Right before starting Road 96, I was about to leave on my own road trip, moving from my home in the midwest to the east coast of the United States. While I did not experience anything close to the insanity of my road drip during my six to seven hours with Road 96, it felt fitting.
I felt for my various procedural character’s fear of the unknown, and with every passing day, I felt more excited for my own trip to come. I was yearning for every new leg of my virtual journeys just as I looked forward to my own. Seeing the desert roads pass by in a blur of face-paced storytelling, wild misadventures, evocative characters, all leading to a grand escape from the dictatorship of Petria.
Unfortunately, while the game is an excellent narrative adventure — aside from some poor voice acting —Road 96 is let down on Switch by poor performance issues and major visual downgrades from its PC counterpart.
“Each journey, successful or not, takes you one step closer to election day.”
Set in an alternate 1996, the long-reigning dictator, President Tyrak, is challenged by a rival democratic candidate, and for the first time in ten years, it looks like change is in the air. Young adults and teenagers are fleeing persecution and mysterious experiments. Furthermore, the radical Brigades are gearing up for something big, and support for the rival candidate, Florres, is ballooning.
After a short bit of newsroom exposition with one of the six recurring characters you meet on the road, you are thrown into your first run-away teen experience. After your first run, you choose from three teens highlighted on the runaway teen report. Every teen is different. Some have more money, others are closer to the border. Some even have a higher energy meter, which you can replenish with food, water, taxis, and rest areas.
“Road 96 consumes your time with empty areas between rides.”
All adventures task you with surviving the dangers of the road and avoiding Petrian authorities to make it across the border on Road 96. Each journey, successful or not, takes you one step closer to election day. Along the way, you will often encounter one of six fleshed-out characters; A Scorsese-Esque taxi driver looking to avenge his daughter, a teenage hacker, a gruff and loveable truck driver, and more. Sometimes in between drives, you’ll help them out with a flat tire, or they’ll pick you up hitchhiking. They might even kidnap you. There’s a ton of variety in these scenarios, with more than enough unique encounters to last two full playthroughs.
Along with occasionally tense dialogue choices, Road 96 includes plenty of minigames to break up the talking. However, while not always fun, they retained a sense of spontaneity and levity without overstaying their welcome. Certain characters will also give you special abilities that carry across runs, such as hacking and lockpicking skills. This also unlocks new dialogue options and gives you more ways to approach open areas between rides.
Road 96 consumes your time with empty areas between rides. Short walkable areas and even the emptiest gas station or bar often leave money or car keys behind a locked door. Thus, rewarding exploration. Although in the latter half of the game, even with unique encounters, I often found myself wanting more variety in locations, larger and more meaningful buildings to explore, and discover more about the world or its characters.
“Ultimately, the difficulty or lack thereof is not why you play Road 96.”
In many of the conversations, you are also often allowed to push the direct the future of Petria, supporting the revolution, apathy, or a change in president. But be careful. Some decisions can put some characters in a bad mood, though not to a degree or as often as I would have liked.
This leads to Road 96‘s biggest flaw; it is too easy to get across the border. Surprisingly, it is so easy to cross, considering it is not even necessary to complete the game. In my playthrough, I crossed with around six out of the eight playable teens. You can fail events or die, and there are plenty of tense moments, but rarely do any result in your character getting captured or killed. This somewhat lessened my sense of accomplishment when crossing, and at worst, made the end of each run a drag.
Once you reach Road 96, after a short interlude to reach the border — thankfully cut down with each run — there are several different ways to cross. This includes smugglers, a dangerous climb, or even stowing away in a truck. Some do present a final challenge, while others feel like drawn-out set-pieces. However, they often lack the payoff as they weren’t difficult to reach in the first place.
“The excellent heart-pounding synthwave soundtrack scores it all with collectible tapes…”
Ultimately, the difficulty or lack thereof is not why you play Road 96. It is about the characters you meet and the feeling of change, bubbling to the surface, with the environments and the roads becoming more tumultuous by the day. The story lacks political nuance with notable plot holes and overly optimistic endings. Fortunately, it succeeds in making me care about even the most unlikeable characters, which deserves just as much praise as an inventive mechanic or graphical innovation.
The excellent heart-pounding synthwave soundtrack scores it all with collectible tapes, allowing you to jam to your favourite tunes while you drive. This almost makes up for the poor voice acting. At its best, it sounds like a halfway decent caricature, but at its worst, it’s stiff and awkward, occasionally ruining great moments. But given the wacky gonzo tone of the game, I still see it fitting in with Road 96‘s B-movie sensibilities.
“Road 96 forces you to awkwardly select objects and dialogue choices with joysticks as a replacement for the mouse on PC.”
While it is very playable on the switch, it suffers from severe frame drops in certain areas, ugly textures with archaic lighting effects, and screen tearing which can ruin its beautiful comic-style look. This might be fixed with time. However, with many triple AAA games dropping with incredible fidelity even with the Switch’s limitations, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it for the platform. Even more modest indie titles are accomplishing a look on par with Road 96 with far fewer concessions.
Making it worse, Road 96 also forces you to awkwardly select objects and dialogue choices with joysticks as a replacement for the mouse on PC. Despite this warning, I still can’t recommend this game enough, even on a different platform, and it is likely to be a strong end-of-the-year contender for my favourites of the year.
Road 96 shines through as a wonderfully wacky narrative adventure game, despite a lacklustre Switch port. There is plenty of unique skills to gather, characters to meet, interesting scenarios, and choices to make. Though on Switch, I recommend waiting for a sale or a thorough update if you plan on purchasing Road 96 at full price.
*Disclaimer: Reviewed on Switch, code was provided by the publisher.