Publisher: Digixart & Ravenscourt
Format: PC (Reviewed), PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X & S
Released: 4th of April, 2023
Time Played: 7 hours, 23 minutes
Game key purchased for full price at £10.96
Those of you who read my Top Ten Games of 2021 article (linked here), may recall how much I adored Road 96, the highly political “refugee simulator” (for lack of a better term), which saw players step into the well-worn shoes of several on-the-run teenagers. Traversing the fictional authoritarian nation of Petria in an attempt to flee from its oppressive government and cross the border —in the lead up to a presidential election, no less— was a deeply intense, moving, hopeful and occasionally comedic experience which struck a deep chord within me, earning the game my number one position amidst its respective year’s Honourable Mentions.
Over one and a half years later, Road 96’s story finally continues in Road 96: Mile 0 — a fairly traditional prequel to the original game, based around the origins of one of the series’ core narrative threads. Admittedly, had I been asked just a few months ago whether or not a prequel to Road 96 would be a good thing, I would’ve proclaimed it to feel somewhat unnecessary… The original game was deeply important, releasing alongside the construction of Trump’s border wall between Mexico and the United States, and hot on the heels of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests; It was topical and the progressive values at the heart of its message desperately needed to be heard at the time.
Yet, conceptually speaking, a prequel putting a voice to those exact same values feels somewhat misplaced… The majority of people are already aware of the fundamentally and systematically racist structure within which border walls and governmental bodies tend to operate; They’ve seen the protests first-hand, endured the never-ending mistreatment for themselves, and sat through countless media portrayals of “this is why racism isn’t good and we’re going to shake our heads disapprovingly at it whilst refusing to take part in any actual activism.”
There certainly are arguments to be made in favour of additional messages in media to this affect — racial discrimination and the abuse of asylum seekers isn’t exactly a thing of the past after all, and with ICE still yet to be dismantled: More stories set in the Road 96 universe definitely retain some relevancy. But a prequel? With construction of Trump’s border wall currently halted, numerous police departments being de-funded and demilitarized, and a member of the Democratic party currently residing in the White House: It feels to me that we should be looking at what we can do to improve the lives of minority groups now rather than creating further political commentaries of these past events.
Nevertheless, my prior views on Road 96: Mile 0’s pertinency don’t matter anywhere near as much as the game’s actual content. Does it evolve upon its political message in a meaningful and forward-thinking way, despite its status as a prequel? Does the story manage to feel enthralling despite us already knowing the end-point for several of the characters involved? Does the gameplay feel refined and fresh enough to warrant visiting Petria a second time? These are the real questions here, so why don’t we get ourselves some answers…
Road 96: Mile 0 is, as previously stated, a fairly traditional prequel to Road 96. It stars Zoe Muller, (one of the seven travelling companions encountered frequently throughout the original game), though you’ll actually be seeing through her eyes as a playable character this time around. I found this to be a rather fascinating and unexpected approach, as it granted me the opportunity to more thoroughly understand her motivations throughout Road 96 itself.
Zoe is a kind-hearted individual with a positive outlook and an upbeat sense of humour, but as the game begins she finds herself facing some rather severe internal conflicts. As the daughter of Petria’s Minister of Oil she is a highly affluent and fortunate individual, but due to her best friend’s distinctly lower class status; She has gained a lot of insight into the mistreatment of Petria’s workers, albeit through an undeniably privileged lens. She finds herself torn between the loyalty to Petria that goes hand in hand with her relationship to her father, and a belief that fleeing White Sands, (the capital of Petria and self-proclaimed “best city in the whole world”), may be necessary in order to fully understand the plight of the people.
At the same time, Road 96: Mile 0 also serves as a direct sequel to Digixart’s first ever game: 2016’s Lost in Harmony. Originally released for mobile but later ported to PC, Lost in Harmony was a rhythm-based runner game about a young Petrian teenager named Kaito, who would often dream of fleeing the nation with his best friend Aya: A girl slowly losing her life due to an illness caused by White Sand’s ceaselessly produced pollution.
By the events of Mile 0, Kaito feels nothing but rage towards the Petrian government, and is determined to take a stand. As your second playable character, he faces the complex moral dilemma of acting upon the revolutionary beliefs that the Black Brigades stand for, (a group that Petrian officials proclaim to be terrorists), or taking a more passive, voter-oriented mind-set. He finds himself questioning if changing the hearts and minds of the people could be enough to make a difference, or if more direct measures need to be taken in order to bring about the change that Petria so desperately needs.
Kaito and Zoe are unlikely best friends, and shape each other’s perspectives and beliefs in countless ways throughout the story. Though politics take centre-stage in Mile 0’s narrative, I felt it to be a highly character-driven game at its heart; Both protagonists have many layers of depth to be uncovered and are extremely likeable at every step of the journey.
Mile 0 also has a well-paced framework that certainly adds to the overall quality of the story. Much like how Road 96 gradually escalates in tension as the story builds up towards Petria’s presidential election, Mile 0 also escalates towards a deadly sandstorm, forecast to hit White Sands just three days after the game’s prologue. This serves as a unique way of punctuating the building gravitas found within each of the more personal and character-driven scenes.
So, with well-realised characters, more of the political content that made Road 96 so compelling, and a good sense of tension found throughout: It’s safe to say that the majority of Mile 0’s story is engrossing and intelligently portrayed. A major issue arises however, in regards to how the game —given its status as a prequel— frequently re-treads old ground in order to expand its sense of internal conflict. Sadly, this causes the game’s narrative to suffer exponentially…
Having Zoe and Kaito face personal dilemmas regarding their views of Petria does make a lot of sense within the context of the plot, but feels far less meaningful from the perspective of a player who has already played Road 96 itself. Throughout the game we’re made to question whether the Black Brigade’s actions can be considered justifiable, and whether Petria’s government truly is as corrupt as many believe it to be. As such we’re faced with numerous moral decisions within the gameplay about whether or not to buy into Petria’s propagandic media.
The issue here is that —having played Road 96 previously— I started Mile 0 fully informed about the true nature of each political party involved. I knew what Petria’s government truly stood for, and I had already developed an educated opinion regarding whether the Black Brigade’s actions could be considered justifiable or not. Furthermore: I had a good understanding of what sort of behaviour would ultimately lead to a positive change for the nation, subsequently determining my playstyle for each character right from the beginning of the game.
Yet I found myself faced with decision after decision and story-beat upon story-beat relating to the morality of each character’s actions and beliefs… To say it reduced the impact of both the game’s world-building and its political messaging would be an understatement, particularly when one of the game’s central plot-twists revolves around a piece of knowledge that players will have already discovered during Road 96.
For the most-part the moral grey areas found here are well crafted and thoroughly explored, but feel unsuitable and legitimately frustrating at times when viewed as a follow-up to the original game. I couldn’t help but wonder at times if Mile 0 was actually intended to be played prior to Road 96, yet that would create a plentiful amount of problems in and of itself. A considerable shame, given that each character-driven aspect of the story is otherwise so beautifully handled.
Regardless of any narrative short-comings, we mustn’t forget to address the gameplay quality amidst this adventure. Road 96 was highly varied thanks to its bountiful number of mini-games throughout each and every scene. You’d play arcade cabinets, avoid oncoming traffic within driving sections, gamble your hard-scavenged money on shell games, and so on, so forth — all within the confines of its semi-linear levels.
Thankfully, the same entertaining and varied gameplay can be found here; At least for the most-part. Level design functions similarly to the original experience with self-contained, small-scale, yet highly interactive areas forming the majority of the game’s world. There are still plenty of mini-games to enjoy along the way too, such as a free-form spray painting mechanic, games of connect 4, a newspaper delivery section reminiscent of an on-rails light-gun shooter, and many, many more. There are certainly less mini-games to be found this time around, but each one feels far more fleshed out than those found within the first game.
With the storyline playing out in a single location here, (rather than being a large-scale cross-country adventure), Mile 0 admittedly loses the rogue-like mechanics that made the original title so unique. The money and health bar mechanics are gone, you’ll encounter the exact same scenes in any given area as opposed to questioning which events may unfold on account of your means of traversal, and everything has a far more general sense of linearity about it…
Truthfully, I do miss this aspect of Road 96. That level of in-depth micro-management —alongside the knowledge that you could in fact fail if you played your cards badly— contributed to an exceedingly tense atmosphere within each scene and certainly added a lot to the overall experience. At the same time though: With Mile 0 being shaped around a more deliberately linear design-philosophy, I feel that those rogue-like mechanics wouldn’t particularly have suited this title. As such, their omission doesn’t feel like a downside, or a positive — merely a difference.
A far bigger change, however, is Mile 0’s introduction of runner-based levels, put in place as a call-back to the gameplay style of Lost in Harmony. They’re a wonderful addition and are exceedingly enjoyable to play; With a mix of jumping, crouching, grinding and skydiving mechanics, (plus a small selection of basic rhythm-based Quick Time Events), set to short-form skateboarding, snowboarding and roller skating sections — all within gorgeously rendered levels that play out in time with the game’s truly excellent soundtrack!
I can’t lie: As an autistic completionist with a penchant for perfection when it comes to gaming, these runner levels frustrated me to no end. I felt not only a desire for getting an S+ rank in every single one of these levels, but a requirement; likely adding a good hour and a half to my overall playtime as I tried over and over again to attain enough points and collect all three secret collectibles without failing a single time, all in the hopes of reaching the perfect rank’s prerequisites…
That doesn’t make them poorly designed in any way, shape or form. They’re entertaining, they’re well-made, they suit the flow of the overall narrative and they feel exceedingly good to control! It would be entirely unfair to dock the game points simply due to issues I effectively created for myself, but I feel the need to elucidate this experience just in case you, dear reader, are anything like me. As such, please bare in mind that it’s worth preparing yourself for this major spike in difficulty, if you too are determined to get these perfect scores. Personally, I’d recommend accepting ahead of time that it’s legitimately not a worthwhile accomplishment to strive for… Doing so will save you a whole lot of trouble!
So where does that leave us?
Road 96: Mile 0 is a great game. Its characters are intelligently written and you’ll enjoy the time you get to spend alongside them. Its plot is complex and well told, despite its political messages and plot twists being extremely muddied if you jump into it with prior knowledge from the first game in the series…
The gameplay is consistently enjoyable regardless of any frustration that obsessive completionists like myself may encounter when it comes to any given runner level. It plays very differently to the original title due to the removal of its rogue-like system, but this isn’t necessarily a negative change as these mechanics simply wouldn’t have suited the narrative this time around. Despite this substantial gameplay difference, I can confidently state that Mile 0 retains the same level of overall style that its predecessor had so much of.
Perhaps it isn’t as forward-thinking as I had hoped for in the lead-up to its release, but the political messaging on offer here still feels well portrayed enough to serve a purpose. I had quite a consistently good time playing through Mile 0 and with how the narrative culminates, I’d say it was well worth my time as a fan of the original. This is especially thanks to the extra added benefit of its marginally increased production value — with a soundtrack to die for and some extremely captivating environments that I certainly hadn’t been anticipating.
If you enjoyed Road 96, you will most certainly enjoy Mile 0, but I feel it’s extremely important to temper your expectations somewhat when going in. You’ll be re-treading a lot of ground here by virtue of it being a prequel alone, but I promise that there’s still a highly worthwhile experience beyond it, if you’re willing to give it the time and patience it requires.
I just hope that our next visit to Petria will perhaps look to the future and ask itself clearly: What new, more topical story can it tell, in order to make an even more substantial impact on the world we all live in? Consider me hopeful, Digixart!