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Game review 16 August 2021, 10:00

author: Giancarlo Saldana

Giancarlo Saldana has been covering video games and tech for over a decade for publications like 1UP, GamesRadar, TechRadar, MacLife, Blast Magazine, and more. Twitter: @giansaldana

Road 96 Review: When the Road Calls

Imagine taking a road trip to the same place but taking a different route each time. You’ll see sights you may have missed, experience different emotions, and you may even meet some new friends along the way. That's Road 96.

The review is based on the PC version. It's also relevant to Switch version(s).

There is a famous quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson stating that life is about the journey and not the destination. What we do on the road to that final place is really up to us and what we experience shapes our lives for the better and sometimes for the worst. Philosophy aside, Road 96 exemplifies this idea and gives you a unique experience every time.

Its final destination is the same for everyone – the eponymous Road 96 border – but the scenarios you encounter and the characters you meet are always different as your road trip is procedurally generated. Its colorful cast of characters, consequential choice system, and the fact that each journey lets you discover something new all make for an epic adventure.

One-Way Trip, Many Possibilities

Road 96 takes place in Petria, a country where tyranny is rampant and its fate depends on the looming 1996 election. Not only do two political parties divide the country, but a renegade group called the Brigades are also instigating a revolution against the government causing even more chaos and confusion. What’s worse, many of its citizens trying to flee the country in hopes of a better life include teenagers who risk their lives just to make the trip to the border up north.

  1. A different experience each time you play;
  2. Decisions impact the state of the world around you;
  3. Locations are filled with impressive details and charm;
  4. Its soundtrack sticks with you.
  1. Perks you acquire subsequently make each playthrough a little easier.

The overall game consists of several chapters which contain these randomized scenarios following a different teenager. If you make your way to the border, get caught, or end up dying before reaching it, that teen’s chapter ends but the overall story goes on, getting one step closer to Election Day. The game does eventually come to a close, but everything that happens before it is entirely up to you.

Each pilgrimage places you on a random point on the map with a set amount of energy and money as you play as one of these anonymous teens. What happens next is also entirely randomized, as each leg of your trip can be one of dozens of possibilities containing unique challenges, mini-games, or events that push the story forward. What’s unique about Road 96 is that you won’t get to see all of its scenarios the first, second, or even third time you play letting each trip be an entirely new experience.

Your energy gauge and money play an important part in deciding what you can or cannot do and can determine how certain scenarios play out. For instance, you can walk to your next destination, but this will severely lower your energy gauge. Choosing to take the bus will cost you, but you can also rest for a bit and recover some energy along the way.

There are even certain events near the end of each trip that can only be completed under certain conditions meaning you will always want to prepare for the worst. This constant suspense is what makes these final moments an exhilarating experience. You may be playing as different teens who all want the same thing in the end, but each border crossing is completely unlike the other and filled with surprises.

Road Trip Buddies

You will also bump into notable personalities along the way who will provide the action or conflict during each leg of your trip. These characters include a young genius who is on a mission to find his biological parents, a political talk show celebrity, a kind-hearted cop, and a menacing taxi driver out for revenge. These characters have their own episodes and story arcs, which you will discover the more you run into them allowing you to piece together an overall story.

Each road trip lets you piece together these stories little by little so you may not even see them play out during your first or second playthrough. This format makes you not care for a character in the beginning, but the more you run into them the more attached you’ll get hoping to see them more often. Also, because time goes on after each trip, how you interact with them in previous journeys will have an impact on their overall development.

These characters can also eventually give you special perks that offer new dialogue options when in sticky situations or alternate ways to interact with the world. For instance, you can lock-pick lockers and steal car keys inside for free rides, charm police officers, or increase your overall energy gauge. The small issue with this feature is that these abilities carry over to all of your trips meaning subsequent runs can seem a little easier because you are better equipped. This takes away some of the survivability aspect of the earlier chapters but, on the flip side, you do get some new tools to play with.

Procedurally Generated Good Times

Moral choices are at the forefront of every scenario you encounter throughout your trip, but some are more lighthearted than others and offer various gameplay elements and mini-games that are a blast. One scenario, for example forces you to help two criminals rob a burger joint; another puts you at the helm of a car chase; and one even turns your car into an impromptu game show where you need to answer correctly at gun-point to live. You won’t know what each leg of your trip will bring until you get there, and each one never fails to impress.

After each trip, you also get a glimpse at election polls to gauge which candidate is leading the race. You have the choice to abstain from political opinions, but you can also vandalize campaign posters or show your affiliation during certain conversations. Your decisions will definitely sway the results of the election and the ultimate fate of the country.

And that’s really what makes Road 96 so much fun to play. Each trip is entirely unique and filled with impactful decisions you can make to determine how the game ends. You can finish the game in around 7 hours, but you won't see everything it has to offer until you play it again, make different choices, and uncover new scenarios. This makes the game feel surprisingly robust without making it feel repetitive.

Road trips are also rich with detail with each pit-stop and location having their own unique charm. No two trips are the same, and the areas you will visit will range from trailer parks, to gas stations, to even outdoor music fests. What’s more, its eclectic soundtrack complements each area you visit and its mix of country, techno, and folk are reminiscent of surfing through the radio. You can also find and collect cassette tapes featuring additional songs to further outfit your journey.

Road 96’s procedurally generated scenarios make each playthrough unique and yet manage to string together and become a rich, interwoven story that has heart. Because no two trips are the same, your experience will be uniquely yours and dependent on the choices you make. Regardless of what happens, each journey down its winding roads is an enjoyable ride of emotions, laughs, and surprises that is sure to please.

Giancarlo Saldana | Gamepressure.com

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