Developer DigixArt’s Road 96 attempts to tell a procedurally generated road trip unique to each player. Dialogue decisions and choices such as choosing how to travel to the next destination as you flee to the border shape how your 1996 journey plays out. The inherent unpredictability often fulfills this idea and results in the feeling of truly being on a dangerous adventure where anything could happen next. However, a couple of strange design decisions, a few underwhelming voice performances, and consistent technical problems on Nintendo Switch hold back what is otherwise a well-told journey filled with fantastic characters. Road 96 is a trip worth taking, but only if you can put up with the speed bumps along the way.
Don’t take me home, country roads
Road 96 succeeds at telling an unpredictable road trip escapade for the most part. Petria is a country rife with political struggles, a freedom-fighting faction called the Brigades, and an oppressive totalitarian regime that aims to stop citizens from leaving the country with a literal border wall. Teenagers are mysteriously disappearing, and a narrator puts everything into perspective by reminding you of the passing days and a countdown to a tumultuous election that looms on the horizon. In the shoes of various nameless and silent teenagers, you’ll seek to flee the country via its only escape route: the border at the end of the eponymous Road 96. Whether you escape or get caught, you’ll shift from one teenager to another and see the consequences of your actions play out over time.
Along the way, dialogue decisions and choices such as taking a bus, taxi, or hitchhiking create procedurally generated scenarios that let you meet a colorful cast of characters. These characters make up the heart of this story, whether that’s Zoe, a teen girl trying to find meaning in her life, or Alex, a young tech wiz looking for the truth behind his parents disappearing. As different protagonists you’ll meet these characters multiple times and piece together a complete picture of their journeys, how you impacted their character development, and their connections to the rest of the cast. There are layers of motivations and secrets to uncover with each character, and their well-written and deeply personal stories are the highlight of Road 96.
Not knowing when or where you’ll meet a character next is genuinely fun and creates vastly different routes and endings. Only a couple of underwhelming voice performances keep the narrative from being truly spectacular.
A hitchhiker’s guide to Petria
As a first-person adventure, Road 96 takes you from one scenario to the next, involving situations with free exploration and more static set piece-like moments with impactful story beats. Between these scenes, you can choose how to travel to the next destination, such as waiting for a bus or hitchhiking. These choices determine both the next characters and situations on the journey and the progress you’re making towards reaching the border. In typical adventure game fashion, your dialogue choices and actions have ramifications on the characters you meet and the world at large. Over the course of multiple escape attempts, it becomes fun to catch up with the latest happenings for each character and see the impact your past protagonists have had on them.
At certain milestones, characters will provide you with abilities like hacking or lockpicking tools, which then open up previously inaccessible avenues for traveling and collecting money or food. As a teen on the run, your health bar and wallet are essential to progress. Money can pay for taxis or bribing police officers, while food and rest replenish your health. Actions such as traveling on a vehicle for a longer time or choosing to save a character cost health and create some of the most interesting decisions in the game.
A great variety of situations like a truck shootout or filming a political rally gone wrong keep things engaging, while occasional mini-games offer a welcome respite from the heavy plot. However, some activities require precise aiming that the controls don’t feel built for. At times, dialogue or action options can sway with their associated character or object, making it easy to select an option you didn’t intend to. There’s a lot of fun to be had escaping Petria, but it isn’t a seamless journey.
Potholes and road bumps
An adventure game shouldn’t let anything get in the way of telling its story, but unfortunately, that happens fairly often in Road 96 on Nintendo Switch. A generally clean presentation and stylistic character models support displaying the up-close facial emotions of characters, especially during the more stationary scenes. However, moments of exploration fare worse. Beautiful environments are often let down by a lack of detail and pop-in during faster moments. Anti-aliasing issues are noticeable, and the frame rate struggles to reach a consistent 30 FPS. When the game can’t keep up with the on-screen action, skipped frames caused me to miss a quick-time event during a car chase or select a dialogue option I wasn’t aiming for.
Elsewhere the road trip vibes are strong thanks to a good selection of ’90s-inspired indie music that perfectly suits the atmosphere of a lonely road trip or touching character moments. Switching between handheld and docked modes didn’t make much of a difference to Road 96’s performance, but be prepared for some frequent and lengthy load times.
Hitchhiking Road 96 isn’t for everyone
Road 96 is a road trip that doesn’t feel as procedural as it makes itself out to be, which is a compliment to its unpredictability and strong writing. Player dialogue decisions and actions shape the outcome of the teenage protagonists attempting to flee to the border and the wonderful characters you’ll meet along the way. Varied and fun scenarios keep the game feeling fresh and engaging from one scene to the next. However, on Nintendo Switch myriad technical problems hold the game back from reaching the full potential that its fantastic premise and characters create. It’s a journey worth taking, but unless you’re willing to put up with its shortcomings, it’s one that I’d recommend you play elsewhere.
A Nintendo Switch review code for Road 96 was provided by the publisher.