HomeReviews3.5/5 ReviewRoad 96: Mile 0 Review

Road 96: Mile 0 Review

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I played Road 96 after lockdown, and it will forever be entwined with that period in my head. Just as I was going out of my mind in the same house, day after day, I would boot up Road 96 and make a run for it. My goal was the border of Petria, and I’d do my best to sneak over it. It was an odd kind of wish fulfilment; I felt a kind of kinship with my faceless character.

It was also a rather brilliant little game. It’s one of the games I have recommended most since lockdown, and that’s mostly because of its structure. It abandons the conventional linear format that most narrative adventures stick to, and adopts something like a roguelike instead. You don’t play Road 96 once – you play it multiple times. Each playthrough is a different character, and by playing multiple teenagers, you build up layers of understanding about the endemic issues. The main character isn’t a Life is Strange-like Max or Chloe: the main character is Petria.

When I heard there was another game in the Road 96 universe, I was both thrilled and a wee bit concerned. Because while I couldn’t wait to experience more tales from Road 96’s world and the extremely capable DigixArt, Road 96: Mile 0 seemed to be jettisoning everything I liked about the original. The roguelike had gone, to be replaced with a conventional, straightforward story. Road 96: Mile 0 was a prologue, when Road 96 had already told me everything I felt like I needed to know about this moment in fictional history. And it’s a character piece, where the main characters are people, rather than the state itself. My worry was that Road 96: Mile 0 sounded conventional and unnecessary, when the original was anything but.

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Road 96: Mile 0 rewinds a month before the events of Road 96. President Tyrak hasn’t yet announced his candidacy for re-election, and the sandstorm is yet to roll in. The Black Brigade are also a whisper on the lips of the people of Petria, as the group of rebels are only beginning to form. 

It’s into this period that we play as two characters. There’s Zoe, one of the characters we regularly met on the road in Road 96, and she’s joined by Kaito, who first appeared in DigixArt’s debut game, Lost in Harmony. While she’s from White Sands, the Beverly Hills of Petria, he’s from the slums of Carson City; and while she is the daughter of the Minister of Oil, he is a nobody, from a family who can’t make ends meet. Together they are friends, and the class divisions seem unimportant. But the emphasis is on ‘seem’. 

The story of Road 96: Mile 0 is about the journeys these two characters take, albeit more metaphysical than the ones in Road 96. Zoe needs to learn that she lives in an ivory tower, and White Sands is not all of Petria. People live in poverty, and that includes her friend, Kaito. On the other hand, Kaito has a job to convince Zoe of his way of thinking, so that when he reveals what he has been planning, she won’t immediately go to the authorities. 

These stories are mapped to gauges that are very different from the food and money of Road 96. Zoe is managing a gauge of Certainty, as she chooses between Doubt in the regime and Belief in it. Kaito’s gauge is balanced between determination in his cause and pragmatism about it. Every dialogue choice, poster-ripping and story action moves the slider on these gauges.

These are all big changes from DigixArt, and – at least in terms of how much we cared about our choices, and how much we invested in the stories – I never felt like they paid off. 

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Road 96: Mile 0’s plot tension, and its entire reason for being, comes from whether Zoe and Kaito can align on Petria, President Tyrak, the Black Brigade and the plan that gets discovered over time. But the problem is that I was playing both sides of the same argument. I got to play both Kaito AND Zoe. Very few people would force the two characters to disagree just for kicks: most would agree on the same points, but that agreement would mean Road 96: Mile 0 would immediately fail. 

So, what DigixArt does instead is manufacture the tension, and it never sits right. Your dialogue options as Zoe or Kaito are variations on the same theme. You can disagree with Kaito warily, or you can disagree with Kaito completely. The railroad tracks may look like they’re painted different colours, but they’re still railroad tracks. 

Tossed into the mix is the knowledge that you carry from Road 96. While the Black Brigade and their philosophies are imperfect, they are light-years better than the tyranny of President Tyrak. We know this, because we know the twists of the first game. So, when many of the dialogue options, particularly on Zoe’s track, is to choose between wholeheartedly believing in Tyrak, or doubting him, we can’t imagine many Road 96 players are going to pick ‘believe’. We’d love to see the percentages for each choice, Walking Dead-style, as we can only imagine it would be one-sided. 

All of these combine to make the narrative oddly manufactured, and lacking in any meaningful choice. The result was that I kind of, sort of, stopped caring in the choice I was making. It wasn’t what interested me in Road 96: Mile 0. I was watching two characters completing the narrative arcs that had been prescribed to them, as if it was an episode of a TV programme, rather than something I had any part in. That may be okay for some, but I get the sense that DigixArt wanted more than that. There were gauges in my face, after all.

Luckily, Road 96: Mile 0 has a few other tricks. These tricks redeem it, hauling it back over the line as a cracking game with what feels like – at least to us – misguided intentions.

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Primary of these is some Hi-Fi RUSH-like rhythm action sequences. Both Zoe and Kaito wonder and dream, and those dreams are realised as some out-of-the-screen third-person sequences. They’re soundtracked by an eclectic mix of tunes, and you rollerskate and skateboard to the beats of those songs.

These sequences aren’t complicated. You can move side-to-side, as well as jump and duck. Those are the only buttons to memorise as various grindrails, rolling boulders, half-shut garage doors and other obstacles appear and need dealing with. 

The vast majority of these sections are a bit special. They neatly segue from the story, taking a theme from what’s just happened and whipping it up into a hyper-real interpretation. There are two standouts. The first has Kaito and Zoe running away from an overly familiar bodyguard, who grows to become giant sized over the course of the song. You’re leapfrogging his hands and feet as he tries to affectionately grab you, all to the music of The Offspring. In another, Kaito is trying to convince Zoe that Carson City is not the Carson City she sees on TV. It has you gliding from an idealised version of the city to its slums, and there’s a glorious, applause-worthy shot as the two versions of the city are juxtaposed on the horizon. 

We have a few quibbles about the legibility of these sequences, as it can be difficult to know whether an obstacle is a jump or a duck. Equally, collision-detection is a tad off, as we found ourselves being punished for things that it could have excused. Particularly when flying (on occasion you are flung into the air), Road 96: Mile 0 is a harsh adjudicator about whether you’ve made a mistake. 

Whenever these sequences crop up, we bolted upright and paid attention. The obstacles match the music and we had a whale of a time. And this reaction is also true to a lot of the heightened, magic-realist stuff that happens in the main game. 

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Very occasionally, gameplay elbows its way into Road 96: Mile 0. We wish it did it more often, as these sequences are stellar. They seem to be fun in proportion to how much they abandon reality. There’s a brilliant Paperboy sequence, as you get to toss newspapers at anyone and everything, sending people flying off bridges and stairs. Another had us playing a game of Supermarket Sweep, as we desperately filled a runaway’s backpack against the clock.

It feels slightly unreal to be writing that Road 96: Mile 0 excels where Road 96 stumbled, and fumbles what it did so well. It’s in the distractions, the gameplay and minigames, that Road 96: Mile 0 sings. DigixArt has returned to rhythm action, and we’re still replaying each song to get an S+ rank. 

But it’s the story and choices that can feel empty. Road 96: Mile 0 can be a retread of a story that we already knew, told as an argument where we played both sides, with choices that don’t match what we wanted to say. That’s a lot to resolve, and – by the end of Road 96: Mile 0’s five hours – DigixArt can’t wrestle it into something satisfying.

Should you play Road 96: Mile 0? Yes, but we wish it was more clear-cut. It’s full of great, heightened moments and rhythm action sections that probably warrant the asking price alone. But there are so many missteps in the story that you can call it a full-blown stumble. Hopefully, next time, DigixArt can tell a newer, more expansive story, rather than reversing the car back to its past glories.

You can buy Road 96: Mile 0 from the Xbox Store

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Scott
Scott
1 year ago

Maybe it’s just me, but prequels, remasters and remakes have never been my cup of tea. If I’ve experienced the story or I know how it’s all going to end, why do I need to know what happened before? I enjoyed Road 96, but I can’t see myself picking this up… maybe if they come out with a SEquel.

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