Road 96 Review – A Hitch-Hiker’s Thumb Up

    Title: Road 96
    Developer: Digixart
    Release Date: August 16 2021
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Digixart, Plug In Digital
    Genre: Adventure

One of the common complaints about decision-based narrative games is they often have the illusion of numerous branching paths yet ultimately arrive at similar conclusions. Road 96 by Digixart and Plug in Digital attempts to counteract this by scrambling up the order of events, making each playthrough a bit different. While it might not totally change the outcomes, it’s a neat idea and one that is thankfully supported by a solid story, several mini-games, and an interesting cast of characters.

Road 96 takes place in the year 1996 in the land of Petria, run by the authoritative president Tyrak. You play as one of the countless teenagers headed for the border in the hope of freedom and a better life. But, unfortunately, authorities are on the lookout for this group of runaways, who will meet a grim end if caught.

You are given the option to walk, hitchhike, ride the bus, take a taxi, or even steal a car, all of which play out with different scenarios. With limited resources and skills, you must determine the best way to get your teen to the neighboring country while affecting the political landscape along the way.

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When first playing Road 96, I erroneously assumed that you would play as one teenager, and once you got them across the border or failed to do so, you would get the ending of the game. Instead, Road 96 is broken into eight episodes where you play as eight different randomly generated youths. This adds considerable length to the game, with each episode taking approximately an hour to complete if you evade capture or death. Even if one of these negative scenarios does play out, you simply move on to the next teen and episode.

Depending on your mode of transportation, you are more likely to run into one of seven different main characters in each playthrough. While you will eventually run into each of them by chance, the percentage meter tells you the number of encounters you still can complete. Finishing the game with all character’s percentages completed is a bit tricky and might take some practice. For example, NPCs kept telling me not to take a cab, so I avoided doing so, but that is the only way to meet with an important character.

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Some of the progression with these characters can only initiate after meeting with others. So while these interactions are all jumbled up, they play out in a similar order. For some gamers expecting even more randomization than what’s provided here, they might be disappointed, but I appreciated the overarching story. The trade-off was worth some of the genre conventions that admittedly aren’t a huge nitpick for me to begin with.

Moral dilemmas and a choice-based adventure are still present. The most consistent one being how you politically align. These are usually split between three choices: taking a more violent approach with a revolution, deciding that voting can make a change with the opposing political candidate, or taking neither side and considering the country beyond repair.

Little actions like vandalism and dialogue choices play into how your character affiliates. With enough siding one way or another, they can occasionally give you additional dialogue options. If you happen to play as I did and switch up your political affiliations and motivations with each teen, it can lead to a pretty chaotic experience, but one that is interesting all the same.

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The only drawback with these political alignments is that they didn’t always make sense to me, given the character’s motivation. For example, if a child supported a revolution or voting, why would they also cross the border?

Perhaps the intention is if these campaigns go as planned, the character can then return to the country if they so wish or they can’t vote, so the safest option is for them to cross the border regardless. I may be overthinking this, but I’m sure others might have similar questions while playing. With that said, it certainly didn’t break the experience and is admittedly the main issue I had.

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The story itself is engaging and creates a unique world that was equal parts dread and charm. This is also reinforced by the cartoony art design. While not graphically amazing, there is a comforting appeal to the characters and colors. This can make some surprisingly tragic sections hit that much harder, contrasting more adult themes with bright visuals.

As dark as some of the subject matter can be, the characters are fairly whimsical and quirky. That over-the-top comedy somehow works just as well when characters do eventually reveal more serious sides of themselves. Even with some purposely selfish and horrible characters, I found myself caring about their journey just as much as my own.

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The voice acting works even if it is a bit extra at times; it fits the tone of what’s happening in the narrative. This goes for the soundtrack as well. Music ranges in genre and moods and is a nice backdrop to the world of Petria.

Road 96 also features several mini-games throughout. These take the form of first-person shooters to classic arcade-style games. Most serve the plot somehow, and even when they don’t completely work with in-game logic, the nice change of pace was always a welcome addition and justification enough for their inclusion.

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The randomizing order of narrative sections mixed with the more traditional choice-based elements of Road 96 made for a compelling experience. Adding in wacky but ultimately human characters really fleshed out the world of Petria and gave some moral dilemmas weight. The occasional mini-games were also enjoyable to break up the dialogue. If you are looking for a narrative adventure that deviates a bit off the normal path, Road 96 is definitely a trip you should consider embarking on.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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