Imagine if you can, a country held in the vice-like grip of a battle between Fascism and personal freedom. A strongman dictator is relying on violence, intimidation, and fear to shut down any form of opposition or protest. Using a glamorous empty-headed mouthpiece to spout falsehoods on heavily controlled state media, he bamboozles his supporters and keeps them in a zombified state of confusion to secure their unwavering support. Teenagers are desperately trying to leave the country by any means possible, even though the border wall is heavily defended and capture could mean disappearing for good.
It is hard to imagine this happening anywhere in 2022, isn’t it? Rise up and fight or attempt to leave and save yourself, these are the only choices that teenagers have open to them. Let’s try to guide people out of this dire situation in the XboxEra review of Road 96.
Created by French developer DigixArt and published by Plug In Digital this game was originally released for PC and Nintendo Switch in August last year. It is now being released on the Xbox consoles.
Set in the fictional state of ‘Petria’ in 1996, this country looks and feels like the United States but uses political imagery that is uncannily like that of the Communist Soviet leadership of the 1980s. The graphical style used reminds me of ‘Firewatch’ and was a pleasure to feast my eyes on.
Born To Run
After answering a series of questions to influence certain aspects of how the game plays, I was drawn to the modern equivalent of a ‘Fighting Fantasy’ book from my youth. Taking on the role of multiple ‘missing teens’ the idea of the game is to navigate their way to Road 96 and get them across the border successfully.
With nothing more than a few dollars in my pocket and a sometimes dangerously low level of health, I was required to work my way through numerous procedurally generated interactions. Walking and hitchhiking are obviously free but slow and unreliable. In the moments that I had cash available to me (just don’t ask how I got it) I was able to take buses and taxis to travel hundreds of miles across a beautifully designed landscape. When my wallet was empty which was often due to the requirement to eat and drink, I stole more cars than I did back in Vice City all those years ago.
There are seven main characters within this world whose narratives are intertwined with those of the travelers. These people range from a right-wing media celebrity to members of the underground opposition, a policewoman, and a ‘Travis Bickle’ character on a rampaging mission of revenge. Each randomly-generated chapter that they appear in fills out more of their backgrounds and gives players clues as to how to behave whilst in their company.
Like in any dictatorship, numerous people are happy with the way things are politically, as they are benefitting from the status quo. As someone trying to flee the country these people are your natural enemies and need to be avoided as much as possible. Other people are sympathetic to your situation and may be able to help you on your way, while some want to tear down the establishment via violent revolution. The problem you face is that you have no idea which people are which until you have interacted with them via conversation trees. This meant that I had to evaluate every NPC I came across to judge their probable intentions toward me.
You can choose to tell the truth, lie or be ambiguous about your true feelings but certain answers you give will be remembered and have an impact somewhere down the line. For example, telling Fanny the policewoman that I was going to try and cross the border proved to be a mistake when she arrested me straight away. Later, while playing as another character, I lied while pretending to be a police informer. This worked nicely to my advantage and at the same time protected a ‘Black Brigade’ freedom fighter from being identified by the authorities.
It does not take long to get an idea of how certain people will react to you, but I guess after being blackmailed into pumping fuel for free by a loyal member of the establishment, you get a sense for these things.
It is true that Road 96 could be described as a very good-looking walking simulator, but how many of those allow you to attempt different styles of border crossings or concentrate on influencing an election by both peaceful or violent means? In fact, how many walking sims allow you to be killed, or end up in prison after being captured by the Police?
This is probably a good time to mention that border crossing is a tiring business. Allowing your health to deplete completely will lead to you collapsing or dying in the middle of a crossing attempt. Buying or stealing food and drink is a necessity, as is resting when you get the opportunity. Let’s just say, climbing a mountain peak can take it out of you.
As each journey ends you begin again as another potential escapee. During interactions with the main NPC’s, it is possible to pick up abilities that will aid you on your journey. ‘Hacking’ obviously allows you to hack electronic devices such as safes, ‘Lockpicking’ will get you through locked doors and ‘Cleverness’ brings you the ability to convince others to do things. An escape attempt becomes much easier once you have attained some of these abilities as new opportunities become available to you, even when doing something as basic as scavenging.
Money can be earnt, stolen, and given away to help others. Regrettably, I twice found an ATM card but due to the procedural generation aspect of the chapters, I never came across an ATM with a card in my possession. It is also worth noting the names of the chapters as they are introduced via a shortcut scene. I noticed that most of them are named after songs by artists such as Nirvana and Grace Jones. The game soundtrack is very impressive and presents itself to the player through the collection of cassettes throughout the journey. With a basis in 80’s synth music, I found it so enjoyable that I intend to keep listening to it.
In theory, there are potentially thousands of journeys possible due to the randomness of the game design. No two players will experience exactly the same version of events on their playthrough. This is pretty unique, so if the idea of attempting to get to and across a border seven times sounds boring and repetitive believe me it is not. Each teen that I played approached Road 96 from a slightly different direction and there are several different methods of border crossing to try out. Believe me, you will fail some of them, particularly on your first few attempts when you are less worldly-wise.
Another thing that keeps gameplay fresh is the sheer number of mini-games hidden within it. Table Hockey, Connect Four, Penalties, Cups and Balls, a police informers variation of Guess Who? and many other well-designed distractions can all be played within the story of Road 96. Playing the trombone for Zoe was fun, as were the not easy to describe ‘dance party’ limo shenanigans with Sonya.
Escape puzzles have to be solved during moments of threat with the added pressure of a countdown. If the acting talent and touching stories contained within the narrative have not invoked deep feelings within you while playing this game these moments of tension are sure to.
Road to Nowhere
Now that I am ‘over the fence’ so to speak, I can say that If you enjoy games with a lot of story and depth you will enjoy playing this, If you are a cutscene jumping type this will not be your cup of tea.
Spending some time on Road 96 will make you consider your personal take on ‘Border Politics’, put you in the shoes of a refugee, and question how far you would be willing to go to keep yourself alive on a long and dangerous journey.
Delivered in a classy graphical style, with a banging soundtrack and more accessibility options than is normally the case for a game of this type, I found playing it to be a great use of my time and was very impressed with it upon game completion.
Road 96 is fun to play, a challenge, and also makes you question your political beliefs. Play this game, help others and always vote against fascism.
|Reviewed on||Xbox Series X|
|Available on||Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, PS4|PS5, Nintendo Switch|
|Release Date||August 16th, 2021|
|Publisher||DigixArt, Plug In Digital|