A few years ago, it was a depressing time to be a fan of the kind of narrative adventure games that Telltale used to put out. Telltale themselves had folded, and the prevailing narrative was that episodic and single-player story games were precisely where money wasn’t. But fast-forward to now, and it seems like rhubarb: Telltale are back, studios like Skunkape Games are gathering up old Telltale employees to make and remaster narrative games, and we are even getting a new Ron Gilbert-helmed Monkey Island. Things are in rude health again.
Add Road 96 to that lovely pile. As we played through its episodic narrative, it rekindled feelings of playing The Walking Dead for the first time. Road 96 doesn’t have any connections to Telltale (it’s made by DigixArt, makers of the noble 11-11: Memories Retold), but we’d suggest that if you have any affection for The Wolf Among Us, Tales From the Borderlands and the episodic Batman games, then you will find plenty here.
It starts with a news report from Sonya Sanchez in the fictional country of Petria. She sets the scene of a fractious state on the brink of revolution. Elections are impending, and its ruler President Tyrak is using the authoritarian handbook to ensure he wins: stoking fear, sending the opposition to labour camps and buying votes.
Clearly connected, Sonya also reveals that runaway kids are going missing as they try to cross the border. It’s a neat segue to some missing posters where you can pick your unnamed teenager, and begin a journey to the border, where you hope to cross and escape the regime.
Your journey is presented as a map of Petria, with salvation – the Road 96 – of the name, at the very top. Your route zigzags towards it, until you hit an event and are tossed into a narrative episode. These almost always feature one of the seven main characters of Road 96, and completing the episode will increase your standing with them (to varying degrees: if you piss them off, you will likely only get a small percentage increase). You will also get a choice of the mode of transport for the next leg of the trip – taxi, bus, walk, drive (if you have keys) or hitchhike – which determines how much farther you travel on your journey, and how many bars of stamina and cash it costs you.
Cash works as you’d imagine. As the man of the moment Chris Rock once said, “wealth is not about having a lot of money; it’s about having a lot of options”. Gather enough cash and you can pay your way out of scrapes, or you can choose for a more comfortable trip to the next destination. Because you will definitely want to conserve your stamina: if this ever gets exhausted, you will be found by the police and your run will be over.
It’s less complicated than it sounds. Getting captured just moves you to the next teenager, and everything that’s meaningful – collectibles, relationships with characters – gets carried over. It’s really just a backdrop for the core of Road 96, which is the story events.
Because Road 96 is so episodic in its structure, it gives it a pass to do some random, wildly different things. Stan and Mitch, a pair of balaclava-wearing thugs, are often a highlight, as you get wrapped up in their schemes. We sat in a CCTV room, helping them with a burglary, while another sequence had us in their motorcycle sidecar, dodging traffic. Jarod, a serial-killing taxi driver leaves you teetering on the edge of his patience, with death always a possibility. There are other, less psychotic characters, like Fanny the policewoman, and Big John Ursus, a truck driver.
Road 96 has a fantastic time concocting scenarios for you to play around in. Often they are just chatty, dialogue-led scenarios, while others are much more gamey and require a bit of gameplay (you better get good at air hockey and Pong). Rarely were they grating – they don’t stick around long enough, and failure is rarely that bad – and they were more commonly a lot of fun.
It has a neat knack for the hidden, too. There are cassettes to find, which can be played in various tape players. They give access to the game’s soundtrack, which is one of the best. Artists like The Toxic Avenger and Robert Parker supply the beats and give Road 96 a surging momentum. It’s also possible to avoid the main objectives in the episode and find safes full of cash, keys for cars and the odd scratchcard. And as Road 96 develops over multiple teenagers, as you work your way up to Election Day, you will acquire more skills like lockpicking and governmental papers that give you access to more secrets and more options.
If there’s a flaw, it’s in the narrative framing. Road 96 deeply wants you to care about Petria and have an opinion on whether the crisis can be resolved through voting, revolution or ignoring the problem. At the end of most conversations, you have a weird, stilted opportunity to ask how a character might vote, or what they think of the situation. It’s always fake and unnatural. When you are confronted with a demon cabby, do you care whether he leans politically left or right?
And perhaps it’s to do with the strange, middle-America theming (which softens and normalises the authoritarianism), or the lens of current events, but the situation in Petria feels too timid, too faint in its brush strokes. You never really see President Tyrak in action, so he becomes a far-off boogeyman. The option to vote him out of power, offered throughout, feels futile. And you get the feeling that DigixArt were more interested in their characters than their predicaments. Road 96 has more fun when it avoids the Brigades, the revolutionaries threatening Tyrak. There’s an incisive game to me made about overthrowing regimes and being a refugee in a crisis, but Road 96 is not it.
We should also mention that Road 96’s limited budget shines through. Environments get reused repeatedly, to the point where you wonder whether it’s meant to be a location you visited on a previous playthrough. Gas stations and motels get regurgitated over and over, and no amount of rejigged crates, barrels or benches will convince us that the location is different. It’s a shame, as there are some wild set pieces available and some unique locations, but they are rarer than you might hope.
But we regretted nothing about making the crossing to Road 96. We didn’t realise how much we’d missed the episodic story framework of a Telltale game, and Road 96 – while not being from Telltale – is a long-lost cousin to it. Developers DigixArt have a keen eye for character, and we found ourselves rubbing our hands together when we were in the company of one of our favourites.
At a time when refugees and authoritarian regimes are very much in the headlines, Road 96 may feel a bit toothless. But ignore the politics and you have a story-rich journey into the desert that will give you an opportunity to escape, in more ways than one.
You can buy Road 96 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S