The follow-up to clever 'narrative roguelike' Road 96 seems slim on variety and consequence

Road 96: Mile 0 Kaito and Zoe
(Image credit: DigixArt)

Dystopia comes in many forms. In the case of Road 96: Mile 0, it’s the deep divide between the working and upper class. One side resents the poor conditions they live in because of President Tyrak’s negligence, while the other worships him and blindly believes his propaganda. The two protagonists represent opposite sides of the divide in the authoritarian nation of Petria, but it’s up to the player to decide which side they support.

What's missing, at least in the demo, is variety. Road 96: Mile 0 is a prequel to hitchhiking adventure Road 96, which came out in 2021 and married random generation with Telltale-esque choices and consequences. There were barely any differences between my two playthroughs of Mile 0, which focuses more on the backdrop of a troubled nation rather than diving deep into its characters' personal journeys.

Certainty or doubt

Road 96: Mile 0 closes in on two best friends, Kaito and Zoe. In Road 96: Mile 0, Kaito plays the role of a rebellious son with a working class mother and father. Zoe, the daughter of the Minister of Oil, lives a completely different life from her best friend, but they meet up at their hideout outside the heart of the city. Both Kaito and Zoe are presented as main characters, but Zoe’s choices are the ones that matter in the demo and sometimes change what happens. Many of Zoe’s choices also affect her spectrum of "Certainty versus Doubt," which apparently impacts the outcome of your playthrough. 

Road 96 was praised for how many ways its hitchhiking stories could play out. Its eight playable characters could reach completely different endings based on your choices. Road 96: Mile 0’s branching paths seem limited to Zoe’s Certainty versus Doubt meter, though. In one playthrough, I went for Certainty, the more conservative, law-abiding route. In the other, I leaned toward Doubt, making more rebellious, pro-worker decisions. Many of the answers that agree with Kaito, who hates the country's dictator Tyrak with a vengeance, leaned towards Doubt. 

But the choices I made in both playthroughs didn’t affect the outcome much. Whenever I tried to avoid an event, like pushing a spoiled rich kid in a swing, I was redirected to progress the story.

Road 96: Mile 0 Kaito and Zoe

(Image credit: DigixArt)

There are slight differences. If you don’t steal some batteries for a prank Kaito schemed up, it'll still somehow work, but you'll gain Certainty instead of Doubt because you didn’t steal for him. The limited reactivity could be in place to keep Zoe in-character, considering she’s supposed to be the "baddest" girl in all of White Sands. 

Kaito and Zoe

Each Road 96: Mile 0 chapter gives us more insight into Petria and its capital city, White Sands, but unlike the first game, Mile 0 stays focused on these two characters throughout. One chapter takes us into working class slums, another visits the wealthier neighborhood where Zoe and her family live, and the last sets itself in the town square, where the workers are preparing for a speech from Tyrak. Each chapter in Road 96: Mile 0 also features a skating rhythm game where you play as Kaito, Zoe, or both. Thankfully, if you suck at skating like I did, you can skip these sections and cut straight to the story. There are also some other "rowdy teenager"  minigames like throwing newspapers at as many mailboxes (and people) as possible.

Road 96: Mile 0 balances the heavier topics of politics and social injustice with teenage shenanigans, with some lighthearted exchanges between Kaito and Zoe and campy B-movie humor. It’s a shame that we don’t get to explore the relationship between Kaito and Zoe as much as the world of Petria, though. 

Perhaps it’d make more sense if Kaito and Zoe’s relationship was better explained in the intro rather than suddenly throwing the two together without explanation. Spontaneity makes sense in Road 96, where many of the characters meet as strangers. However, when the only two main characters are supposed to be best friends, the game needs more background to deepen the relationship and raise the stakes. 

Our Road 96 preview from 2021 highlighted that "It's a somber story, and it benefits from the openness you can only really have between strangers whose paths are soon to separate."

This is what the Road 96: Mile 0 demo seems to be missing. Kaito and Zoe do what teenagers would be expected to do, pranking uptight adults and decorating their hideout, but it’s difficult to believe they became so close when the two of them are from completely different worlds. What does Kaito offer Zoe that she can’t have with any of her non-working class friends and vice versa? She hadn’t even been to his house before and he’s not allowed at hers. Nothing about their relationship is convenient or really makes sense with the context we get.

Yoan Fanise, the Road 96 game director, even highlighted Zoe’s development as a key reason for making the prequel. "In Mile 0, we wanted to show where Zoe is coming from, and why she left her comfortable life," he said in the announcement post. "But we didn’t make it the conventional way, we went the crazy road, with metaphorical music sequences, where you ride the beliefs and doubts of Zoe and Kaito."

Mile 0's commentary on social issues does relate back to Zoe and Kaito's friendship, but at least in the demo their relationship doesn't have enough weight behind it to carry the meat of the conflict.

I don’t know the full story behind Road 96: Mile 0. I’m inclined to find out, if solely because I’ve already spent a couple of hours with these kids, but so far, I’m not convinced it’s worth playing over another coming-of-age game. It just doesn’t stand out without the gimmick of a narrative roguelike, or a story emotionally compelling enough to replace it. The full game is out on April 4.