Road 96 is actually a relatively new title, released on steam on August 16th 2021, just four days ago at the time of writing. It’s a very interesting narrative oriented game that manages to meld the roguelite genre with something of a more point-and-click adventure. I actually quite like it, though I’m not sure I would let my kids play it. We’ll get to that later.
The general premise of the game is that you are a runaway teen trying to escape the seemingly authoritarian country of Petria by reaching Road 96 and crossing the border. As shown here, the roguelite portion of the idea comes from the fact that every time you reach the border, you start over as a different teenager.
Most of the gameplay alternates between small shops or rest areas and time spent inside a vehicle. Most conversations have a choice between two or three options, and extremely impactful ones will have a relevant icon next to them. The specific situation of each encounter varies wildly, from impromptu camera operator, to bartender, breaking and entering, playing a trombone, playing connect four, and a shootout with a nail gun. Each scene has something that makes it a unique and memorable experience.
All of this takes place on a politically charged backdrop full of crooked cops, authoritarian policies, illegal broadcasting, protest, and violent rebellion.
As you travel you must eat and sleep in order to replace the energy you spend on travel. Sometimes this means buying what you need, and other times just doing a good job or having a spot of luck will give you what you need.
You are also presented fairly often with the choice to steal money and food, which feeds into a karma system, though I’m not entirely certain what impact it has.
The idea is to presumably try to balance survival with ideology and morality.
The game’s cast of recurring characters is both diverse and interconnected with the political situation. These two bikers are trying to stop an alleged assassin from killing their favorite news reporter who also happens to be spinning the news in favor of the incumbent President Tyrak. None of them are necessarily evil, but each pursuing their own goals for various reasons. At the end of my second run, I certainly have my favorites and one or two that I dislike or distrust, but I don’t outright hate any of them.
A good job is done of weaving the stories together in such a way that I never know who I’m going to encounter next, or what situation we’ll be in. It feels very natural and spontaneous, at least insofar as I’ve played it.
While the overall art style is somewhat simple and stylized, it also has some nice natural beauty mixed in with it. It’s nice sometimes to just stop and look at some of the views, and they do tend to be related at times. The path where this image was taken is on Road 96, and has an overlook where you can see the border crossing in the distance.
It’s not without its hiccups, but they’ve patched the game twice in four days. I’ve had a single crash that forced me to close the game and restart. Fortunately all I had to do were repeat a few dialogue options and I was back where I crashed. It autosaves between each scene/area, but this could be a problem if you crash after a few lucky dice rolls asking for food or money.
There are a lot of little hints and connections that are easy to miss in the game. Enough that I can’t help but wonder how many of them I’ve missed and what’s still out there to see. I’m also curious to see what would change if I made different choices than the ones I have. The only way to find out is to keep playing.
There are a lot of beautiful moments crossing back and forth with heartbreaking or tense scenes. I’ve already noticed from playing free games from Epic that I enjoy these narrative experiences a lot more than I thought I would, and I’m extremely glad I took the time to spend the $20 that this title cost. It’s well worth it, just for the five hours I’ve already played it, especially since I play to keep playing. I really want to see how everything turns out.
A beautiful yet dark work with a politically charged narrative. Might not be your thing, but it’s definitely mine.
Y’all take care. Remember to vote. Individually insignificant, but collectively important.
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