Chances are that at some point during your life, you’ve embarked on a road trip in one form or another. Whether it be a few-hour ride to a place you’ve always wanted to see or a cross-country trek, almost everyone has experienced the trials and tribulations of an outing like this. Now imagine this, you aren’t on a road trip out of desire, but out of necessity. Your country is run by a ruthless dictator, and the life of teens like yourself is less than ideal (and those who attempt to escape are never seen again). This is where your adventure with Road 96 begins, and the road you take from here is entirely dependent on you. Does its unique idea of procedural road trips pan out though? Find out in my review of Road 96!
It’s Not About the Destination, It’s About the Journey
Road 96’s basic idea is that you’re a teen looking to escape your totalitarian country of Petria across a border, situated at the end of Road 96. Once you start your journey though, the way each teen’s story plays out is entirely dependent on you. And with procedural generation to each teen’s perilous journey, you’ll never experience the same story twice (let alone as another player). This idea at its core is both experimental and risky, as creating a compelling story that’s procedurally generated is nearly impossible. Sure, you can shake up the gameplay all you want, but once the story gets thrown into the mixing pot, things can go south very quickly.
I’m happy to report that from my review of Road 96, the team actually went beyond expectations. Mind you, I went in expecting quite a lot from the master crafters of Valiant Hearts, but their ability to balance what is otherwise a risky concept ends up being its strongest standout. This is thanks to a few key decisions, the first of which being its lack of focus on who each teen is. With around seven to ten protagonists to go over in a seven to ten-hour window, not only does it not make sense to focus on them from a development perspective but for gameplay too. With so little time to care about each protagonist, extra focus on who they are as a whole would be a waste of time and resources (beyond the dialogue of course).
Instead, Road 96 seeks to explore the bigger picture. Many of the choices you encounter throughout your adventures are minor in scope. Whether it be a dialogue option discussing the means of sending a message or vandalizing a simple poster, each choice has a part to play in the bigger picture. This is only further enforced with each of the side characters, who take the center stage here for character development. While each protagonist has very little outside of dialogue choices, it’s those choices that have a crucial effect on their lives. That’s not even including some of the larger choices, which can be life-threatening and tense at times. While not all these choices are as grey as some games have excelled at, most of them require some serious thought before making a firm decision.
Because of all this, Road 96 sends a strong message that it’s never about the destination when it comes to road trips like these. Instead, it’s about the journey you took to get there. Sure, we can all be happy that we finally made it to the peak of a mountain or the other side of the country, but think about everything that happened on the way there. The people you met, the sights you saw, and the choices you made that potentially affected the lives of others. We should live in the moment, instead of the end, as much of life’s beauty will pass us by otherwise. It’s a strong message and one that resonated with me as someone who often chooses destination over the journey. It’s some great food for thought.
Flavor in the Mundane
Throughout my review of Road 96, I found the gameplay to feel mundane with some enjoyable flavor thrown in here and there. Beyond making plenty of minor and major decisions, it was getting from point A to point B to experience more story content. With that being said, there’s plenty of nuance to solving environmental puzzles and succeeding in elaborate chases. There’s enough flavor to each (including some side content) that genuinely makes it a rollercoaster ride. You aren’t given so much mundane gameplay that you find yourself bored (perhaps a few times based on how the procedural generation rolls) but there’s enough variety to where each intense moment feels fresh and fun.
Out of all though, I appreciated the game’s appreciation for players willing to go off the beaten path. While doing just story content would progress what everyone’s here for, participating in side content and netting a few extra bucks, or better yet health, can be equal parts rewarding and satisfying. These sorts of rewards have tangible benefits later in a teen’s journey and thus are always worth scouting for.
All in all, while Road 96 doesn’t give too much to say as far as gameplay goes, it’s few strides to remain unique and enjoyable are more than appreciated.
The Beauty of the Open Road
As Road 96 is a game revolving around road trips and the great outdoors, ensuring visual fidelity is a strong point is key to adding to the authenticity. And for the most part, the game does a great job of this very fact. From the dingy, run-down desert gas stations to the beautiful forests leading to freedom, every aspect of the game’s painted style is portrayed in a way that’s appealing to the eye, especially on higher settings. Though with that being said, some of the character models and animations leave a bit to be desired. A few moments, during tense scenes, you really can’t tell a character is feeling angry or depressed. It’s a frustrating fact, seeing as some faces are modeled exactly how they should be, but others didn’t receive this same treatment.
Where it fails in animations though, it more than makes up in sound design. While the sounds themselves are good if not astounding, the soundtrack chosen here is well beyond expectations. As a huge fan of synth, much of the faster tracks for tense scenes got my blood pumping. And on the inverse, other more relaxing songs were great to just vibe out to, while completing other tasks and environmental puzzles. I’d go as far as to say there wasn’t one time where I felt the song wasn’t pleasing to the ear, which is a tough feat for any game. And with collectibles unlocking more, it makes finding them that much more impactful to the various encounters you run into. It’s impressive, though is to be expected again from those that created a masterpiece like Valiant Hearts.
While I’ve played plenty of story games, Road 96 is a rare case where I walk away from a review knowing I just experienced something vastly unique. Not a rehash of previous ideas, not a sequel to a big franchise, but its own entity that, while using a few ideas from other adventure games, feels distinct and unique thanks to its many risks. While it’s imperfect in some places, like any good road trip, a few issues can be forgiven for the experience as a whole. Whether you’re an adventure enthusiast, or someone simply along for the ride, Road 96 offers a grand escapade well worth the fee.