Road 96 sits very comfortably among my favorite indie games of all time, and I have never once hesitated to recommend it to anyone. The narrative rogue-like survival hybrid is unlike anything else out there, and it nails a concept that’s so strange it’s difficult to describe in a single sentence. The prequel, Road 96 Mile 0, is equally difficult to describe, but for a much less exciting reason – this directionless meeting of four or five disparate visions doesn’t come together, damages the character work in Road 96, and most damningly just isn’t about anything.
Mile 0 follows Zoe, who I’d describe as most fans’ favorite character from Road 96. Just a few days before the start of the first game, Zoe and her best friend Kaito begin to unravel the strings of lies that are holding the nation of Petria together. For those unfamiliar with the setting, Petria is a fictionalized America that, in 1986, fell under the influence of President Tyrak. The game does little to hide that Tyrak is based largely on Donald Trump. The current year is 1996, and after a ten-year term the election is finally coming. In this version of America, it is Canada that has built a wall on its southern border to keep out American refugees as so many are trying to flee the country as it falls to alt-right chaos and ruin.
The residents of the rich, upscale town of White Sands are either elites or workers. Years ago, Zoe, the fifteen-year-old daughter of one of Tyrak’s ministers, became friends with Kaito, the son of dirt poor workers, against all the odds. Despite their serious class differences, they remain best friends to the start of the story, mostly hanging out in an abandoned parking garage on the outskirts of town. The two of them dream of leaving White Sands together one day, collecting funds and supplies in a chest for their future road trip. As the election approaches, things are heating up. More and more news is pushing through about people fleeing the country, and Zoe begins to hear whispers that the luxury of White Sands is more exclusive than she thought. If you played the original Road 96, you’ll know that almost every inch of the country is in near-apocalyptic ruin.
My main issue with the narrative is that in Road 96, Zoe was presented as a troubled, introspective musician who was escaping her oppressive (and possibly abusive) father for hope of something better on the other side. In fact, she was dead set on doing whatever she had to in order to reach Canada and be herself. In Mile 0, which takes place days before, she is a spoiled rich girl without a care in the world who has never once doubted her great dictator king. This character is pretty wildly inconsistent with the one that I encountered in Road 96, going so far as to make me entirely dislike her. When presented with solid evidence that Tyrak is a liar, she goes into an emotional nosedive that just doesn’t track with her character in order to justify the musical runner sections. Mile 0 makes constant references to fake news, alt-right authoritarianism, violent revolutionaries, election fraud, and more without ever diving into it beyond “Zoe is uncomfortable thinking about these things.”
Mile 0 basically runs back and forth between two modes in a linear fashion. The dialogue sections are somewhat similar to the first game, but with greatly reduced agency and influence on the game world. The only real progress mechanic is in two meters – Zoe’s doubt of Tyrak and Kaito’s readiness to revolt. You switch between the two characters in different scenes, making decisions that push them towards either end of their meters, which influences how they act later in the game. This meter did not give me an ounce of feeling like I had control over the direction of the story, nor did it really make sense to have to force Zoe to believe Tyrak was spreading lies by picking that option in conversation sixteen times. Every time I did, she would say something to the effect of “No, it can’t be! I’ll never believe it!” The writing is so strange and jarring I wonder if something in the logic of the game is broken, and it was showing me scenes from taking the opposite track with Zoe.
After each of these sections, Zoe or Kaito has some sort of emotional break, and we are whisked away into their heads for what is basically a terrible version of Sayonara Wild Hearts. There are ten stages, and each one is around four minutes long. Thank god they are not longer, because they feel terrible to control. These musical runner segments have you moving around while auto-running, doing poorly timed quick time events, jumping, and ducking over obstacles while admittedly fantastic licensed music plays. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how great the original score for Mile 0 is as well, and how smoothly the licensed tracks jive with the scenery and environments.
That’s probably the only good thing I have to say about Mile 0. Nearly all of it is poorly written, poorly performed, and poorly animated. The graphics and animations look considerably worse than Road 96‘s, while characters’ lips for the not-great dialogue are out of sync around 90% of the time. This was not an issue in the first game. To its credit, it runs well, getting a smooth 144 FPS at High Settings in 1440p on my RTX 2060 Super. There are some janky animations here and there, with a few characters clipping through walls, but in an indie game from a small team like this that doesn’t much bother me. I was much more concerned with the fact that during the entire three and a half hour run of Mile 0, I did not once feel that I was having fun.
It’s difficult to describe how disappointed I am with Road 96 Mile 0. It is uninspired, uninteresting, and constantly pushing dialogue about authoritarianism and misinformation without ever actually saying anything about it. While I enjoyed seeming more of the old characters like Sonya, all the new characters, including the other protagonist Kaito, are badly written and impossible to care about. The musical skateboarding sections are a joke, and some of the most unpleasant and unresponsive controls I’ve felt in years. While both the score and licensed music tracks are phenomenal, it does little to offset the subpar voice acting and wildly inaccurate animations. Road 96 was a masterclass in storytelling, proving that procedurally generated stories can create a personal, compelling narrative for each unique player. All Mile 0 has proved is that lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Nirav played Road 96 Mile 0 on PC with a key provided by the publishers. It is also available on PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.