Through the entire stint of my 20s, I tried to avoid talking about politics. Never tried to understand arcanely-worded policies or pay attention to what (lies) politicians might be peddling – the pursuit of my self-interests didn’t seem to ever entwine with the country’s destiny. I always felt that people far more intelligent and determined were on the task already, and my amateur input might just prove to be a hindrance to society at large. As ambitions grew, greener pastures came to view – but always outside the borders. In different first-world countries, unencumbered by the glaringly deep fault lines present in ours. The dream hawked to an entire generation trying to leave in search of a better future – a feeling that somehow everything will be magically better for me, only if I moved. In my 30s, I feel disillusioned and highly critical of empty political discourses. Road 96 to me is like a refreshing take in this world of video games where most developers shy away from making a political statement. Being a game about teenagers, Road 96 feels like my 30s.
Road 96 by DigixArt puts you in the shoes of teenagers trying to escape this fictional country of Petria. With every run, you are made aware of the slow chipping away of democratic rights, and the eventual slide into autocracy. There is an election in the horizon, but there is a fear it wouldn’t be fair. Faced with such circumstances, what would you have done? Escape alone and save yourself or rebel and fight back? Would your decision even matter in the grand scheme of things?
To many of us around the world, this is not a hypothetical situation. Migrants numbering in the thousands have attempted to escape the problems and perils of their land by running away to seek refuge for themselves and their family. Risked their lives for a shot at a better future in a safe haven. Who am I to judge this act of self-preservation?
The first casualty of tyranny is truth.
For a game about politics, subtlety is not its forte. Road 96 wears its opinions on its sleeve – the primary antagonist and president of Petria, Tyrak, is unabashedly of the far right-wing. To combat this tyranny, a citizen-collective called the Brigades is secretly plotting to overthrow Tyrak. You are hundreds of miles away from the border and are ready to beg, borrow, and steal to escape this YA-soul crushing hellhole – and you will keep doing this multiple times in the shoes of different teenagers.
Set in the 90s, in the backdrop of the 10th anniversary of a terrorist attack, your hitchhiking adventures will make you meet myriad characters with diverse political POVs, own motivations, and stories to boot. Along the way you will meet an honest police officer whose cognitive dissonance makes her reject the idea of an oppressive juvenile camp as ‘fake news’. A trucker who spills his guts about his hesitation to approach his love interest, while drunk. A dramatic news anchor who acknowledges her role as a puppet in spreading state-mandated propaganda.
The procedural narrative will meander across the intersecting story of seven such NPCs – their hopes, dreams, sadness will be all laid bare through the course of your journey. They will get chances to make mistakes, and even redeem themselves, just like you. Sometimes they will provide you with items that grant you special abilities. For example, a lockpick that you get will help you, later on, to get into places that would otherwise be inaccessible. You will be constantly balancing two stats to keep yourself alive, safe, and free – energy and money. Getting on a bus might be cheaper than hiring a cab, but you can always walk for free at the cost of your energy.
Blessed are the curious, for they shall have adventures!
The lo-fi aesthetics of the game shine throughout – from the highly stylized art to the period-appropriate minigames and cassette collectathon – they all coalesce into a magical road trip generator. Every scenario plays out like a puzzle – you meet a special NPC, choose your conversation with them and maybe indulge in tasks which affects your story, scour the area for hidden items using your abilities and then try to get back on the road again. Each segment feels structured, no matter how they appear in the timeline. This non-linear order is what makes the story shine – if told in a straightforward manner, this might not have ended up being so exciting!
What does not work? Apart from the special NPCs, all others look the same. The animations feel a little janky at times, and the lip-sync doesn’t work that well. There is a weird pop-in effect on the draw distance where trees and signposts seem to grow out of the ground, and the choices you make often do not telegraph you the kind of impact it had on your evolving storyline. And at the time of review, there were some hard CTDs. Hope these get solved in the patches planned by the developers. But even with all these shortcomings, this indie managed to pleasantly surprise me!
If you are expecting a complicated story whose ending will blindside you – this might not be for you. This game dwells more on the journey and its meanings, rather than the destination. Each encounter will build on the story, and even though you might be able to guess the endgame for some of the characters, the path that you take will make it memorable. Each interaction is a masterclass in nuance and foreshadowing – each choice bringing in a no-judgment aspect of the story into the light.
Sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.
Even though hitchhiking might not match with today’s sensibilities of stranger-danger, the process in the game works quite smoothly. Your journey across the desolate landscape of Petria will have you jumping into vehicles often without knowing what you are going to get into – sometimes it might be a frantic police chase, while in another you might be having a heartfelt conversation about relationships. The game keeps running you through the gamut of emotions – from the funny to the vulnerable, from paranoia to melancholy, from wacky to serious.
What carries the story along is the excellent voice-acting – the menacing tone of the taxi-driver Jarod, the self-hype anthem by the outlaws Stan & Mitch, news anchor Sonya’s accent-switching and truckdriver John’s drunken rant. If you are on the lookout for a quick fix after enjoying games like Life Is Strange or any of Telltale’s games – look no further. Expect the same amount of love and polish that you have seen in those narrative adventure games.
The review shouldn’t end before heaping some well-deserved kudos to the stellar original soundtrack in Road 96 – the peppy beats of The Road by Cocoon, soulful Far From Home by Daniel Gadd, synthwave On The Road by Robert Parker, or even the heart pounding Chase by Volkor X. The music in this game is an integral part of the story and uplifts the emotions in interesting ways.
Road 96 is an unmissable beautiful adventure with the ugliness of real-world politics laid bare. You meet diverse characters with a hint of oddball, which deftly mingles with your own coming-of-age stories and escaping from tyranny. Your Gump-ian journey across Petria is a testament to its procedural narrative – life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Armed with an earworm of a soundtrack and a distinctive artstyle to boot, this indie is bound to make you nostalgic about the 90’s and drag you into the perennial struggle of freedom.
FINAL RATING: RECOMMENDED