Petria, the fictional country at the center of Route 96, is in bad shape. Throughout 1996, the country is in political turmoil – now a moderate candidate threatens the long-serving regime of a totalitarian dictator while growing resistance threatens to send the country’s youth into turmoil and a total revolution. Add to that a growing number of teenagers seeking to live outside the country’s fortified borders and you have a recipe for potential election day disaster. It’s what each of Road 96’s procedural journeys delicately builds towards with strong character writing and entertaining gameplay vignettes, even if the central conflict is too reductive with its overarching message.
Each episode of Road 96 puts you in control of a faceless, nameless teenager – one of many who seek to escape Petria by making the dangerous journey to its border and attempting to breach its oppressive wall. You have a choice of three teenagers before a race, each with different starting attributes that dictate how much money you initially have on hand, your overall energy, and your distance from the frontier. The first two are the most important to consider because money can open up many interactions throughout the run – like buying food, bribing cops, or paying smugglers – while energy determines whether you’re able to continue or not a race. . If your energy reaches zero, you pass out on the side of the road and wait to be arrested, sending your teen to a labor camp and immediately stopping your run. You fuel up by resting or buying food, while doing odd jobs or just looking for money, so striking a balance between the two is essential for a successful run.
Each race is segmented into short vignettes that take place in numerous locations, such as trailer parks, truck stops, or in a car you’ve decided to hitchhike in. The point-and-click nature of the gameplay makes each one relatively easy to skip, allowing you to focus on character conversations. You select replies in conversations using the game’s first-person view, which isn’t always the most elegant way to choose the option you want when a character you’re replying to is moving a bit erratically . Choosing the tone of your response – whether in support of violent resistance actions or more aligned with the need for people to vote for the opposition, for example – has a direct bearing on how long of these thumbnails depending on which characters are present and, in some extreme cases, can end a race prematurely when you run into someone dangerous. This means that your choice of words should be more measured than just choosing what matches the role you choose to play in the overall story, so that every interaction has an appropriate sense of tension.
Outside of dialogue, short mini-games are sprinkled throughout each thumbnail that do a good job of breaking up the monotony of conversations. Many of them are entertaining distractions, such as highly engaging air hockey games, short, chaotic traffic avoidance sequences, and simple environmental puzzles that can be solved with a nail gun that has a bounce. satisfying every time. These repeat as you start to get closer to the final stages of the game, but since each is short-lived and equally fun, they never carry their welcome.
The most important interaction in each vignette takes place between you and the main supporting characters of Road 96, whose stories are deeply connected to both the history of Petria and its future. Although you’ll only interact with each of these characters one at a time, you’ll quickly begin to understand how the stories of some of these characters intersect even when you’re not around. It creates a central narrative thread that’s satisfying to piece together, even if each character isn’t necessarily aware of each other. Each character also features their own musical theme that helps you identify when they will appear. Each track, available in collectible cassette form which you can find worldwide, is fantastic, blending beautifully into the appropriate mix of synthpop and southern rock.
Your choice of words should be more measured than simply choosing what matches the role you choose to play in the overall story.
These character interactions are central to the political story of Road 96, with each having different opinions on the current state of the nation and, more importantly, the right course of action for its future. A burly truck driver who is introduced early on as a core member of the resistance (and lovingly refers to you as young blood on every run) works through feelings of guilt over a previous attempt at revolution. failure and ensuing loss of life, while also trying to temper the growing frustrations of the resistance group he leads. Sonya Sanchez, the game’s take on a redeemed journalist who benefits greatly from the current regime, has boundless energy and takes aim at any suggestion that the current government is evil while taking pride in fooling her viewers.
The overlap between each of these characters creates some of Road 96’s best moments. One of the most engaging narratives revolved around three main characters: the aforementioned truck driver, a genius 14-year-old programmer looking for his biological and a cop who takes issue with the severity of the force they are supposed to use. Although these three initially seem completely unrelated to each other, you quickly get a glimpse of the conversations between the trio without each knowing who they’re talking to at the time, allowing you to fill in the blanks with how they might be feeling. if they became aware of the connections. This creates a strong emotional attachment – not just to their individual stories, but to the trio’s eventual fate, which is heavily dictated by how you handle each of your individual interactions with them across the game’s eight unique runs.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for all the characters. Jarod, a homicidal taxi driver using murder to process the loss of his daughter, has whiplash-inducing character changes when the story calls for it. He seems okay with burning you alive in a van during a race, but quickly throws his entire vendetta against another character after listening to a supposedly heartfelt conversation, which itself comes across as a strange character change in person. having the conversation. It’s annoying to watch these threads carefully throughout each run for them to end so badly in some cases, but thankfully they’re mostly relegated to the handful of less interesting characters. Those that are deeply tied to the overall Petria story have some nice payoffs, which doesn’t entirely make up for the missteps, but certainly softens the blow somewhat.
While the little backstories of each of Road 96’s characters are mostly engrossing to follow, its overarching narrative is harder to take seriously. He never manages to get past his superficial observations and statements, which make it clear that the current dictator is only evil for evil and that the opposing candidate adorned with blue marketing is the one answer to all of Petria’s problems. Road 96 expects you to simply accept that Petria has a massive share of teenagers seeking to escape its borders, often encouraged by their parents, while believing that most of its population is still determined to maintain the regime. current in power when children are sent. in labor camps to work until death. There is no defined demographic group that is oppressed, which could explain the discrepancy, and there is no explanation as to why the government would do everything possible to prevent teenagers from escaping. just to systematically incarcerate or kill them anyway. There’s a narrative disconnect that oversimplifies the political dynamics in a two-party structure while accentuating the extremities of each party to insane degrees. This, in turn, makes it difficult to get invested in the overall conclusion of the story, which is far too well-knit to leave a lasting impression.
It’s a shame that Road 96’s great character writing is stuck in such a restrictive frame, even if many of its most memorable dialogue sequences only work given that the premise allowed this assortment of personalities to come together. interlace. That doesn’t mean there’s no reward for seeing some of it, but if you’re hoping for an introspective look at the complexities of revolting against an oppressive regime, then Road 96 doesn’t deliver on that front. It is, however, an enjoyable point-and-click adventure outside of that, with a neat procedural twist that keeps your every attempt at escape entertaining, with dialogue choices that seem helpful, and mini-games entertaining to keep them entertained. various things.