Highway 96 by DigixArt focuses on the plight of teenagers trying to escape an authoritarian nation by crossing the border. It obviously has more than subtle ties to current events. The world is divided. Multiple refugee crises, political unrest, war, homelessness, crime and disease are rampant. So, just as we’ve seen with music, literature, film, and art, it makes sense for a game studio to attempt to comment on at least some of these issues. Unfortunately, it ends up feeling more like baby’s first revolution than a poignant commentary on a particular topic.
Throughout the story, you play as a faceless teenager trying to escape the fictional nation of Petria. President Tyrek has become increasingly authoritarian in his policies and people are fleeing the country in response. The only thing is, I never really knew why.
Road 96 takes a rather juvenile approach to its commentary. You discover that the government of Petria is definitely overstepping its bounds and that Tyrek is a villain. However, aside from the suggestion that these teenagers have troubled pasts and are homeless, there are few indicators of what you’re running from, other than a general bad vibe. There is no ethnic cleansing or religious persecution, and people seem rather free to travel other than across the border, and food and money are plentiful enough that people leave them behind.
For the most part, you just have to believe that bad things are happening. A side story concerns a failed revolution attempt that occurred ten years before the game. Towards the end of the game, more concrete evidence surfaces that Petria isn’t the best place to live, but it feels a bit contrived and aimless.
I wish Road 96 was a lot less opaque in its commentary. It usually takes a lot to scare someone away from their country, and very little of that is covered here. I had a great time playing Road 96, but playing an inexperienced character in a game that’s primarily political commentary just kind of falls flat. Nope-
The game constructs its narrative in an unprecedented way. Unlike other adventure games, every part of Road 96 is procedurally generated. One of the weaknesses of the adventure genre is that, no matter how good a game, the story unfolds in a linear fashion, resulting in low replayability.
In theory, this is a great idea. You can enjoy the story many times without knowing how it will play out. However, in practice, it looks more like proof of work. There are seven main characters in the game, and the focus is largely on filling their story meters. Each trip to the border will give you a handful of encounters with them, then rinse and repeat until Election Day.
You won’t hear 100% of each character’s story in a single playthrough, which again makes the game difficult. You might be missing a scene or two of a character, but to get there you’ll have to sit through hours of rehearsed material to get there. There are mini-games and puzzles in some sections which make for a fun distraction, but there are a limited number of them.
The game is further stifled by the fact that your choices only lead to three conclusions. Each decision contributes to one of three counters: revolution, vote or apathy. Your nameless character also has very little agency, and is powered by the actions and thoughts of the seven main NPCs.
Road 96 Review: The Final Verdict
Road 96 feels like an odd mix of experimental and conservative game design. The procedurally generated narrative is a good idea and I would like to see it reused. However, the overall plot is political without being substantial. It’s a story that probably would have been better served by following a linear structure with player characters who had rich backstories that tied them firmly to the ongoing struggle in Petria.
Adventure game fans will have a great time with Road 96, however. The cast is great fun and there are enough twists and turns to make it an entertaining piece. It’s definitely unique, and I hope DigixArt will continue to experiment with the genre.