By Isaac Espinosa
What chances are you willing to take to fight for your freedom? And how will the choices you make affect the world around you? “Road 96” is a narrative-based adventure game, in which you control multiple nameless teens on a journey to escape the country of Petria. As you travel through, you’ll come across many characters and make key decisions that will impact the overarching narrative and bring about different interactions depending on the actions you take. Will you be content with escaping and trying to survive, or will you sacrifice your freedom in order to make a change?
Across the varied episodes of “Road 96,” you’ll take control of seven nameless teenagers who have all run away from home to try to make their way across the border and leave the country. In Petria, Crossers are common – and illegal. Under the strict dictatorial rule of President Tyrak, anyone who dares challenge his authority is punished severely. But as Election Day approaches, the protests against Tyrak grow, both in number and intensity. These are usually orchestrated by the Black Brigades, a crime syndicate that wishes to put an end to Tyrak’s reign. And in this strict dictatorship, it is clearly established that anyone who dares to cross the border, the so-called Crossers, will be arrested on the spot for breaking the law. As a Crosser yourself, you have the ability to forge your own path toward the border. You can choose to do what you must to survive and break free. Or, through your interactions, you can make an impact on the people of Petria and steer the fate of its characters in a better, more liberated direction.
The people you meet along the way are notable for their diversity, and for how beautifully they are written. Each of the main characters in “Road 96” helps to reveal more of the backstory that led to Petria’s current state, and they flesh out more of the game’s deeper tales and conflicts. Jarod is one of my favorites. A driver for the Happy Taxi cab service, Jarod wants to hurt someone. He’s motivated by both his anger issues and his past, specifically an incident that took place 10 years before. As you learn more about him, it becomes clear that Jarod’s anger is misdirected towards innocent bystanders rather than Tyrak himself, who was responsible for the incident, and that any reminder of his past brings out his rage. Knowing this, you want to learn more about Jarod’s character, and you want to lead him towards the path of peace, rather than violence. It’s an extremely compelling method of story-telling; by playing through seven different perspectives, you always want to help the characters around you and show them the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Road 96″’s gameplay is rather simple. Throughout each of the seven journeys, you can have up to seven bars of energy that will allow you to keep on going. Certain actions, such as choosing to walk or getting off of a bus, will deplete these bars one by one. And if you run out before reaching the end, that will unfortunately be the end of your journey. However, you can usually use things such as food, beverages, and especially sleeping to replenish your energy. You’ll even be able to acquire money so that you can pay for different things to aid you on your adventure, such as consumables or bus tickets for faster travel. The gameplay really helps immerse you in the world of the game, since it makes you constantly consider your limited resources. You have to always think ahead to what you could possibly use those resources for in the future, since you may not always have enough assets to get across the border even if you make it there. The game emphasizes that you have to be smart, and that you need to have a plan if you want to reach the end.
“Road 96” isn’t a perfect game, though. My main issue with it comes from how the ending was handled. The game’s pacing overall was smooth and coherent, except that it was in too much of a hurry in its approach to the finish line. I’ll avoid major spoilers by declining to say too much, but the finale was too rushed for me. And while the game does offer a new game plus feature, that doesn’t change the fact that the game is over too quickly. This problem could’ve been solved, perhaps by adding some more episodes in which you take control of more nameless teens. That would’ve felt natural. And the game did crash on me. The game has an auto-save feature, so this isn’t too much of a hassle. But I can see it being a bigger nuisance if it happened in the middle of an important scene.
Despite my dissatisfaction with the game’s conclusion, “Road 96” is a wonderful experience that I would recommend to anyone. It has, for the most, a well-written narrative that seems to care for its cast and its players. It keeps you invested in characters like Jarod, who just wishes to find closure through misplaced revenge, or John, who seeks peace as a fellow Black Brigade, unlike the rest of his team. Everything from the gameplay to the artfully-composed music, which enhances the road trip vibe of the game, to the overall atmosphere of Petria, which makes you feel like a trapped bird trying to escape its cage, comes together to form an increasingly tense but meaningful journey. You’ll want to soak in every moment of from beginning to end, both for your own satisfaction, and for your hard-earned freedom.
Bronx native Isaac Espinosa is a senior intern at the New York Videogame Critics Circle. Recently, Isaac was named the Circle’s first assistant mentor. He also published his first story in The Verge.