Road 96 may fall short of some of the lofty promises it makes about its choice-led narrative, but it hardly matters when the overall picture is as unique as this.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Road 96 eats, sleeps and shits politics. If you can’t bear the thought of a game making you consider real-world situations, this probably isn’t the game for you. Sure, it’s set in a fictional country – Petria – and deals with fictional characters. But its narrative of a corrupt political party that’s driving young people to illegally cross the border in numerous dangerous ways is all too real. Perhaps it’ll be the pull of right wing versus left wing politics that will stir something inside of you. Or maybe it’s the plight of the people trying to flee the country. But something here will touch a nerve. Even between the humour, over-the-top drama and schlocky characters that makes Road 96 what it is.
Road 96 promises an “ever-evolving story” featuring “thousands of roads”. We didn’t get that impression as we played. Each chapter of the game puts you in charge of the journey of one teenager trying to flee the country. Starting from up to 2,000 miles away, you’ll need to beg, borrow and steal your way north to reach Petria’s border. Sure, each journey is different, but you’ll meet the same faces along the way. And while you do have some choices to make, they’re not as powerfully consequential as Road 96 would have you believe.
But it doesn’t matter. This isn’t a game that lives or dies on the narrative choices it gives you. You could remove all player choices altogether, and Road 96 would still carry a meaningful, gripping journey that you’d struggle to put down. Not only does it tell the story of the people you’re trying to get across the border, it tells the story of the people you meet along the way. There’s a handful of them, and with each journey, you’ll learn a bit more about them and their plight.
There’s Sonia, a news anchor and national celebrity. She’s perhaps the most annoying character to ever grace a video game, but she’s so well-written in her over-the-top, in-your-face attitude that it’s hard to mind. Her political leanings – or at least the ones she holds publicly – put her on the side of the despotic President Tyrak, however, so the characters you take control of may not take too warmly to her.
Elsewhere, there’s Alex, a young teenager with an extraordinary mind. His hacking skills will come in handy, and if you’re friendly to him and offer to help when he needs it, he may just lend you some useful tools. And there’s Zoe, another teenager looking to escape but one from a very different background: her father is the Minister of Oil, so she’s grown up surrounded by Tyrak’s politics, up close and personal.
Other characters include Fanny, a police officer, Stan and Mitch, a pair of criminals that are confusingly lovable, shady taxi driver Jarod and truck driver John. Each person you play as will come across a number of these characters, interacting with them in different ways. Maybe Sonia will pick you up from the side of the road. Or maybe you’ll run into her at a political rally. And maybe you’ll meet John at a truck stop, or grab a ride from him. Each time, you’ll learn a little more of their story, which become more complex and interesting as the game progresses.
Some of these encounters are filled with humour, which may seem at odds with the gravitas of Road 96‘s overarching narrative. But it works. You may be trying to flee an evil government, but there’s still time for some light-hearted fun. Each journey holds something slightly different: maybe a road chase presented like an arcade minigame. Or maybe you’ll be tasked to shoot a pursuing vehicle from the back of a truck. Or perhaps you’ll simply enjoy a game of air hockey in a diner. The moment-to-moment gameplay of Road 96 is full of surprises, and it can be utterly delightful at times.
It’s equally devastating, too. It’s impossible to separate Road 96 from the real plight of migrants trying to flee their countries, and whilst it doesn’t quite show the harsh reality of it, there is a sense of it running through the game. Get caught trying to flee, and chances are you’ll wind up thrown in prison, likely sent to a work camp for the rest of your days. And fleeing in itself is dangerous. Do you sneak into the back of a truck and hope you don’t get caught? Or maybe you want to risk your chances of surviving the treacherous mountain-top path? Providing you make it that far, each chapter of Road 96 cumulates in a tense attempt to cross the border. It’s here where you’ll really feel the weight of your actions. Whether you succeed or fail is down to you.
While Road 96 doesn’t have quite the level of freedom of choice that it advertises, it doesn’t matter. This is a moving, thought-provoking adventure that’s filled with obscure moments, dark comedy and characters you won’t forget in a hurry. Its heavy political slant won’t be for everyone, but if that doesn’t put you off, you’re in for one hell of a journey.
Road 96 review – GameSpew’s score