Game review: Road 96

24 Feb 2022
By Ellie M., Post-grad at University of Glasgow

The first of its kind here on The Common Room, student writer Ellie M reviews the ‘Road 96’ game, released last summer.

It’s 1990-something, you’re cruising along with the sun on your face, your favourite cassette in the player. You turn to your side, now you’re in a police car, but the driver is making polite conversation. You turn back, suddenly there’s a man pointing a gun in your face. You close your eyes, terrified, and when you finally find the courage to open them, it’s night-time and you’re sitting by a campfire with a stranger you’ve never met. Finally, all seems well, so you drift off to sleep. What now? Sirens, ringing in your ears! You’re running through a concrete tunnel, you can see the end in the distance, and you better get there because your life depends on it…

A few weeks before Christmas, my Grandma phoned me up and asked what I wanted as a present. Sheepish and grateful, I replied with ‘Road 96’.

‘You want a road for Christmas? Where abouts is that? Ooh, I don’t know about that…’

‘No Grandma, it’s a video game!’

‘Ahh, is that for the Nintendo? What are they called these days, a Weee?’

Bingo. Well, sort of.

Naturally, she passed the buck to my uncle to sort it out. And on Christmas day, low and behold, my Grandma handed me a very neatly wrapped copy of Road 96 for the Nintendo Switch (not the Wii, phewf.)

Road 96 is a story-driven adventure that combines high stakes decision making with an almost procedurally generated route towards freedom. It’s set in the fictional, politically torn country of Petria and you play as five different teenagers attempting to escape across the border before the country’s presidential election takes place. As you hitchhike your way along Road 96, maintaining your all-important stamina bar, you meet a cast of recurring characters whose stories intertwine and impact each other. How you interacted with them on your previous run will change how they interact with you on your next, and snippets of conversations you pick up each time you meet them allows you to piece together a complex, evolving story of loss, hope, friendship, and apprehension for the future.

The game explores some incredibly deep and thought-provoking themes, some of which are especially relevant in today’s society. Each character comes alive as you discover their personal lives and how the political strife in the country is impacting them and their future. But don’t get me wrong, there are also plenty of incredibly fun, light-hearted moments in the game where you can choose to help people, do the right thing, and fight back against the rising tyrants.

There’s also great mini games scattered throughout too that are perfect for changing up the pace of the narrative and again, adding some light-hearted fun. From trying to learn the trombone by a campfire to playing penalty shootouts on the side of a desert mountain – there’s far more to this game than just dialogue.

And of course, one of the main draws in that respect for me, are the visuals. With an art style similar to Firewatch or The Long Dark, Road 96 offers some seriously impressive scenery. At first, it felt a little disappointing on the Switch – the hardware limitations just seem to lack that crispness that I was expecting, but eventually the overall image took over and still appeared as spectacular as I was expecting. If you are really into your framerates and shading options, this game is available on PC and will be releasing on all other major consoles on April 14th this year.

Something Road 96 quickly became known for was its brilliant soundtrack. A mix of road trip type tunes, heavy techno, dark synth, and light acoustic guitar, there’s something for everyone. The soundtrack can be collected as you play the game, by finding cassettes that can be played in cars throughout your journey. And of course, the soundtrack is also available on streaming services - which I’ve found makes a great study backdrop.

For me, the only negative aspect of the game is its short length. There are just 5 runaway teenagers to play as and so far, I have stopped at 3 to try and lengthen the experience! That being said, if you complete the game and start again, your next 5 runs will not be exactly the same as your first – events happen in different orders, resulting in slightly different conclusions, so there is still plenty of replayability. And that, of course, relies on actually completing the game – dying before you reach the border is a very real possibility!

Even though the game originally came out in August last year, I am hoping that the launch onto other consoles this April will rekindle the buzz that it created several months ago. It’s a fantastic game, and the immersive adventure draws you into its world, making you feel like you too are trying to escape Petria along Road 96.

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Crafter, casual gamer, and future forest ranger. I'm Ellie and I graduated from the University of Glasgow in 2021 with a degree in Film Studies and Theatre. I grew up in rural Aberdeenshire and am still trying to figure this ‘adult’ thing out.