Road 96 (PC) review
"A rough jewel carriageway "
Your enjoyment of Road 96 is going to hinge on a few things, but letís get the more controversial stuff out of the way now. Itís a political game. Not so much in the way, say, Deus Ex or Metal Gear is political, but more in the way that there seems to be One True Path and, if thatís not the opinion you subscribe to, then youíre a dick. Itís set in the fictional country of Petria, which isnít a particularly nice place to live. Itís run by a totalitarian government spearheaded by President Tyrak, and the main thrust of the game is taking a collection of disillusioned teenagers and, one by one, trying to get them out of that mess. Throughout your journey, youíre often asked to make choices coloured with three different mindsets; escape the country, vote for change in the country or burn the country down. The problem here is that these choices donít often fit, especially considering the pre-established goals of the nameless teens under your control. They want out, and are already some weeks into that goal before you join them in their journey. From there, you have the chance to change them into naive political flunkies for a secondary party you know nothing about, or angry revolutionaries who want the ruling class to burn.
I donít think thereís anything wrong with selling someone on a journey that can change their mindset and opinions, but I donít think thatís what Road 96 sets out to really do. Throughout a full runthrough, you take charge of seven runaway teenagers keen to get the hell out, and stumble through a randomised set of circumstances along the way. You have some control over what you may or may not experience and you plot your journey towards the titular Road 96, which seems to be the only exit point from the country. To this end, the game follows a formula; you work through a semi-randomised instance, and then you choose how youíre going to proceed on to the next one.
The game works best when itís about the journey and puts a lot of effort into trying to nail the smelly teen trying to get by on the roadside aesthetic. It does it really well. You constantly have to worry about the little things like, you know, not dying of exhaustion or hunger, which also ties in with how youíre going to make the next step in your journey. By hook or by crook, maybe youíve got a little bit of money together, and can take long stretches of travel away by jumping on a bus, or hailing a cab. But this isnít always the case and you may find yourself forced to hitchhike, rolling the dice on whose car you gingerly climb into. Or you can just be the arsehole youíre trying to avoid, steal a car and drive yourself. Itís safer than forcing yourself to hike long distances - if youíve not eaten or slept in a while, thereís a very decent chance you are in no state to survive an elongated trek.
I guess thatís why I front load the political talk, because the game behind the message is a worthwhile trip, but itís hard to focus on that if you spend half your playthrough rolling your eyes. It has this unique little hook where youíre not just one character, but seven. But also, you're just one character in a sense because youíre the you ultimately controlling your collection of anonymous runaways. Along your trip, youíll meet a collection of characters who are always meeting you for the first time while you, the smug fellow behind the monitor, learn more and more about them with each new ward you control. It means a lot of things; maybe the first time you discover a character, you say the wrong things or do something to screw them over, but youíre not in their life long enough for them to gain anything but immediate revenge. The next time you find them, itís a new you, so they wonít hold anything previously done to them against you.
I enjoyed that. I didn't think I would. The first time you meet these people, they donít seem much more than a travelling collection of tropes, and Iím starting to think that might have been on purpose. By the time youíve spent a little more time with them, figured out their motives or their reasons for being out on the road, they start to become more sympathetic or understandable characters. Sometimes, theyíll even mention this kid they met previously who screwed them over hard, or helped pick them up when they were down, and you realise that was you. You did that. That the things you say and the actions you take do have ramifications that ripple through this awful little virtual world youíre so desperate to escape. The girl walking the same path as you might tell you she regrets not spending more time with a boy she bonded with when they both crashed at a barely-functioning trailer park. The trucker might tell you about the kid he picked up who had to keep waking him up so they wouldnít die in a fiery collision. The cop might talk about that one girl thatís been missing for months now, and how she doubts theyíll ever resurface.
Moments like this have weight and value because you can recognise them as moments youíve made for yourself. Footprints, little or large, that prove you travelled the path and made some kind of difference. Some come off more forced than others and some flat out work against the journey in order to bolster the message, but itís all okay. Road 96 more than anything else, is a collection of moments. Moments you build, moments youíre powerless to influence and moments you can do nothing but react to. Thereís moments where youíre helping someone design an early video game prototype, or getting your arse handed to you at Connect 4, or air hockey. Thereís moments where youíre trying to talk your way out of someone putting a bullet in your head, or trying to find a way to build and conserve enough energy to overcome obstacles where failure means you die in such a way that no one will ever know. Some endings are certainly more desirable than others, but at least the endings you achieve are your endings. Get across the border, turn back to fight for the homeland, fail miserably and die trying and then build on your deterrents and successes both. Itís a bumpy ride at times but
Iím honour-bound to end on a bad metaphor I found it to be worth the trip.
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