REVIEW: Road 96

We often like to point out interaction and the ability to influence stories as one of the things that separates games from other types of medium, but I certainly remember that “choose your own adventure” books were a thing already when I was a little boy.

It was especially exciting to explore enchanted amusement parks and play evil researcher across the popular Grøsserne books, and so I could sit for hours and look forward to different endings.

It’s a bit of the same feeling I have when I head out on Road 96, a true indie game that does its utmost to emulate the unique magic these books had. As with the Grøsserne books, there is nothing in Road 96 that is extremely well written or free of well-used clichés, but the same, good feeling still hits me far into the bone marrow, and I literally love every second of it.


The action takes place in 1996, but much is based on an incident that happened ten years earlier. Photo: Espen Jansen / Gamer.no

Along the road of life

Superficially, Road 96 is something as rare as a roguelite game that is carefully imbued with inspiration from the modern age of adventure games. Here, there are small and large choices all the time, where in the role of a group of different teenagers you have to try to cross the border and escape from the dictatorial state of Petria.

Along the way, you stumble across a bunch of exciting personalities, and by interacting with them, you learn more and more about the inhospitable universe.

The first character I met was, for example, the arrogant trailer driver John, who challenged me to races and football matches, before we took a breather and talked about love. From here I decided to hike with a young foal named Alex; I arrived at a campsite where Zoe was staying; I ended up in the back seat of Jarod; before I took the last bit towards the border on foot.

Each of these meetings gives you more insight into what the central characters have to contend with, which in turn allows you to make wise choices when meeting the same people on the next tour. Each teenager has five or six such scenarios you have to go through on the way to the border, and which collisions you are served seems to be based solely on the choices you make.

The scenarios offer a lively mix of action, puzzles and emotional moments.

A quick look at other people’s plays shows that our paths between the different meetings are very different, but that we clearly draw lots from the same hat. The same scenarios recur across all the YouTube videos I’ve seen, suggesting that this is not procedurally generated content as I first assumed, but instead carefully written narratives that go elegantly across.


You meet many fates along the way. Photo: Espen Jansen / Gamer.no

It flows well

The order you get can, however, be just as important: This can, for example, degenerate by learning to poke up locks after a meeting with the thugs Stan and Mitch, something you could well have needed four scenarios ago, when you had the opportunity to nibble on some extra grunker.

The game is more than just conversations and dialogue, and also requires that you explore nooks and crannies to get food, drink and money on the way to the goal. You always have a certain amount of energy available, and if you use this up by walking too much on foot or not sleeping, you will collapse along the road, be picked up by the police and sent in what I assume is a kind of labor camp.


The teenagers are fleeing Petria. But you can have a little fun along the way, then. Photo: Espen Jansen / Gamer.no

At least it ends with a good old-fashioned “GAME OVER”, and then it’s the next teenager’s turn to embark on the road of life.

The search for resources never gets fussy or tiring, and of the seven tours I have taken, five teenagers eventually crossed the border. However, this does not mean that the game is not nerve-wracking: the different scenarios are all filled with excitement and crucial choices, and the writers have done an excellent job of mixing lively action, whimsical riddles and emotional moments.

The game has a very good flow, and once you have embarked on an escape attempt, it goes hand in hand all the way to the border.

The gameplay is usually not very demanding, but offers small and fun solutions for fairly ordinary game tropes. To get ingredients for an energy drink for John, for example, you have to push objects back and forth on a shelf without them hitting each other; Zoe lets you borrow her trombone to play with typical rhythm playing elements; while the border guards require you to use the little grays to answer the quiz questions about the incumbent president correctly.

None of the ideas last very long, but that’s perhaps a bit of the game’s strength: It has tons of variety, with many different moments that are both intuitive and well made.


Stylish design characterizes large parts of the experience. Photo: Espen Jansen / Gamer.no

To call a spade a spade

Helping to pack it all together is the game’s simple but well-functioning exterior. Both people, robbers and surroundings are beautiful, deeply colorful and neatly designed. Some sequences also stand out, where hustle and bustle is stripped away in favor of looking out over the elongated roads, or deep into the soul of a conversation partner.

Things are not always what they pretend to be, and the simple graphics make a lot out of little.

I also love the use of music, not just as separate songs that provide a tough and appropriate introduction to the adventure and the characters, but also as actual cassettes one can pick up, collect and even use in some puzzles across the game.

The made-up cartoon graphics are admittedly a bit simple for their own good at times; the experience and the animations at the edge of the action may seem a bit stiff; and the voice acting often alternates between unique-in-a-good-way and unique-in-a-not-quite-so-good-way at irregular intervals.

But even this appears to be something the developers have taken into account along the way: Road 96 knows terribly well what it is, and seems to be happy with itself. And for good reason.


What can you say? Photo: Espen Jansen / Gamer.no

Conclusion

Road 96 is an adventure game like no other, and manages to combine gameplay, puzzles, dialogue choices and a gripping story in such a way that it is impossible not to get involved. The adventure is large parts “choose your own adventure”, with a wealth of interesting characters to get to know and a bucket load with unique scenarios that all hold a very high level.

The game’s approach to choice and consequences never feels artificial in the same way as in some other modern adventure games, although a little “research” shows that you are not as free here as the game seems.


There are many roads to Road 96. Photo: Espen Jansen / Gamer.no

The path I choose feels exactly like min personal road through Road 96, and this makes the experience instantly sharper in my eyes.

The game clearly has a couple of reefs in the sea, including some stiff animations, uneven voice acting and the gnawing uncertainty associated with replay value. The script also appears as something superficial at times, and the action takes a bit too lightly on some themes, but other than that, Road 96 is a solid experience that is quite different from most other things.

The fun does not last for more than 7-8 hours, but I think that might be just fine. Some of the spice threatens to go out of the balloon when the adventure is coming to an end and your choices have less and less to say. Road 96 gives itself just in time, and although some will think the story misses more than it hits, I am very happy with the roads I have chosen and where my adventure has led me.

Road 96 is available on Windows (tested) and Nintendo Switch.

Other exciting games that for some reason remind me of Road 96 are Death Stranding, Concrete Genie and The Gardens Between.

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