Freedom is so close now I can almost taste it. I'm on my third run of Road 96, and this time I find myself breaking into the back of a truck right at the border. As a teenager who's trying to flee the fictional dystopian setting of Petria, which is ruled by an oppressive and authoritarian leader, I'm trying to break free and start a new life. I feel very on edge in this truck, surrounded by boxes that hide my presence. This is a particularly precarious situation, since I have to get through checkpoints and hope I'm not caught in the process. I've gotten so far, and I'm so close to succeeding. I can't fail now. A guard brings the truck to a halt and declares they're using a movement sensor to make sure nothing fishy is going on. I catch myself freezing in place in my seat, trying my best not move my PC mouse a single inch. Once the guard is satisfied, I feel a little bit of tension subside, but I'm still not in the clear just yet.
This is just one of the many examples of how your road trip might unfold in developer Digixart's procedural experience set in 1996. With a branching narrative that plays out across your travels on the road, there are so many different chance encounters, routes, and scenarios you can come across as you try to make your way to the border, and you never know what might happen next. Each run of Road 96 sees you play as a different missing teen who's trying to make a break for it, and as every road trip comes to close, I'm all too eager to dive right back and see what awaits me next. Immersive and engaging with plenty of surprises in store, Road 96 effectively plays on the sense of discovery and possibility that comes with taking to the open roads in its own distinctive way.
Every road trip is unique
Each road trip is made up of a series of pit stops you make as you travel to try and reach the border. You'll be presented with all manner of choices, such as how you choose to interact with a character, what actions you take, or what mode of transport you decide on to put more miles behind you. Your teen has an energy meter you need to be mindful of, since you don't want it running out entirely. The meter can go up or down depending on how you travel and if you can find yourself some food or drink, and there are also opportunities to get your hands on money that could potentially help you in a tight spot. Everything you choose to do can have an impact on your journey in unexpected ways, and may even bring your road trip to halt entirely. This element of unpredictability makes the experience of playing Road 96 all the more enjoyable since each run feels fresh and exciting.
There's an undeniable appeal about the prospect of hitting the open roads and meeting new people along the way. But in Road 96, you're taking a great risk by traveling to the border. In Petria, lots of teens are going missing, and tensions are rising in the government, which is currently under the rule of authoritarian president Tyrak. With more people trying to rebel, you learn about a group of protestors known as the Black Brigades, as well as Tyrak's opponent in the polls, Florres. Since the journey you're on can put you into dangerous situations, there are plenty of moments on the road where I feel tense, be it because of the atmosphere of the surroundings I find myself in, the company I'm keeping, or a particular scenario I'm presented with.
Freedom and discovery
You will also come across quieter scenes where you can get to know a new found acquaintance a little more, or even play a mini-game. During my travels the second time around, I end up playing a game not unlike Connect Four in the backseat of a van with another runaway teen by the name of Zoe, who is one of Road 96's central characters. I've met her before on a previous run, and she even mentions meeting them, which makes it really feel like my past experiences with Road 96 have had an impact on the world. When I do successfully reach the border, I can also see graffitti I painted on a cave wall the previous time, which again reinforces the idea that every teenager I play and every road trip I go on makes a mark on Petria.
I've really enjoyed my time on the road so far, and Digixart does well to deliver an ever-evolving experience that feels different each time. I'm still all too eager to venture out and try and reach the border again to see what else is in store for me. With its own distinctive look and feel, the excellent '90's aesthetic is accompanied by some killer mixtape tracks (which are collectibles), and the characters of Petria truly bring the world to life. If you're looking for an exciting adventure with a bit of difference that's easy to dip in and out of, you can't go wrong with Road 96.
Road 96 is out now on PC and Nintendo Switch.