Update (July 2022): To celebrate the arrival of Road 96 on Xbox Game Pass, we're republishing this review from a couple of months ago when the game was first released on Xbox. Spoiler alert, it's definitely worth playing!
Original review (April 2022): Every once in a while a video game story just hits you right where you least expect it. Road 96 is one of those very games; an incredibly endearing set of stories focused on a bunch of misfit teens who are merely looking for a better life. Even more than that, Road 96 taught me to count my blessings and appreciate that I've never found myself in such difficult circumstances, where all you've got is the clothes on your back and a couple bucks to get by.
Whoever's story is playing out, the objective is always simple: head to road 96 and cross the border. However, each journey presents a desperate teen with countless obstacles, and that simple journey becomes something more. You might have to hitchhike a couple hundred miles with an unhinged truck driver. Maybe you'll come across a pair of oddly-likeable thieves who can always use a spare pair of hands. You could call for a taxi and be met by an absolute psycho behind the wheel. Or, maybe you'll simply drop to the ground mid-journey from pure exhaustion, only to be arrested for the simple act of seeking freedom.
There's a dark underbelly to Road 96. While its cast of characters are super likeable and you'll no doubt fall in love with most of them by the end of your journey, the game's backdrop is unsettling. A closed nation still haunted by events of the past, Petria is a fictional state run by a dictator, who's trying his best to become untouchable. The leader is pulling out all the stops to stay in power, including arresting teens who dare to protest, support the opposition, or try to leave the country. It's a sad state of affairs and a story that really makes you think about how politics completely change people's lives.
Despite the fierce opposition, each character you play as has their own reason for continuing to try and cross the border. Those stories are often driven by you as well, as the game uses a Telltale-style dialogue system where you essentially direct their stories, and the system has real consequences. We don't want to go into spoiler territory here but some of the choices you make can be life-or-death, they're that impactful. Oh, and pretty much all the stories cross over, so one decision made on your first run could massively change the course of your next missing teen's journey.
If that sounds a little overwhelming and makes you feel anxious about making the right move - fear not. Most stories can end up on a positive note, after more decisions are made of course, and crossing paths with old characters makes you feel really connected to the whole cast. After our first run we found ourselves really warming to the unhinged truck driver, and thankfully, we got to spend plenty of time with him across our other teen's journeys.
When it comes to gameplay, there's more variety on offer here than you might think. This isn't a straight walking simulator or anything of the sort; you'll be solving light puzzles, scouring locations for key items and even taking part in high-octane chases at times. None of it is particularly challenging and it's all there to serve the story, but we never felt bored during our 8-10 hours playing through Road 96.
There's more beyond those hours too, if you want to max out each character's story. Once we'd wrapped up our first set of runs and found out Petria's fate, we were greeted with New Game+, which lets you go back and fill in any story beats you may have skipped during your initial playthrough. We haven't got around to doing that as of writing this, but we can't see ourselves moving on from Road 96 just yet. We're still thinking about each character we met well after the credits rolled, and we're ready to pore over each dialogue option until the game's story has been fully explored.
There's one more thing we must mention before wrapping up: the soundtrack. This is one of the very best OSTs we've ever heard in a game, from AAA to tiny indie and everything in-between. Road 96 knows when to interject the perfect song for the moment, and even when you'd like more choice over that, a tape collection system lets you go in and choose the right song for your moment, so long as there's a tape player of some sort nearby.
Road 96 is a masterpiece in storytelling and depending on your own experience, you may even be moved by its through line of hope, loss, and the ultimate goal of personal freedom. Many of the game's themes haven't directly applied to my life, but Road 96 is an education in empathy and it really makes you feel for the folks out there who are scrambling to get their lives in order because of other people's actions. It's not a perfect game — mechanically things could be improved at times — but its story is about as close to perfect as you could ask for, and for that, we recommend it without a shadow of a doubt.