Road 96 Review: Live Life On The Open Road

The world is a mess right now. Economic disparity, political dissidence, and the growing climate crisis have resulted in the largest generational divide in history, with young people forced to fight for an existence that is slowly falling away from underneath them. Unless you are born into privilege, life can be a struggle – and it’s important to recognise this and seek to invoke change where it matters.

Road 96 presents this experience of youthful estrangement beautifully, transplanting a number of biting modern issues into a fictional world that feels all too real. While it can fumble in its execution and is painfully unsubtle, this is a procedural adventure that makes its political intentions clear, and that’s valuable in a medium that all too often wallows in a pit of perpetual centrism. The journey you embark on is predictably rocky, but the characters you meet and challenges you overcome make each step forward worthwhile.

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You play as a teenager seeking to cross the border of Petria, an authoritarian nation in the throes of a government election that will either see its people thrust into another decade of tyrannical rule or have a more progressive candidate emerge from the ashes. This is a country where the future is uncertain, where young people are demonised for their unwillingness to abide by the status quo, to the extent that horror stories of teenagers being snatched up at the border have become commonplace. There’s a paranoia instilled within you in the opening moments that never lets go.

Your interaction with this world is executed in a similar manner to Firewatch or What Remains of Edith Finch. Each run is defined by various vignettes inspired by classic cinema and literature, locations you’ll be free to explore in search of characters to speak with or objects to inspect and collect. It’s minimalist and picturesque, providing just enough interactivity to make each decision you make have a palpable impact. I was consciously aware of how I was spending my money, especially if these funds were illegally obtained and someone might be smart enough to figure out my deception. Yet I also took risks if I knew it would deepen relationships with people I loved, or offered a better chance at crossing the border alive. Road 96 is weakest when its mechanical aspects make themselves apparent, since you will either need to be incredibly lucky or closely monitor the energy gauge that dictates each major action to ensure you have enough resources to escape Petria. The user interface is also unreasonably messy, lacking the more subtle approach that helps its procedural narrative and characters shine so brightly.

I said you play as a teenager, but you actually step into the shoes of several, with each run following a new individual seeking to cross the border in search of a new life. You’ll stumble upon new and familiar characters with each run, learning about their struggles in this world and how they feel about the coming election. Some are fellow rebels, showing vocal support for a national resistance group, while others will quietly work for the system in fear of repercussions for speaking out. Everyone you meet in this world has a voice, and a reason to exist or strive for change in a society that cares for nobody but the rich and powerful. Like I said, it isn’t subtle, but given the themes it aims to convey, I’m not really sure it means to be.

Petria was rocked by a terrorist attack several years ago that changed the country forever. It’s talked about in a similar manner to 9/11 or the Columbine Shooting, an integral moment in the country’s history that changed the political landscape forever while simultaneously fostering hostile rhetoric towards anyone who dares to be different. The older generations view these events from a sympathetic perspective of trauma, while young people have a more nuanced and detached understanding. All of the teens you play as aren’t old enough to remember the attack, so many dialogue options offer ways to delve into this nation’s history, allowing you to gain a deeper perspective from cops, celebrities, and taxi drivers who have far more to say than their occupation might suggest.

Young people in this world hate cops, and one of the first characters you encounter is an officer transporting a teen to a nearby prison camp. I treated her with disgust, riling up fellow passengers in the bus to turn against her. Things escalated so much that she pulled a gun on me, screaming in desperation as she tried and failed to call for back-up. I thought I was in the right, but later events paint this character as a far more relatable one. Shortly after being booted to the side of the road after riling up the police officer, I stumble upon a young boy fiddling with a phone box. After helping him get the thing working, I discover this is the adopted son of the cop I almost got murdered a few minutes ago.

I feel awful, so I take time to relate to this fellow teenager’s plight and why they’ve decided to leave their adopted mother behind in search of their blood parents. I find the cop again on another run, and end up helping her fix a flat tyre as we eventually talk about her son and the circumstances behind his upbringing. This woman might be a cop, but she’s operating under a system that will discard her just like the young people she’s dooming to imprisonment. I don't necessarily feel sympathy for her situation, but now I understand it, it’s far easier to draw lines in the sand and choose where I sit in all this. Nothing is as simple as your first impression might suggest.

Road 96 is filled with wonderful moments like this, slivers of development that emerge with each subsequent run to help build a larger, more comprehensive picture of a few select people trying to survive in a country that works against them at every turn. Not all of them are trying to reach the border, and some might try to stop you depending on how you treat them, but they’re all human, regardless of the sociopolitical circumstances that underpin their existence. Much like those who voted for Donald Trump or the Brexit Referendum, some individuals are too far gone, lost to such an avalanche of media propaganda and bigoted rhetoric that changing their mind is a lost cause. Road 96 isn’t afraid to paint these people as the bad guys, aware that there will always be a political divide regardless of whether progress is made in real life or amidst the fictional sun-scorched plains of Petria.

Quiet moments of human contemplation are where Road 96 becomes something special. Extended dialogue sequences interspersed with playful puzzle sections and unexpected minigames can conclude with me and a fellow traveller staring out at the horizon, ruminating on what was, is, and will be in a world that feels so lost to political corruption and societal indifference that moving forward feels fruitless. We’ve already lost so much, so finding something new to cling to as a way of keeping hope alive is the hardest part of all. I don’t know what awaits beyond the border, and the game maintains a deliberate mystique surrounding our eventual escape so we’re able to project our own idyllic fantasy onto proceedings.

Much like the real world, everyone’s hopes and dreams are different, and it’s this uniqueness that makes them so undeniably beautiful. It’s a poetic struggle, and stopping to appreciate the instances of silence on a road filled with tragedy and heartbreak helps Road 96 feel like something I’ve never played before. Road 96 feels like an experience created by a studio that understands the fragility of the world we exist in, seeking to project these issues onto a fictional world where comparing them with our own is all too easy. Subtlety isn’t the objective here, and by pulling no punches, this game manages to say something well worth listening to.

Score: 4/5. A PC code was provided by the developer.

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