You’d be forgiven to think the biggest decision you’d make on a road trip is who’s controling the music or should we play “I spy”? Road 96 by Digixart is a captivating narrative based adventure that pairs Telltale style gameplay and graphics with repeat run throughs of a roguelike into a delightfully cohesive game. Road 96 cuts deep into escapism, political turmoil and freedom, which I feel makes this game a contender for Game of the Year. Originally released in August 2021 on Steam and Nintendo Switch, it recently released on PlayStation and Xbox consoles as of April 14, 2022.
The game is set in Petria, the country in the centre of Road 96 in the Summer of 1996. You play as a teenage transient leaving home trying to make it to the border in an attempt to to escape the country that has had a stranglehold on your dreams and aspirations for what feels like forever. This brilliant narrative is told from a first person perspective but doesn’t hold your hand or tell you how to get to the border. The only advice given is that you should take care, ensure you don’t die or get captured on your way. The developers really understood that a road trip is a deeply personal experience.
Road 96 has you travelling from place to place, meeting different people and encountering divergent situations. The decisions you make during these encounters as well as the route you take to the border changes correspondingly. Each of these areas that you’ll stop at might seem to be small, but the amount of freedom that you’re offered helps to make each situation feel impactful and fascinating.
The first encounter you come across has you helping a stranded police officer after a routine traffic stop then after that, leaving it up to you on how you make your way to the border. Do you hitchhike and risk getting into the car a complete strange but saving some dollars in the process, or do you hop on the bus, wasting valuable coin but also giving you some safety in return? No matter what you decide, each choice branches out into a tree of opportunities as you meet new peoples and learn new skills and abilities as you scramble your way toward the border.
Outside of dialogue, short minigames are spattered with into each episode which do a great job of dispersing the tedium of conversations. A lot of these are fun distractions, such as highly engaging games of air hockey, and straight-forward environmental puzzles that can be solved with a nail gun that has a satisfying kickback to each shot. There is some repetition when you start closing in on the endgame, but considering each one is pretty short-lived and fun, they don’t tend to wear out their welcome.
The most important interaction in each scenario takes place between yourself and one of the games supporting characters. Their stories are profoundly entangled in both Petria’s history and future. Granted you only interact with each of these characters one at a time but you’ll quickly start to piece together how the stories of some of these characters intersect. This creates a central narrative thread that’s so satisfying to piece together between episodes, even if each character isn’t necessarily aware of each other. Each character also has their own musical theme that helps you identify when they are around and when they will appear. Each track is also available as a collectible cassette you can find around Petria. These are fantastic, blending in beautifully with the 90’s mix of synthpop and southern rock.
Road 96 is a riveting and repeatedly tense tale, full of crackpot characters and eccentric detours that made each journey exceptional and thoroughly rewarding. I found the story sequences magnificent and a lot of entertaining surprises along the way. I was very satisfied at how my adventure down Road 96 ended.