Review – Road 96 (Xbox Series S)
Many people would tell you to keep politics out of video games, and for the most part, I agree. However, every once in a while a game will come along that manages to convey its narrative, all while making you question real-world issues while simultaneously being entertained. Road 96 from from DigixArt is such a game, which I was absolutely not expecting.
Road 96 takes place during the mid 90s, in the fictional nation of Petria. You play from the viewpoint of several missing teenagers that are making a run for the border in order to escape Petria’s authoritarian rule. The story in and of itself is captivating, but it’s the manner in which it’s unveiled that I found truly enthralling. You’ll play through each chapter as a different teen; each with their own set of stats, such as age, distance from the border, and the amount of money and energy they start out with. In addition, the decisions you make have real impact on the events of the game. The levels are also procedurally generated, so no playthrough will ever be the same.
Some storylines intersect, as do certain characters. The fun is piecing together who everyone around you is, what their goals are, and what is actually going on in Petria. In my first playthrough, I got to experience most of the main character’s stories, but I wasn’t able to see everything Road 96 to offer. In my second playthrough, I was able to fully complete most of the storylines, but still was still missing a few things. My endings were also completely different from one another. Needless to say, Road 96 has a ton of replayability.
For the most part, the gameplay in Road 96 is walking around, looking at the area around you, and speaking to different people. I would consider Road 96 to be a puzzle game, but not in the traditional sense. Yes, there are occasionally a few puzzles here and there to solve, but those are mainly to offer an amusing break in the narrative-focused game. Most of the actual puzzles are incredibly simple, but there were a couple that I found to be somewhat clever.
Road 96, as a whole, is a psychological puzzle game. Every dialogue option you pick affects the game in any number of ways. You can end interactions with certain characters early if you anger them, you can completely change the outcome of the game, or you could even die. Everything you say and do matters, which is a wonderful aspect of the game.
Dialogue options aren’t the only things to be mindful of in Road 96. You’ll also have to take into consideration your energy levels and the amount of money you have. Walking from place to place takes up more of your energy, while taking a taxi actually replenishes some. Keeping your energy up is key in Road 96, since if you run out you’ll die and it’s game over.
Money is also important in Road 96, since you’ll need it in order to take taxis and buses so you can reach the border faster. You’ll also need it to buy food and drinks to regain some energy. It doesn’t stop there though. There are several ways to get across the border, and even these seem totally random. One of the ways is to pay a coyote to sneak you across, but if you don’t have the cash when this ending presents itself, then your journey will end with your arrest. Part of the fun (and tension) comes from not knowing what will come next. That’s why it’s always best to be prepared, as best as possible at any rate.
Traveling across the nation of Petria makes for some memorable sights. The character models themselves aren’t the most jaw-dropping, but their slightly cartoony art style is actually a better fit for the game. Road 96 might have political themes, but there’s plenty of instances of absurdity found within the game. This is where having a cartoonish art design is actually a wiser choice than a more realistic approach. By contrast, the sweeping shots of Petria are quite impressive, giving a sense of grandeur and beauty to nation in turmoil.
Road 96‘s sound design is wonderful. Every one of the vocal performances are great and fit the characters well. The soundtrack is even more impressive. Each of its tracks perfectly capture the 90s aesthetic and they set up the tone for each section fantastically. Even the sound effects and ambient noises of the world around you are well done.
Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I was captivated this heavily by a narrative-focused game. Yes the story and characters were great, but it’s the way in which the story was delivered that kept my interest. Not just once, but through multiple playthroughs. I simply had to know everything about each each character and wanted to see just how different the endings were. I can attest that in each of my playthroughs, no run was ever the same. With so many games being essentially carbon copies of one another, a game like Road 96 is a remarkably refreshing surprise. Don’t let it escape your notice, it’s well worth your time.
Definitely not awe-inspiring when it comes to the actual character models, but the sweeping shots of the world around you are impressive.
While most of the game has you simply looking around making dialogue decisions, there are occasional minigames thrown in that help spice things up. It’s overall a puzzle game, but more in the way of figuring out how to work through each scenario rather than literally solving puzzles.
The voice acting is great all around and the soundtrack is fantastic.
Fun Factor: 10
A perfect blending of humor, introspection, melancholy, and zaniness. Road 96 weaves a tale shown from numerous viewpoints that will have you questioning freedoms and politics in procedurally generated layers. I haven’t been this hooked by a game in a long time.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Road 96 is available now on Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X.
Reviewed on Xbox Series S.
A copy of Road 96 was provided by the publisher.