Since catching my eye at The Game Awards 2020, Road 96 easily found itself towards the top on my “games I want to see on Nintendo Switch” list. A road trip adventure taking place in the ’90s, but placed against the backdrop of a totalitarian regime? An odd combination of nostalgia and political intrigue, yet the promise of a procedural adventure held those feelings together. Little did I know that those hopes would be confirmed months later during Nintendo’s Indie World Showcase in April 2021. Now it’s August and here we are – the big release day!
In the nine months since Road 96 crossed my radar and all the trailers showing it off since, how’s the final product? For a game that promises 148,268 route combinations, does it hold up its “PLEASE” hitchhiking sign proudly and survives a road trip to freedom, find itself behind bars due to a failed attempt, or does it end up somewhere in-between?
The year is 1996. Petria, a country ruled by an authoritarian government, will be having its next major election in the fall. Thanks to GNN News’ reporting, it looks like President Tyrak will secure another term as our faithful and fearless leader! … But that’s not right. After all, why are teens in droves trying to flee the country by crossing the border? Even when there are rumors that teens caught crossing or even hitchhiking will be imprisoned and sent to… the iron pits? That’s gotta be a myth.
Welcome to Road 96 – a game where you’re dropped into the consciousness of teens trying to escape this fictional land. You won’t know much at first, so you’ll have to figure out what’s what with each encounter. You’ll meet plenty of people along the way – some friendly, others who’ll use you for their own gains, police that could arrest you for trying to escape, etc. – and with your conversation choices you’ll start to piece together the bigger picture and why so many people are still haunted by “the attack in ’86.” To get the whole story and figure out what’s true, you’ll have to play again and again, especially if certain conversation options are locked during your first encounter.
No matter which routes you take in traveling across Petria, you’ll find yourself in the midst of an overarching narrative that has an end date of September 9th, 1996. With your first hitchhiking day being June 11th, 1996, you only have so much time and so many attempts to reach “the end”, but also decide who’s worth helping out along the way.
Here’s how it works. In Road 96, you’ll find yourself playing as a series of faceless teens trying to escape Petria. With little cash and only so much stamina to start, you’ll try to survive the journey via a combination of interacting with whichever map you’re on (by searching through trash, breaking open locked doors for cash and/or food, sleeping in makeshift cardboard “tents”, and more) and conversation options with whichever characters you meet. Before you can proceed to the next area (via catching the bus, walking along the road, hitchhiking, calling a taxi, and more), you’ll have to solve that map’s task. It could be a simple puzzle (restoring electricity to an abandoned building) or something more high stakes like interacting with a character that will murder you if you push them far enough.
Survive long enough and you’ll reach the border, only to be faced with a new predicament – how to escape. Succeed or fail in your chosen path, that particular method will be locked for the remainder of the overall run. Once you complete a journey (i.e.: make it to the border, are arrested, murdered, etc.) you’ll be able to pick from a pool of three teens with varying starting points and resources, and start the escape again.
Now for the characters – there are general NPCs and you’ll be running into eight main characters throughout your attempts. Each has their own story and as you progress through a run, you’ll start to see their journeys overlap. They are, in no particular order:
- Zoe, a runaway teen just like you hitchhiking her way through Petria.
- Alex, a self-proclaimed 14-year-old genius that has a self-made small computer on hand to prove it. He’s trying to uncover his past.
- Stan and Mitch, a team of idiot robber brothers. They’re always looking out for their next major heist.
- Fanny, a cop that knows the roads well, but is dealing with her own kid hitchhiking across the country.
- John, a.k.a. Papa Bear, is just a humble truck driver hauling pineapples and other precious cargo across the country.
- Sonya, GNN News’ star reporter and Petria’s darling who enjoys the perks of Tyrak’s regime.
- Jarod… he’s a Happy Taxi cab driver – the less said about him, the better. Trust me.
While watching their stories unravel, characters also have “abilities” that’ll help you on your run and carry over to the next. From what I can tell, these abilities are locked to certain scenarios (and each character has 6 or 7 events, except for Zoe who has 4), and given that you can’t directly pick which exact scenario you want, you’ll have to rely on what abilities you have and adapt your choices on the fly. Once you’ve obtained all six abilities (Zoe doesn’t have one and Stan and Mitch count as one – the blessed talent of picking locks is yours, little buddy), it’s easier to uncover secrets and stay alive.
Your choices in Road 96 ultimately boil down to three major “play styles” – are you willing to do anything to survive, be generous to others even if it’s not in your best interests, or be apathetic. Sure, on the surface it looks like it’s actually voicing your support to resist, to vote, or see that everything is so far gone the best thing to do is to escape and never look back. After all, there are dedicated icons to each of those options in multiple conservations. Those choices do affect Petria, but concern the current voting polls for the upcoming election and the election itself. It’s the “selfish vs. kind vs. indifferent” choices and how you help (or miserably fail at helping) the eight main characters that will craft what kind of day September 9th, 1996 will be.
Thankfully, you’re not completely blind in gauging these choices. In-between your fleeing the country attempts, a segment of The Sonya Show, a news and talk show, will play. Sonya will discuss the latest news in Petria, mention at least one major event that happened during your last run, the current voting polls (divided into Tyrak, Florres, and Abstained), and Sonya’s Missing Teen Report segment. Depending on what sort of political ending you want, you’ll know who the country wants as its next president. Thus, you can figure out if you need to vandalize more voting posters and/or voice your support for Florres during this upcoming run.
As for the “selfish vs. kind vs. indifferent” decisions, that isn’t as clear. You’ll want to pay attention to your Missing Teen’s icon (a silhouette in the top left-hand corner) and see if it glows red (selfish) or blue (kind) during certain choices. With character interactions, it’s a tad easier, especially with the main cast. It’s fairly clear cut, save for some major-major choices. Those you’ll learn the hard way during the first playthrough, as the final choice you made pops up on screen causing the scene around you to briefly fuzz out.
A good road trip – whether it’s hitchhiking in a broken country on the verge of an uprising or traveling cross-country with friends – requires a curated playlist. For Road 96, that means a mix of pop, folk, dance, and electronica music in hopes of recreating 1996, but in a make-believe world. Regardless of your own genre preferences, the music for Road 96 just fits. It provides another layer to the world of Petria, solidifying the cinematic angle that DigixArt is pushing for.
Limo rides and Tyrak sponsor parties are filled with pop-dance beats that make you think you’re far-far-away from political turmoil. Escaping police, having to shoot out a car with a nail gun, or chasing down a taxi cab seem just a bit more heart-racing thanks to fast-paced and high beats per second tunes. Then there are quiet, peaceful moments with music to match or teenage shenanigans courtesy of Zoe wanting to hang out at 3 a.m. by playing Bella Ciao on her trumpet too. Your road trip will vary in tones (narratively) and the music is there to match it with every step. It spills out into sound effects too – play long enough and you’ll start to pick up on certain music cues from certain tracks, just tipping you off that something foul awaits before the metaphorical rug is pulled out from under you.
You’ll even find some of the tracks scattered throughout the game as collectible cassette tapes (18 total) that you can play, given the right equipment is nearby. Plus, once you find a tape it’s yours to keep. Even if you’re rushing to the border, sometimes it’s just nice to sit back in your stolen car, listen to a tape, and continue onto the next area when the song stops.
So, what does this all look like from a numbers angle? DigixArt has advertised Road 96 to have 148,268 route combinations, but it’s extremely easy to get lost in the hype of that number. I’m sure once you do the math (hooray for factorials) that that number is true, but you need to understand that these combinations will be repetitive. As for why, it’s due to this procedural road trip adventure being tied to a narrative story. Playing as faceless teens, we (the player) will always be an outsider to the main story. Our actions just shift the main characters concerning their relationships and where they will (or won’t be) on September 9th, 1996.
Some characters’ journeys are fairly straightforward – Zoe’s story events will always occur in one order, no shuffling around – and some are destined to be at Mount National (the border) on Election Day no matter what. The only influence you have in those cases is what characters will say to one another (and even then, it might not be as drastically different as you’d want it to be).
Basically, Road 96 is going to be linear – more so than you might think. If you don’t know that going in and you’ll be a bit disappointed. I say this as someone who has completed three playthroughs via 22 teens. To keep it as spoiler-free as possible, here are some facts about each playthrough:
Playthrough 1 – Hit the ground running run
- Played as: 8 teenagers
- Outcomes: 3 killed, 2 arrested, 2 escaped, and 1 [spoiler]
- Major decisions: Successful and fought for a better Petria.
- Character %: Zoe (100%), John (86%), Fanny (100%), Alex (82%), Stan & Mitch (100%), Sonya (80%), and Jarod (86%)
- Ending: [Spoiler Option 1] + “Good Ending”
Playthrough 2 – The New Game+ run
- Played as: 6 teenagers
- Outcomes: 1 killed, 4 escaped, and 1 [spoiler]
- Major decisions: Successful and fought for a better Petria.
- Character %: Zoe (100%), John (100%), Fanny (100%), Alex (100%), Stan & Mitch (100%), Sonya (100%), and Jarod (100%)
- Ending: [Spoiler Option 2] + “Good Ending”
Playthrough 3 – New Game+ meets “I don’t care, I’m getting out of here by whatever means necessary. Everything is broken.” run
- Played as: 6 teenagers
- Outcomes: 5 escaped successfully, 1 [spoiler]
- Major decisions: Failed what I could and acted in my extremely selfish interests when forced.
- Ending: [Spoiler Option 2] + “Bad Ending”
- On average, each teen’s journey was about an hour of playtime. Save for the case of one teen who was murdered very early on (Main Event #2) into a run and my first-first teen escaping (1 hour and 26 minutes long). For those who made it to the border, it took about 5 – 8 “Main Events and/or Side Quests” to get there before choosing how to escape.
- “Character %” means I have discovered the character’s main event/scenario and completed it once. It doesn’t mean that I exhausted all possible “versions” of all of their events (i.e.: conversation choices, when/where I triggered the event, etc.). Thanks to New Game+, those stats (as well as the unlockable abilities) carry over into the playthrough. This is why “Character %” isn’t listed for Playthrough 3, since all events/scenarios were discovered by the time I completed Playthrough 2.
- Didn’t list what character relationships I influenced (and in what direction) because spoilers.
Even with discovering all abilities and all events (but not all the outcomes) for each major character and throwing myself again and again at Petria’s wall (which was via 22 escaping teens across three playthroughs), I can’t help but boot up Road 96 again. Granted, not everyone will walk away from completing three playthroughs and think the same thing. Road 96 might be too linear for what it’s billed as – a procedural road trip game where your choices matter. Especially once you realize that the game’s main narrative only allows for so much wiggle room as the countdown to September 9th, 1996 begins. For those wishing for drastically different and multiple endings, you’ll be disappointed on that front.
Instead, Road 96 is more about living in the moment and acting accordingly. There are puzzles to solve, small details in the form of letters, secret rooms, and phone numbers to find. Get lucky and you’ll come across the occasional side story, and more, that further cements why teenagers are fleeing the country despite the risk of being arrested or even killed. Sometimes, it’s these quiet moments that allow you to take a breath, but also see what power, corruption, and the will to change can do to an ordinary NPC-citizen of Petria. For all the worldbuilding that’s behind Road 96, I find the strongest pieces are phone calls to home – you don’t know if you’ll hear a familiar voice, a stranger, a disconnected line, or… worse.
My three playthroughs have left me wanting more of this world that DigixArt built, regardless of its flaws. I don’t know what’s left to find in Road 96 – maybe I’ve found half of what’s to discover, I have no clue – and yet the road is calling my name and I can’t help but answer it with a New Game… another chance to escape.