Welcome! This column is part of a series in which members of the Tom's Guide staff share what they're playing and enjoying right now, with the goal of helping you find great games that you may have missed. Be sure to check out our previous entry, where we talk about Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot.
I don’t play many story-driven games but when I came across Road 96 while browsing the PS5 store, its premise of a roguelike road-trip simulator appealed to me. While the game may be beautiful and relaxing at times, it also had me biting my nails.
Road 96 is set in 1996 in the fictional nation of Petria. You play as a series of teenagers who have run away from home, and are heading toward the border to escape from a fascist government. Danger lurks in every moment though, not just at the heavily militarized border.
The game balances "slice of life" micronarratives with an overarching story in the form of an upcoming election. Each choice you make has an impact in the short term, but also contributes to either maintaining the status quo under President Tyrak, overthrowing his regime with an anarchic uprising, or giving his election rival Senator Flores a boost in the polls.
Teens on the run
Your characters don't have names or faces, just stylized icons, ages and stamina bars. Players control their faceless protagonists at key moments in their journeys to the border, perhaps in the back of a car, or on the roadside, or in a diner.
While gameplay mostly involves selecting responses from dialogue trees, there is also a fair amount of exploration to do. You'll regularly undertake activities such as playing the trombone, entering an air hockey tournament and even firing stacks of cash at a police car. Small touches, such as the ability to call any phone number you find in the game from a payphone, including your teen’s home, lend the world a tangible authenticity.
Road 96 has 148,268 possible route combinations but each "‘scene"’ tends to involve one central interaction with one of the seven main characters. These scenes offer dialogue trees, moral decisions, and varying perspectives on the state of Petria. After the central plot resolves, you normally then have to figure out how to continue your route to the border. Will you walk along the road, risk hitchhiking, or call a taxi?
By playing your cards right, you can also earn perks that persist between runs. These range from the ability to hack computers, to a government pass that opens up new gameplay options and dialogue choices. You can collect the game’s impressive soundtrack on a series of cassette tapes that also persist from character to character.
The beauty of randomizing each run is that some will seem quiet, introspective, and low-stakes, whereas others will be a struggle to even reach the border. This border serves as the final destination for each of our teens, and each one of them have to face it alone. Sometimes, they'll arrive well-fed and watered, and laden with cash. Other times, they'll be on their last legs and desperate enough to take a risk.
There are several ways to cross the border that unlock as you progress, but all involve risk. If you have a lot of stamina, then you could try the mountain pass; if you're flush with cash, you could bribe a truck driver to sneak you across. These choices aren’t just cutscenes, either. When my character had to hold his breath to avoid detection in the lower parts of a truck, I found myself doing the same in real life.
You can see pretty much everything in Road 96 in around 10 hours, which feels right for a game like this. Key character set pieces are largely the same in most playthroughs, but how you reach them will be different each time.
Road 96 is an allegorical story about border politics and immigration. Whenever you hear the word “teenager,” substitute it for “migrant” or “refugee”. But while the game is pretty heavy-handed with the Trump references at times (Fox News host equivalent Sonya lays it on thick), the title shows just how ridiculous the real world can be.
Mechanically, the game is simple, but narratively, there is a lot to like. The writing is sharp and funny, and each character has his or her own voice. Road 96 is one of the few games where I have genuinely thought about the consequences of failing. Having explored all of the endings available, they can seem a bit reductive, coming down to just the final few decisions. However, each journey to reach the endgame proves significantly different.
What's great about Road 96 is that there are no irredeemable characters. Even the government mouthpiece Sonya, the criminals Stan and Mitch, and the violent Jarod all have their humanizing moments, as well as satisfying arcs that develop based on your gameplay. The game’s government runs on hatred, but Road 96's message is about listening to people on both sides of the political spectrum. Your character speaks a lot less than they listen, and many people in real life could stand to try the same.
After finishing Road 96 I’m curious to see what other narrative-driven games I may have missed out on. Especially those that tell their stories via unconventional means. Road 96 is political without preaching, and a warning sign in a period when the world is more polarized than ever.