Freedom. Nothing is more important.
I just can’t imagine why I would possibly think a game like Road 96, coming to us from French studio DigixArt, might feel timely and just a bit too real. With themes like changing an untrustworthy electoral system, the complicated mess that is the protest vs revolt debate, or the pessimism around whether or not a broken country can be fixed, this first-person adventure game has a lot more to say than I had initially figured it might. The main question from there is how well does the game handle these rather sensitive subjects? Does it have a valuable perspective or does it fall on its face?
In Road 96, the player is put in control of various teenagers attempting to leave the fictional country of Petria in 1996. The current president of Petria, a totalitarian named Tyrak, has been shipping teens who disagree with his policies into work camps in order to keep them from exercising their right to vote. As a result, the country’s youth are trying to cross the border as quickly as they can, facing numerous difficulties along the way. A runaway teen runs the risk of being arrested or killed over the course of their journey, and the rising tensions of an upcoming presidential election have only served to make their ordeal even harder. All the while, each teen has the potential to run into a cast of recurring characters, such as the trucker John, the police officer Fanny, or the unhinged taxi driver Jarod.
At the beginning of each episode, the player is given a choice between three randomly generated teens, all differing in ages, starting energy levels, distance from the border, and the amount of money they start their journey with. From there, the player will experience a series of vignettes that are procedurally generated and chosen as they go. Sometimes these vignettes will involve a simple minigame that can range from acting as a TV camera operator to playing soccer with a very drunk John. All of these games are simple and relatively interesting, with none of them really overstaying their welcome, and failing the games does not interfere with your story. As you talk to the people of Petria, you will sometimes be given a choice between things to say that will alter the direction the country starts to roll, and whether the election ends with Tyrak maintaining power, Florres winning the election and arresting Tyrak for crimes against humanity, or if Petria is engulfed in a violent revolution. Once one teen’s story ends, the next episode will have you picking another teen and making the trek to the border once more.
Each vignette also ends with a choice on how you can proceed towards your destination. You can take a taxi, hitchhike, steal a car, or even just walk. These each come with their own pros and cons. A taxi or bus would cost money, which can be quite hard to come by, and taxis themselves also pose more of a risk. Hitchhiking has the possibility of being picked up by an unsavory individual or potentially nobody at all. Walking is the safest option, but it also costs the most energy. Your energy levels are displayed in the top left, and if they hit zero you will collapse and be found by the police. This energy can be regained by sleeping, eating, or drinking. You’ll also have the opportunity to gain new skills, items, and abilities as you go, such as a lockpick from the robbers Stan and Mitch that allows you to open any locked door in the game. These abilities carry over to future episodes, meaning future teen refugees may find themselves having an easier time as a result. However, if you happen to make it to the border and attempt to cross, the method you used will become even harder for those making the journey in the future, such as when I got caught trying to stow away in a truck and security around truck crossings was upped to the point of making it no longer a viable option for others, an aspect that added to the tension down the line.
Unfortunately, Road 96 does have its fair share of technical issues and shortcomings. While the environments in the game are generally quite nice looking, the render distance for things like grass and brush is woefully small, meaning you’ll see it come into existence right in front of you quite often. The game also has the occasional frame rate dip that can be quite noticeable. Another issue is that characters, as memorable as they might be in terms of interaction, look rough with animations that are just a bit off. There are of course exceptions, such as the intentionally off-putting Jarod. Some of the voice acting can feel a bit stilted at times as well, but it was never so bad as to pull me out. While none of these problems hamper the experience too much, they can sometimes be hard to ignore if it’s something that bothers you. What did irk me quite regularly was the very long load times between each scene, sometimes lasting around 20 seconds or so every single time.
Luckily these issues do not detract from what I consider to be a fascinating narrative, with characters who are deeply conflicted and troubled that are a joy to interact with. Whether I was being threatened by Jarod, having deep personal conversations with John, or being made audience to the circus that is Stan and Mitch, I found myself continuing to go back for more over and over with Road 96. If you want a deeply political and sometimes downright scary experience, this is the place to be. Add to that a fantastic soundtrack of both folk style music and electronic synthwave that really hits the ‘90s vibe, and Road 96 is an experience you will not soon forget.