๐Ÿ›ฃ️ Road 96 | PC | Review | 7/10 | "Digixart’s game is actually a series of carefully designed and written vignettes" ๐Ÿ›ฃ️ @Digixart #IndieGames #GameDev

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Road 96 bills itself as a “procedurally generated” story. Going in this was a big red flag: I don’t want some algorithm telling me a tale, I want a human being with thoughts, feelings and opinions! 

Fortunately, it quickly becomes apparent that Road 96 is using procedural generation as more of a buzzword.

Digixart’s game is actually a series of carefully designed and written vignettes, each of which contributes to an overarching story with a couple of alternative endings.

It’s technically procedurally generated in that you don’t know which vignette you’re going to be served up next but Road 96 has a set story that’s going to play out similarly no matter what you choose to do.

That’s a big plus point because it’s an ambitious, intriguing and smartly designed adventure that I got a lot out of. Set in the fictional country of Petria (ruled by evilly-monikered authoritarian President Tyrak) you play various teenagers desperate to cross the border and gain their freedom. The game is entirely in the first person, and your characters’ are nameless, voiceless and represented only by an ambiguous silhouette next to your health bar.

You choose how they’re going to get to the border, with each vignette ending with the choice to walk, catch a bus, hitchhike, steal a car or hail a taxi. Things to consider are your stamina (topped up by eating, drinking and resting), the amount of cash you have (steal, beg or work for it), and permanent skill boosts you earn from various activities that carry across characters.

The actual gameplay consists of exploring environments, having conversations and engaging in a surprisingly varied amount of minigames. Over my playthrough, I played in-game versions of Pong and Combat, worked as a bartender serving pushy drunks, pumped gas, played some trombone-based rhythm-action, shot footage as a cameraman, mixed energy drinks, had a penalty shoot-out, and played a diverting game of air hockey. The variation is impressive and while some are better than others, all the minigames were enjoyable.

I set out on my first trip with a spring in my step and a song in my heart, only to make it a few hundred miles before being brutally murdered, which in retrospect I really should have seen coming. But in Road 96 death isn’t a fail state - you simply select a new teen runaway and begin their story, this time armed with the knowledge that the insanely creepy psychopath should not be trusted.

Along the way you’ll meet eight recurring characters, each with a key role to play in the game’s events. At least one appears in each vignette, with your encounters slowly revealing their connections with the other characters, their past, and their opinions on the state of the country.

Some are more interesting than others: I couldn’t give a toss about the woes of ‘cop with a conscience’ Fanny, but heartbroken rebel trucker John and Life is Strange escapee Zoe were always fun to encounter. A surprising hit is state propagandist Sonya: who’s so amusingly self-centred that - much against my better judgment - I started liking her. I mean, it’s difficult to hate someone who parties so hard they fall from the window of a moving car, climb back in and continue grooving to stave off the pain.

Road 96 excels when it’s focussed on small details and fleshing out roadside locations, but falls apart when you look at the bigger picture. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that its politics are extremely vague: the big event the game revolves around is the upcoming election between President Tyrak and Senator Florres, but at no point do you find out what their political positions are (I didn’t even see Florres in my playthrough if she’s even in the game at all).

Worse, there’s not really any indication of what’s caused swarms of teenagers to abandon their families and leave the country. Sure, there’s a low-level hum of authoritarian interference in people’s lives but Petria doesn’t seem that bad - it’s basically 1990s America. It’s laudable to encourage the player to empathise with refugees trying to cross a border, but if you’re being political you shouldn’t pussyfoot around ideology. If you’ve got something to say, say it!

I’d also argue that making your would-be border jumpers exclusively hip, with-it and funky-fresh teens misses the point a little. If they want to convey the reality of this situation, why not put me in the shoes of a pregnant woman, a man fleeing prison, or a mother desperately trying to provide for her family? Sure the procedural storytelling wouldn’t work with predetermined player characters, but it’d be a gimmick worth sacrificing if it resulted in a better narrative.

There are some other annoying flaws. While the writing is generally good, there’s a lot of unnecessary repetition, most prominently the characters’ nicknames for the player. It’s neat to be referred to as folksy things like “youngblood” or “peach fuzz” once, but being called it five or ten times in the same short conversation sounds forced. Also, the choice to signify sadness by swapping in bloodshot eyeballs to the character models looks comical.

But I don’t want to nitpick too much. Road 96 has its heart in the right place, looks striking, is crammed full of good ideas, and has an exceptional soundtrack (it’s telling that the collectables are cassettes and that the game is full of tape players to listen to them on).

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