Broken Roads Review — A Wasteland Walkabout With Wavering Worth

7.1/10

Touting a truly unique and interesting morality mechanic, and the writing to back it up, Broken Roads is a must-play for fans of old-school isometric Fallout. However, weak combat, lacking progression, and a world that doesn't quite connect keeps it from being a true great of the modern cRPG rennaissance.

First and foremost, let’s get this out of the way: if you are a fan of the original isometric Fallout games or the Wasteland franchise, Broken Roads is almost certainly for you. There are caveats, but the soul of the post-apocalyptic, decision-heavy cRPG lives on in this debut title from Drop Bear Bytes, with improvements to the formula. People hankering for moral decisions in a dreary wasteland should look no further: Broken Road is the newest balm for that irradiated itch.

Now, for anyone not quite so enamored with the very specific niche that Broken Roads is trying to fill, let’s burst some bubbles. If you love cRPGs for the rich, tactical combat they provide, that’s not what Broken Roads is (see Warhammer 40k: Rogue Trader for that). If you love the post-apocalyptic genre because of its ability to explore crazy and experimental ideals, or because so much of it now consists of retro-futuristic tech being salvages, that’s not what Broken Roads is (The Wasteland series is doing great right now). And if you love the modern cRPG renaissance because of how deeply it commits to character writing, that’s also not what Broken Roads is (Disco Elysium and Baldur’s Gate 3 await, however).

So what is Broken Roads? Simple. It is a cRPG-shaped trolley-problem-simulator set in the post-apocalypse (and also Australia; the jury is out on which of those two is more hostile). And, when it focuses in on that, it’s fair dinkum fantastic at it.

The game starts off strong, before you even set foot in the Wasteland. The very first decision you make — before you pick your name, or your stats, or even your moral philosophy — is to pick your Origin. And, okay, familiar enough. This is like a starting class, right? A bit of backstory to help with roleplay.

broken roads review origins

But it’s not just that: selecting this origin doesn’t just set you up with a backstory and some free points, but dictates large parts of your story, your knowledge base. It dictates what you are doing at the beginning of the game, and who with, and how you approach many problems, regardless of your outlook, as the game goes on.

And that’s the first special thing about Broken Roads. It is a story about morality, it is obsessed, in fact, with morality. But it does not stop at simple black/white morality; in fact, it rejects that entirely. It posits, more than anything else, that moral decisions come from your past and your unique perspectives, and this simple choice between 4 possible “Origins” accentuates that: my decision to play a member of a Barter Crew in my first playthrough echoed throughout the game, from beginning to end, and even influenced moral decisions I was making in the final hour of the game.

I’m not much of an immersive gamer; immersion has never been a selling point for me. But something about Broken Roads immersed me, in a way no game has since Disco Elysium, and Fallout: New Vegas before that. Now that’s elite company.

A later page of character creation (and yes, we are still discussing character creation) accentuates this further, albeit more obviously. The third of four character creation tabs is, quite intentionally, “Morality.” When you get to it, you are presented with Broken Road‘s best idea (and it is aware of this, given the marketing): The Moral Compass.

broken roads review moral compass

Savvy gamers will have seen something like this little chart before. Maybe as a bimodal scale, like Mass Effect‘s Paragon/Renegade scale. Possibly even as a point chart, like Warhammer 40k: Rogue Trader’s own chart. But, I promise, you haven’t seen one like this. There are three things that really, really make this chart work, in a truly ingenious way:

  1. The World View: The first thing you’ll notice about the chart (after its labels, perhaps) is the 120° golden arc. This is your character’s range of thought, and the width of it — guaranteed to encapsulate at least 2 of the “pie slices” — reflects the width of thought a character might have. This allows characters to have real, dense worldviews, while also preventing the game of morality from becoming a point system where you just tick up morality boxes so that you can prove you are… I don’t know, “Machiavellian” enough to do something. Instead, you can start wherever you want for a worldview (or wherever the personality quiz takes you), and then you will have a range of options and thoughts in accordance to that.
  2. The Ability to Change: But, your worldview is not static. It can and will change over time, as you make new decisions. This can lead to dynamic, character-arc situations where, as you come to prioritize different things as you learn the wasteland, your character can shift in viewpoint, opening up new kinds of branches while eliminating those of your old viewpoint (which, after all, you’ve grown out of). Many decisions, in fact, double dip: you only get access to a decision if your golden compass covers it, but the decision itself will shift your viewpoint. Your character, then, does not only have the ability to shift, morally, over the course of the narrative, but will do so, creating interesting and impactful arcs.
  3. Deep Morality: The four labels on the chart — Humanist, Utilitarian, Machiavellian, and Nihilist — are not what you’d consider to be common video game alignments. There is no good. There is no evil. There is no dogmatic, or chaotic, or lawful. None of that. Instead, you have actual worldviews — real perspectives, clearly thought up by people who are knowledgeable about real philosophy. The game does not attack moral prescriptions to its moral choices; it is happy to create a sandbox and say: “in this world, these are all valid, moral options.” And then it lets you run amok with whatever you choose, thus creating a world that, unlike even the best game alignment systems, actually seems like it understands morality and wants players to engage with it.

Between those three aspects, then, you are left with a truly great system, crafted to make the moral choices interesting, nuanced, and smart. No matter what worldview you have, you will face hard choices. You will suffer consequences, known or unintentional. You will see the pitfalls and the boons of your perspective. And, at times, your viewpoint will even narrow you into paths that you will realize aren’t right, your character being prevented due to the many choices you made before from making the “right” call (whatever that means).

The game’s writing compliments this. In the opening act of the game, you can see an example of how effective this morality system is. After several possible introductory missions (which will change based on which origin you pick), you will have a basic handle on the morality system. It may even seem a bit shallow. Should you give a dying man water, or keep it for yourself? What is the best way to defuse a situation with a gun-wielding child? So on, so forth.

broken roads review moral decisions

Then you get to Brookton and… Well, I won’t spoil things, but things get bad. And from here, the moral choices compound and matter. Suddenly, you aren’t just an outside arbiter, you are in the middle of the situations you must deliberate. And the decisions get a lot weightier, suddenly. What do you do when an ambulance fleeing catastrophe only has room for either medical supplies, or a man with a possibly-incurable illness? And what does that say about you? How will it shape you going forward?

This only grows in importance as you get to know other characters, both those in your party and outside of it. When your friends are on the line, or your community, or someone else’s community, what do you do then? What about when your best interests clash with someone else’s safety? Their life?

The increasingly complex morality of the tale of Broken Roads is its strongest point, and it is all so deliciously written and thought-out that it is a post-apocalyptic paradise for an almost-Philosophy-major like I was. It scratches the same itch as The Talos Principle 2 (the only game I’ve ever given a 10/10), only this game has many more decisions that are more serious with more nuance.

I will admit now, though, that the writing, in other ways, doesn’t always maintain that same bar. While the morality is always interesting, things like plot and characters suffer. I played through the game twice, and I can remember the names of only a handful of characters. Most of those just because they were who I always put in my party. The characters are almost universally not bad, but they are also not great. Good stand-ins to present the next morality problem, with some attributes and histories that make them relatable, but not especially memorable.

broken roads review morality with skill choices

Then there is the weak plotting, stemming from the game needing to be so open to accommodate multiple endings and a satisfying playthough with any worldview, and the lackluster worldbuilding, which is about as bare-bones and generic as an apocalypse gets, and you are left with a core narrative that does not live up to the excitement posed by its many moral hypotheticals. The world exists as a setting for trolley problems, the plot exists to carry you between trolley problems. It’s trolleys all the way down, for better and for worse.

To clarify, I don’t think this is actually much of a problem. I could say the same of the original Fallout, whose world was a lot less interesting than latter entries and whose emotional storytelling didn’t always land, after all. And the moral dilemmas that the game does present, as previously stated, are incredibly interesting. It’s just that you shouldn’t come to Broken Roads expecting arcs and worldbuilding that competes with Disco Elysium, even if the moral problems Broken Roads poses, at times, do seem more nuanced and impactful than Disco Elysium’s cynicism allows.

Overall, if the above-mentioned points were all that Broken Roads was, I would give this game an 8/10. But, unfortunately, we have to talk about the game part of this game. I will be brief, though: there are only so many ways to word the phrase “boring game design”.

Let me introduce this discussion of game design by posing a question about another game entirely: Why doesn’t Disco Elysium have any combat?

The answer is because it would hamper the experience. Disco Elysium is about navigating the complex and decaying world of Revachol through the actions of a washed-up, semi-amnestic detective. There is no need for combat systems, because everything can take place in the game’s masterfully-written dialogue. The consequences of the dialogues can then be demonstrated in a plethora of ways, from the apparent to the less obvious. Disco Elysium didn’t need combat, because Disco Elysium is not about shootin’ bad guys. It’s about morality and society.

Let me pose another question, this one about Broken Roads: Why does Broken Roads have combat?

Because the developers for Broken Roads didn’t feel as confident as Disco Elysium‘s. Or maybe they felt too confident.

broken roads review peak combat
This combat is as good as any other in the game. At least it’s short.

At least, those are the only explanations I can think of for why the combat in Broken Roads feels both so unnecessary and so deeply boring to play. The game’s hyperfixation on decision-making clearly doesn’t extend to combat: you click on cover, your character moves there, and you shoot. Maybe you cast an AoE spell or run at the enemy with a bat instead. But each character will always do the same things. The most efficient thing, the best thing for them.

In a game so laboriously focused on making sure no moral decision is the right one, it sure has no issue with every combat decision being optimized. The combat is, frankly, too simplistic to be engaging, and it really drags the game down every time it is presented. Thankfully, there are entire routes of the game with no (or with minimal) combat, and you almost always have the chance to run away (which you will probably need to do at least a few times, since the raw numbers might just not be in your favor). But that only begs the question further: Why does Broken Roads have combat?

Of course, you can manage many paths where you avoid combat. This makes the game more enjoyable, but in doing so you will also fail to engage with tons of the game’s systems. This includes systems that could’ve been overhauled to mean more in a non-combat context, but instead are burdened with being combat centric — making them entirely worthless for pacifist or low-violence playthroughs.

For example, let’s look at the two worst casualties of this: the progression system, and inventory management. For your inventory, you pick up things so that you can use them in combat, or sell them for combat gear. I’ll just list some gear, and I want you to imagine how many interesting moral decisions could’ve been created using it: Beer. Water. Guns. Ammunition. Food. Gasoline.

Now, let’s talk about how these are actually used: Beer cans act like magical potions, buffing you in combat. Food and water aren’t tracked, so they are only used for healing. Ammunition doesn’t exist at all. Guns only matter based on how big their damage number is. And gasoline is an occasional quest item that you can deliver to an NPC for a reward.

broken roads review inventory
I know wastelands are filled with junk, but think of all that wasted potential

This decision, more than any other, stands in the way of the otherwise brilliant morality system. How can it matter whether I give a dying man water, if I cannot, myself, run low on water? How can it matter if I choose to fight a wicked character or not, if I have all the ammo and healing I can afford?

Broken Roads takes place in a post-apocalypse, where scarcity is on everyone’s minds and most decisions will be made over resources. Where cities thrive and fall on the backs of what they can access, and the alliances they can make over resources. And yet, for the main character, resources don’t matter! They only exist for the purposes of combat effectiveness, as quest items to turn in, or as sellable bobbles that don’t matter.

But inventory isn’t the only system in the game which acts against its greatest strength: there is also the progression system.

I’ll start with the positives: I really like the Punt skill, which lets you alter dice rolls after the fact, in exchange for a kind of meta-currency that only is refilled when you level up.

That’s it for the positives. And that is because the rest of the list of skills and attributes are just generic filler content that, predominantly, dictates your combat prowess. How much health you have, how damaging you melee weapons are, and so on, and so forth. You get some points to spend on Attributes and Skills when you level up (a system based on the same-old XP you’ll already be familiar with, because why fix what ain’t broke?) and then you will use those skills to maximize your combat effectiveness.

broken roads review progression

Now, this is technically half the picture. Because skills are used in dialogue checks, and therefor do at least contribute to the morality focus that the game has. You will sometimes get checks where you can try to diagnose a disease using Biology, where you notice something due to your Vigilance, or where you will out-draw someone with your Shooting Mastery. Later, when you get magic powers (I’ll keep it brief: I don’t like them in terms of gameplay or worldbuilding at all), you will sometimes be able to leverage those as well.

But those skill checks are surprisingly few and far between, and you’ll find yourself allocating points according to what combat-centric perks you’ll unlock at 25-point intervals along a skill’s progression. It’s a missed opportunity more than a completely failed system (like inventory), and so I might be more forgiving if this game didn’t take so many other obvious cues from the greatest skill system in narrative games ever devised: Disco Elysium (yes, again. I know, I know).

This game had a chance to do something very creative with a socially-focused, psychologically-rooted skill system. Maybe not as cerebral as Disco Elysium’s, but closer to it than what Broken Roads actually went with. Instead, we get a generic, Fallout-style chart-o-skills. And the chart is even more combat-centric than the original Fallout, which at least had skills like “Persuasion” to balance out social encounters. It leaves me perplexed: in a game about hard choices and narrative nuance, in a game so focused on social interactions and morality, why are the skills built like a game that doesn’t have dialogue?

It makes no sense, and it frustrated me. Like all the game design in this game, it frustrates me because of how much of a disservice it does to the things I find incredible. The moral storytelling is such an amazing highlight of this game… So why do half the systems focus on combat and minute stats? The question will leave me up at night far more than any decision I made in the game. And some of those were harrowing.

broken roads review rip
Placeholder so I don’t spoil any of the really harrowing decisions

There are other aspects of the game to, things I am more ambivalent about, but think are worth noting. I’ll run through them rapid-fire:

  • The world map is cool, but too small and easy to explore. It doesn’t feel dangerous enough, but it does feel interconnected.
  • The graphics are fine, but nothing to write home about, and the art style is functional, but could’ve used a bit more flair.
  • The Australian outback is a great setting, but outside of slang and some wildlife, the game didn’t overwhelm me with it’s Aussie-ness, which was something I was looking forward to (though i deeply appreciate Drop Bear Bytes not going the Mad Max route for their aesthetics).
  • The voice acting, when it is present, is mostly great. Except for a terrible performance from Karla Hart as the lead narrator, whose slurred readings of the cutscenes demonstrate why the lead writer of a story is almost never the best narrator for it. To give her credit, she is also the top-billed writer of the game, so she deserves plenty of accolades for that.
  • I am very glad the game has an Aussie-translator. I used the in-game dictionary more often in this than I did when I played Warhammer 40k: Rogue Trader, because Aussies are more confusing than the Imperium of Man.

And so, with those last checkmarks out of the way, we come to the conclusion. And, overall, I’m left conflicted. What works for Broken Roads does so incredibly well that I don’t think I could possibly lavish it with enough praise. I adore the moral focus of Broken Roads, and think the Moral Compass is system is as ingenious as, like, the Nemesis System from Shadow of Mordor. It’s brilliant, and suits the game’s writing and focus perfectly.

That all to say: Broken Roads is so well-written and morally complex that it is almost a miracle, of a game, and I am incredibly happy to have it. As I mentioned, I played it through twice already.

However, the game is also severely lacking at the whole gameplay thing. Combat lacks depth and still manages to feel confusing at times, and it drags inventory and progression — two systems that could’ve deeply improved the ethical/narrative parts of the game — down with it. The writing outside of moral choices is bland, the world is a bit dull, and a few other minor gripes carve away bit-by-tiny-bit.

Even with that, though, there is something so tantalizing about that morality system that I can’t bare to give this a bad rating, and think any fan of classic Fallout — so long as they liked the decision-making bits most — and even most fans of modern cRPGs like Disco Elysium or Warhammer 40k: Rogue Trader should check this one out. If you want moral depth, this is for you. If you want gameplay depth… Maybe skip this one.

Broken Roads is available on Steam here.

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Graves
Graves

Graves is an avid writer, web designer, and gamer, with more ideas than he could hope to achieve in a lifetime. But, armed with a mug of coffee and an overactive imagination, he'll try. When he isn't working on a creative project, he is painting miniatures, reading cheesy sci-fi novels, or making music.

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