it hard to define the sort of experience you’ll have in Road 96. If during my playthrough, I had encountered the right people at the right times, I could have had an incredibly positive experience. Because the game uses procedural generation while trying to tell a coherent story, you end up with a storyline made up of pieces that feel like they were written in order and then were shuffled and put in random places. There also seems to be some issues with flags, as at certain points dialogue moments didn’t make any sense. I was shown a certain piece of information in an encounter, then had the same information revealed to me a second time in the very next encounter, but my character still acted shocked about it for some reason.
There are some other minor niggles and issues that plague the game. For instance, the encounters have a horrible tendency to rely far too much on random chance, literally a roll of the die. There’s also a specific skill that’s tied to you downloading a third-party app, which is an incredibly annoying way of gatekeeping some paths in the game. At first glance, the skill only gives you a few extra segments to your stamina meter, making the game easier which is a really dumb reward for downloading a game center application, but there are actually a few decisions that require you to download this third party software to use them. On top of that, repeated playthroughs to find the last few encounters you’re missing will see you repeating about 80% of the content to find the stuff you haven’t already done.
Despite everything, there are some good points for Road 96. There’s a collection side-quest where you have to get cassette tapes, and you can listen to the songs they contain, which is a great way of rewarding tape-hunting with in-game features. The characters are also mostly well-written, even if their character arcs are jumbled and all over the place, and I honestly had such a good time just interacting with certain characters. There’s also plenty of interesting themes bouncing around the game, such as the debate between idealistic belief in the system, as well as the complete disbelief that sometimes extreme action can be necessary to produce change. On top of that, there are a few cool gameplay moments, as mini-games are sprinkled in at random which keeps things from getting too dull.
Overall, Road 96 is an interesting game that has some really good ideas. Unfortunately, those ideas get lost because the narrative has been cut up and shuffled around so the game can be called procedurally generated. With the strong characters and decent writing, this game could have been a standout experience. But, as it stands, this game is just too hard to enjoy with the randomness of encounters and certain decisions, and the fact that character and story progression is a complete mess because the story and character moments don’t follow any sort of satisfying arc. That’s not to say that you won’t find a fun experience here, but because everything is randomly ordered, there’s just as much chance that you’ll have an even more disorderly time than I did.
TechRaptor reviewed Road 96 on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer. The game is also available on Nintendo Switch.