Date: April 4, 2023
Road 96: Mile 0 is a narrative-focused prequel to Road 96. Taking a radically different direction than the original game, which saw you hitchhiking across the procedurally-generated landscape of Petria in order to reach the border in hopes of escaping, Mile 0 sees you take control of just two characters on a set path leading up to that much broader game. Mile 0‘s strength, then, comes from tightening it’s narrative and telling a concrete story that can both stand on its own, and expand the world and story of the original. Specifically, Mile 0 focuses on telling the story of Zoey and Kaito, before the former decides to set out for the border of Petria in Road 96 (being perhaps the most pivotal character in that game).
The question then, is whether or not the developers at Digixart (whose lead animator Alicia Magistrello I had the pleasure of interviewing) have succeeded in using this more focused experience to flesh out the characters, the world, and the mechanics of the original. In taking a different approach to the same world, have they meaningfully expanded the burgeoning franchise, both ludically and narratively? Or have they simply created an experience which is so narrow and set-in-stone that it fails to live up to what worked about the original? Well, like the moral choices upon which the franchise is built… It’s complicated.
Choices (Kinda) Matter
Prequels are in a tough spot, made even worse when the original work is open-ended. Because prequels, at least immediate prequels like Mile 0, have to end where the original work begins. Zoey, the co-lead character of Mile 0, has to end up in the same place where she began in Road 96. Petria, the dystopian, authoritarian nation where the games take place, also can’t deviate from it’s path. But, as they say, stories aren’t about the destination, but about the journey. And, thankfully, Mile 0 understands that, and doesn’t seek to surprise or shock the player, but rather to make them understand the circumstances which led to Road 96 more clearly.
And, in that, Mile 0 really does work as an experience. Both Zoey and the nation of Petria are made much more authentic through their portrayal here. Zoey, who in Road 96 resembled the common trope of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” is given an actual arc. A reason for being who she is in Road 96, for having the choices she has. And the way the narrative does that is fantastic: Mile 0 focuses so deeply on the psychology of its two leads that we get a real, deep exploration of Zoey’s slow change of heart, and it makes her a far more compelling character than she once was.
Similarly, Petria is expanded upon. It is no longer a vaguely authoritarian threat largely left in the dust of the main character’s tires. Instead, we are shown what Petria is. Why we, the player, should despise it. Why we should want to dismantle it. Indeed, between the propagandistic news reports, the themes of surveillance and oppression, and the vanity of the autocratic leader of the country, Petria is made out to be utterly dreadful, but in a fairly realistic way (at least, no less realistic than other, similar dystopias in fiction). In fact, Petria might be a little too awful. Let me explain.
You see, Road 96: Mile 0 is not entirely linear. Though the broad strokes remain the same, there is a sliding scale for both Kaito and Zoey indicating where they stand in relation to Petria, which is altered very slightly based on the small choices each character makes throughout the narrative. As Zoey, you will be deciding between order (which is the equivalent of siding with Petria) and questioning the nation. And then as Kaito, you will be asked whether or not you question the Black Brigades — a sort of revolutionary faction who shouldered the blame for a terrorist attack a decade ago — versus agreeing with them whole-heartedly as a revolutionary.
This sort of moral distinction could be interesting… If Petria wasn’t completely, overtly awful, making each choice a fairly one-sided one: as Zoey, you should be questioning Petria. And as Kaito, you should be revolutionary against it. If Petria was less awful, or if the Black Brigades were more dubious, or if either character had a more compelling reason to want Petria to thrive, then this would be an interesting choice. As is, siding with Petria in any instance is the equivalent of the “kick the puppy” option, and the developers, based on how the game is written, seem to agree. Mile 0 clearly wants to be revolutionary. It wants against tyranny. So to frame siding with tyranny as, mechanically, equivalent to questioning it… Well, it certainly muddles the message.
There are other choices in the game, ones more personal to Kaito and Zoey. But all of them hint toward conclusion, not catharsis. And, as we established, we already know the conclusion to the story. Sure, the development of the characters’ relationships could be very interesting… If we didn’t already know where it would ultimately lead. There could’ve been something more there — some exploration of how relationships like the one Kaito and Zoey function or what they mean. But, while the game hints at those ideas, it never meaningfully explores them, instead falling back on cliched will-they-or-won’t-they dialog choices and hijinks.
I guess, at least, those hijinks do help hammer home the innocence that is lost by the end of the narrative, but you could do that in a movie or book; at it’s highest emotional points, the game fails to be much of a game at all.
With one very artistic exception, which might redeem the whole work.
Let’s Get Psychological
You see, I’ve played a bit of a trick on you. Because, while the narrative of Road 96: Mile 0 is absolutely the focal point of its marketing, the reality is that the narrative is not it’s true strength. Rather, the narrative — all this waffling about the authoritarian state of Petria, the relationship of these two teens, and the various themes presented — is a vehicle for some of the most imaginative and psychologically fascinating gameplay sequences I’ve played in quite some time.
Let’s get this out of the way right away: the mechanics of the main gameplay in Mile 0 are very simple, and very brief. At the end of every narrative section, after you’ve made choices, met characters, and grown to understand more about the world and story of the game, you will enter into what is essentially an abstract, musical, non-infinite version of the mobile game Subway Surfers. And I’m serious when I say that those gameplay segments are the absolute best parts of the game.
On a brass-tacks level, they don’t seem like much. 3 to 5 minute mini-experiences where you avoid obstacles and collect points, trying to get three diamonds by the end of the level. They are slightly challenging, especially if you want to collect all the coins without dying and get an S-rank, but they’re also forgiving enough that players should have no trouble beating them if they just want to progress (and, in fact, the game gives you the option to skip these segments after enough failure: an option you should never take, barring disability). There are few mechanics: you are limited to just moving from side to side, crouching, and jumping, occasionally interspersed with simple quick-time events or binary choices.
Thankfully, the strength of these segments isn’t in their complexity, but rather in what they bring to the table. Because each of these trippy levels is a music video depicting the internal struggles and worlds of the characters in question. The music in each is incredible, fluctuating between punk rock and epic synthwave, and really helps you enter the flow-state, allowing you to take in the surreal, dreamlike visuals present in each one. And each has a unique flair, with some being comedic, or satirical, or intense. The visuals and audio combine in each into some of the most interesting explorations of psyche I’ve seen since Psychonauts.
These segments, which see you riding on either roller-skates or a skateboard either away from a threat or toward a goal, are not happening literally in the narrative. They, instead, are a depiction of how the characters see the world, the troubles they are going through. In one early segment, Zoey is being chased by her bodyguard (the best character in the game, by the way), and in the process rides up a skyscraper, dodges earthquake debris, and finishes the chase by launching herself at a 50-foot-tall version of the bodyguard at the top of the city, toppling him down into… somehow… the garage of her luxurious home. It is absurd, it is fascinating, and it is very fun.
The game has too few of these sections, and they are too short when they do arrive, to truly elevate the otherwise fairly dull game to greatness, but they are so good, and add so much to the understanding of these characters and the way they view the world (while being wickedly-cool audio-visual experiences themselves), that Mile 0 might be worth playing just for those. In fact, I’ll go ahead and say it: if you have ever watched and enjoyed the movie for Pink Floyd’s The Wall, then you should pick up this game. It’s like that, but with more talking between numbers. Still, well worth it for fans of trippy music videos or rock operas.
Again, it is a shame that the developers didn’t decide to lean more into the abstract, psychological aesthetics present in those segments, but the ones that are there are great. And, for what it is worth, they do meaningfully add to the more mundane sections of dialog and exploration, insofar as they at least help progress that narrative and expand upon the characters. There isn’t enough there to totally make up for some of the decisions in the rest of the game, but there is enough there for Mile 0 to, at least, claw its way back from the brink of mediocrity to demonstrate its artistic worth.
Roller Skates, Meet Roadblocks
Unfortunately, the game finds itself right back into mediocrity thanks to some disparate elements that drag down the whole experience. There are just too many fiddly issues with the game to go unmentioned, as, when combined, they do detract significantly from the experience.
First of all, something has to be said about the graphics. Listen, I’m not one to complain about bad graphics in games all that much — it rarely impacts the experience, and I’d much rather have a high-quality game that looks terrible, than a bad game with amazing graphics. That said… Looking like a mid-era PS3 game really is distracting, and that’s where Mile 0 lands. The very stylized art and cool aesthetic sensibilities make up for this some, but the low-poly models, muddy textures, and slapdash animations do not add to that charm, and instead just make the game look ugly and dated. It could be worse (at least they didn’t go for a more realistic style), but it could also be a lot better.
And graphics aren’t the only thing that demonstrate a lack of polish. What is far more distracting, especially in such a narrative-driven game, is the acting. Believe me when I say that I hate to put down creatives at work, but… Well… The voice acting in Mile 0 is just plain bad. With the sole exception of Zoey, who is voiced excellently by Emily Van Bel, the actors all give wooden, stilted, or otherwise strange vocal performances.
I can excuse that some characters are clearly voiced by the same people — that is just the nature of working with a limited budget — but what is more difficult to look past is bad VA. I won’t call out any characters or actors in specific — largely because I suspect the poor-quality acting is the result of poor direction than anything — but suffice to say that most characters either sound incredibly fake, obnoxiously over-the-top, or downright uncomfortable. And someone should’ve told the actors to not put on terrible accents and funny voices.
Again, if the narrative was a secondary consideration of Mile 0, or if the narrative was focused less on the characters and more on the ideas (like the original Road 96), I wouldn’t have minded the acting as much. It would be incidental, maybe even charming in a kind of “C-movie” way. But, when the characters and their interactions are the main feature of your game? When the performances must get the player to care about and sympathize with the characters? Well, this quality of voice acting is devastating to the experience. By the end, I only ended up caring about Zoey, who I already cared about going in. Everyone else? I was happy to be done with them, despite the good writing on display, because I just didn’t want to hear them act any more.
Again, I don’t want to lay blame on the actors themselves; I am positive there is more to it. But, regardless of the reason, it really detracted from the game for me. And, when Mile 0 is already built on such a shoddy foundation, that was enough to collapse the experience for me. For all the artistic decisions made in Mile 0 that elevate it, there are far more issues that tear it down.
Despite all the negativity in this review, I did enjoy Road 96: Mile 0 in some ways. I really am thrilled to see more content in the universe, and do think that Mile 0 fleshed out the things it wanted to flesh out — namely, Zoey’s character the Petria. It had those fantastic music-video-like sequences and there was some genuinely smart writing and good thematic/philosophical ideas present throughout. As an expansion of Road 96, then, I adored it. And as a work of art, I think it is pretty solid, if a bit ham-fisted.
But, as a game, I can’t pretend that Road 96: Mile 0 is great. I can’t even pretend it’s good. As a game, an interactive narrative, it is, frankly, bad. It feels dated and tired, the choices are illogical and strange, and there isn’t enough gameplay (don’t even let me get into the pacing). There are so many little things that mess with the experience, which itself was already somewhat dull, that I just can’t get past it, despite my love of the franchise and its ideas. It did deepen my interest for the story — enough that I’ve got an order placed for both novels in the universe, Road 96 : Prologue and Road 96: About a Girl — but that is more in spite of what is on offer her than because of it. This game made me crave more from Road 96, but only because it itself was lacking.
And what do you do with a game like that? What can I say? “Road 96: Mile 0 might not be a good game, but it’s very artistic and I like that it follows a character I already like in a world I’m already invested in!” I mean.. I guess so (I did just say it), but it feels… Incomplete. By giving this game a mediocre rating of 5.5 stars, it feels like I am condemning it to mediocrity, like I’m not really showing the extremes to which it succeeds and fails. Truthfully, the game could just as easily have been an 8, if I’d focused just on the artistry, or fallen all the way down to a 3, if I’d been hung up on the technical failings.
My rating, then, has to have that middle ground, but with a caveat: while Mile 0 is a stumbling block, full of errors and issues, I am very glad it exists, and very much hope that the team at Digixart can take the criticism they will undoubtedly receive in order to iterate and improve on what they have with Road 96 as a whole, which is truly something special. Mile 0 might not be as genius as the first game, but it has the heart of it, and it promises so much more. While Road 96: Mile 0 is subpar, I couldn’t be more excited to see what Digixart does next.
If you want to check it out, so that you can learn more about Zoey and Petria, and so you can experience those incredible musical sequences, you can find it here on Steam.