PC, Nintendo Switch
August 16, 2021
Road 96 is a road trip game. A pretty easy way to summarize it, that both explains everything and nothing at all. What it is really about is an attempt to escape the country of Petria and cross over its border. Driving, hitchhiking, or even just catching the bus to get closer and closer to freedom. The trip to the border has to be completed multiple times, helping different teens make the journey over and over again, with each trip being completely different.
The gameplay in general is kind of hard to explain. It wears a lot of hats. Most of the game involves dialogue with different characters and making choices that will have effects on your next run. Something that you do on your first trip may come back to bite you on your second. In this way, it is similar to a Telltale game or Life is Strange, but there are also multiple minigame sections to break up the dialogue. Heaps of them, in fact, and all of them suitably varied. You also have to manage the exhaustion and hunger of the character you are playing as, making sure you don’t force them to keep walking if they are about to pass out.
Overall, the easiest way to describe Road 96’s genre as a whole, would just be… adventure. While what you are doing can change minute to minute depending on what part of the road you have stumbled across, the main goal is always to travel. You are always moving closer and closer to the border, no matter what you are doing at that moment. A central thesis of the game really could be that the journey is more important than the destination.
Some examples of the cool stuff you might stumble across on your trip include things like participating in an actual robbery and having to man the security cameras for the criminals. You can panic as you rifle through drawers to find a password to prove that you actually work there (which you don’t), so you don’t get arrested. You might end up working a shift at a bar, making cocktails despite being 15 and having never touched alcohol in your life, dashing up and down the bar, trying to remember what the hell that last person just ordered.
These eclectic sections are lots of fun and had me laughing on more than one occasion. The situations are outlandish but simple to actually play, with generally only one mechanic that you need to learn in a short time. It’s a great way to change up the pace and repetition, as well as give a brief reprieve to what is generally a heavily emotional experience.
When travelling from place to place, or sometimes at a rest spot, you will come across one of the game’s six characters. While there will often be one of those minigame sections when you are with them, most of the time will be spent talking to them and learning more about what they are doing out on the road. You’ll find out why they are there, what they are trying to get away from, and what their opinions are on the country. You will only see each character once per trip, but each time you bump into them they will have been affected by their meeting with you in the last trip, often mentioning the last kid you played as directly. It’s very interesting the way the game makes you feel like you are changing the world when each kid you play as does very little individually, but you as a player can change a whole lot.
One issue that is heavily present throughout the game though is that the political messages as a whole feel incredibly derivative and heavy-handed. Road 96 is strongest when dealing with interpersonal relationships and individual issues. The second the game tries to address more widespread problems, it resorts to using very obvious and not very clever allegories instead of creating its own story. The wall at the border, the election with an incredibly high number of abstained votes, the terrorist accident that occurred in 1986. On the 11th of September in 1986, specifically. Not very subtle.
“each kid you play as does very little individually, but you as a player can change a whole lot.“
These allegories are so overt and lazy that I was taken out of the experience constantly. You don’t need to make such heavy-handed connections to real-life events for people to empathise with and understand the messages being shown. It would have been better to let players find their own connections where they could, to have created an entirely fictional world that bears just enough similarity to real life that it makes you feel like it is familiar without waving 9/11 in the player’s face all the time. Unfortunately, the game’s main plot is all interwoven with this stuff. It ends up coming across as uninteresting and little more than an attempt to evoke real-world issues.
The main story is at its strongest in the character moments when you are hearing about how people are affected directly. This story centres around the 1996 election that will be taking place in a few weeks, and as you try to get kids across the border, there is a resistance working to arrange a revolt during this election. It feels a little strange when the game asks for your opinion on the elections because the main goal for you is always to help your player character cross the border. You have the option to talk about how important voting is, or revolution is, but your goal stays the same. Escape. So it ends up feeling hollow.
The game does do a decent job at playing grey morality when it can, though. Showing that neither side is completely in the right, whilst still very clearly showing a side that is in the wrong. It doesn’t attempt to make you empathise with the villains of the game, but it does make you question if the ends always justify the means.
These moments never felt forced, it just felt like it was reminding you that while one side might be objectively better, it doesn’t always mean they take the right course of action, and it was handled more tastefully than a lot of other games that try to tackle similar topics.
Where Road 96 really shines is the aesthetic choices. Both the visuals and the music do an amazing job of not only invoking the lonely journey that you are making across the country, but also the nineties as a whole. Almost the whole game is awash in colour, orange light at dawn and blue in the evening. Even though you are on the open road with nothing but flat earth for miles, the colour pallet is so vibrant that it is a feast for the eyes. Every character is also designed immaculately. The character models are a little stiff, but they emote very well and get across what kind of person they are easily. They all feel like they belong in the world and look incredibly natural walking around in it.
The soundtrack of Road 96 is also phenomenal, you can pick up cassette tapes throughout the game that you can play in any car that you drive, and sometimes a character giving you a lift will let you pick the music too. Every track is memorable and I very quickly had a couple of favourites that I would switch between whenever I had the chance. The non-diegetic music is also great, it fits the atmosphere and does a sensational job at carrying the emotion of any given scene.
- Vibrant artstyle
- Interesting characters
- Great soundtrack
- Large tonal shifts that don't often work
- Doesn't handle its politics very well
Road 96 is an emotional character-driven game that is unfortunately marred by heavy-handed attempts to evoke real-world politics. It is still very much an enjoyable experience with fun mini-games, a beautiful visual style and soundtrack, along with the interesting mechanic of having to make the trip to the border multiple times. It’s upsetting that the game loses itself when it tries to tackle politics when it really should have focused more on the relationships between the characters and their journeys on the road. Despite this, it was still great fun to play the whole way through.