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Road 96 might not be the game that you expect once you first boot it up. Marketed with intriguing trailers as a game with boundless possibilities and countless scenarios, you may be surprised to find out, just as I was, that the game actually has a tightly structured story that’s built around the ever twisting paths you can take.
Thankfully this is the opposite of a problem for Road 96, as not only do the fine folk over at Digixart know how to tell a story, they also know how to utilize the interesting premise that they’ve created.
With the central story of Road 96 spread over the many miles and many different road trips you take towards the titular border road itself, you’re able to see the tumultuous land of Petria, and the people within it, from multiple different angles and perspectives as you take fleeting peeks into their lives.
Throughout the multiple trips to the border, that you’ll take as a teen fleeing the nation of Petria, you’ll meet the same band of eight repeating characters over and over again, uncovering a little more about their stories and their character each time you meet them. You’re never around for long in their lives, but seeing them and helping from the outside makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger than just your individual road trip.
This feeling permeates the entirety of Road 96. Your trips to the border, which span up until the game’s impending election, are more about the country and the people than it is directly about you. This allows the game’s cast of characters to properly grow and develop over time, along with the nation itself, which keeps you hooked into the story as you eagerly await the next intriguing piece of character or world development.
Thankfully Road 96 has more going for it than just its novel perspective on proceedings, as the short encounters you have into people’s lives are also deeply engaging and enthralling all on their own. They’re rarely too complex, with minigames and activities only being lightly scattered between them, but they are expertly written with tantalising mysteries and interconnected dramas.
Since you, the player, hold more information than just your character, thanks to your multiple peeks into people’s lives across playthroughs, Digixart is able to weave an elaborate narrative that plays off how much you know. As characters move closer and further from the truth, you’re left wishing you could break the fourth wall and tell them just what’s going on, which is a testament to how phenomenally engaging the game can be as it keeps you hooked on every word, waiting to see what happens next.
To actually see what happens next, it’s not just a case of picking which mode of transport you want to get there by, as you also have to survive. Thankfully, in Road 96, surviving across two thousand miles of varied terrain is surprisingly easy as food, money, and places to sleep are rarely in short supply. This can make the game rather trivial at times, but it lets you focus instead on the story at hand, and the question of how you’re going to get there.
When it comes to getting around, you’ve usually only got four options. You can walk, hitchhike, get on the bus, or call a taxi, with each one of these options costing a different amount of health and or money, as well as offering you different encounters. This gives you some agency within the story as you’re able to slightly tailor your run towards certain encounters you might want to have, however, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to shape your destiny, you’re just along for the ride after all.
While it can be fun to go with the flow of the story, enjoying whatever the game serves up through its procedural generation, it’s not without its frustrations when you want to see the next juicy story beat but the game gives you something else entirely. On top of this, there are the occasional annoyances from the times you’ll get snagged on the terrain in tighter spaces, as well as difficulties picking dialogue options when characters are bobbing about too much, but thankfully none of these issues are too major or prevalent.
There are times when the inherently political nature of the story can get a bit much, to say the least as well, but thankfully these on the nose encounters are outliers within scores of well written, thoughtfully crafted dialogue. When it’s not briefly hitting you over the head with its message, Road 96 manages to create captivating emotive characters who actually feel like people, being very deserving of the centre stage that they’re given throughout the story.
Even amidst the political turmoil of being a police state on the verge of a revolution, Petria still manages to be a gorgeous country to explore, with some amazing vistas and wonderful natural beauty. There are still run-down trailer parks and motels, but with a soulful soundtrack of road trip jams that span a variety of genres, Digixart can make even the dingiest of stops feel like a nice place to be.
With the fleeting pace of Road 96, each one of these stops is made to feel special as you’re never around there for long, so you have to savour the time you have all the more. With so many possibilities for locations and encounters, no matter how you travel, you never know where you’re going to end up, which further makes the familiar faces you see throughout your journey welcome sight for sore eyes.
While it might not have been what I first expected from its trailers, Road 96 is a fantastic story-driven journey nonetheless. You may not feel like the game’s main character, but the cleverly crafted story, memorable characters, and stellar soundtrack, will keep you hooked throughout your first game and into new game plus, making Road 96 definitely a road well worth taking.