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Road 96: Mile 0 (XS)

By Lee Mehr 07th May 2023 | 2,786 views 

The wishful beginnings to Road 96 quickly veer off-course due to clumsy gameplay, weak writing, inconsistent production values, and transparently purposeless direction.

Reviewer's Note: Since some critiques demand I delve into the story, there will be some SPOILERS touching on this prequel.  I'll try to be vague, but I advise you read on at your own risk.

Prequels can be an interesting entry point for any story.  How can a less-grand tale – a primer – sell you on why it matters before the main course?  I'd imagine DigixArt would argue that it's about the journey instead of the destination.  Whatever the case, I'm likely in the minority when saying my starting point is the same as this subtitle: Mile 0.  It's a long way to Petria’s border, but everyone has to start somewhere.

Jumping headlong into Mile 0 will certainly get your attention.  After starting a new game and watching a generic news story provide some background, one of the duo protagonists, Kaito, is in a lucid reverie within the gameplay confines of an endless runner (a la Temple Run or Sayonara Wild Hearts).  This weird clash is also borne out by the background music, beginning with a synth tune before segueing into a brass trombone jam.  Said jam breaks this spell to reveal the second protagonist, Zoe, blasting his eardrums.  Snapped back to their hangout spot, they look towards the northern wall and promise to leave White Sands and the country together. 

While coming from wildly disparate backgrounds, what’s compelling them to run away is equally shared: Petria is a hellhole and there are greener pastures for them elsewhere.  Although there are elements – visual or otherwise – tapping into various authoritarian dictatorships, this fictional country is seemingly a stand-in for Trump's America (Road 96 released in 2021), but during a different time.  President Tyrak became President in 1986 on the eve of a terrorist attack by "The Black Brigades."  With the upcoming '96 election, there's bubbling fear of potential violence and riots, despite being in the most luxurious & safe part of the country.

These contradictions are initially explored through Zoe, sole daughter of Petria's Oil Minister.  Being next door to the President in White Sands' ritziest spot and babysitting his annoying young son, Colton, gives her a wildly disparate impression of the country compared to lower-class Kaito.  It's a classic friendship despite the haves/have-nots split between them.  And since she also witnessed the '86 attack when she was five years old, her internal political narrative has remained unchallenged.  She thinks there's something off about Petria, but only in the abstract since she's always had a silver-spooned life.  But then Kaito argues there's more to the official bombing story and they'll need to expropriate Tyrak's conveniently-stored documents to prove it.

The overarching issue with Mile 0 is the rudderless direction, from characters to narrative stakes.  Writers Pierre Corbinais and Ian Reiley's bland, limited world-building doesn't do enough to make Tyrak's regime an over-oppressing threat or have a consistent rationale.  Petria's just a grab-bag of "fashy" qualities with a few random nuances sprinkled in.  The vast majority of those yearning for freedom are teenagers, but barely anyone else for some reason?  I can track why this contrivance is a good way of ensuring we only see coming-of-age stories, but at least build out a cohesive in-universe reason.  There are plenty of tidbits explaining what's occurring in this country, but a gaping black hole as to how and why outside of "it's just the way things are here."  Citizen Sleeper is a great contrast that succinctly answers those three world-building pillars when investigating more of its world.

That capricious mentality seeps its way into how Zoe and Kaito cause mischief too.  Mile 0 exemplifies that corny trope of an oppressive totalitarian regime being outdone by the type of tween hijinks seen on Nickelodeon cartoons.  It's established as being so invasive that you practically need state approval to buy ice cream, yet also gins up fear of a potential terrorist attack after you ruin the retirees' yoga session.  It's tough to have a foundation when a huge portion of time is spent towards distractions too; for example, a couple of gameplay sequences are dedicated to a side character fawning over the nation’s foremost propaganda reporter.  It's perfectly fine to humanize flawed characters, but it comes with a cost when it's done apropos of nothing and subsequently de-fangs the alleged seriousness of the main situation.

The visual metaphor I come back to is desperately grasping for anything in a dense fog.  Not enough context has been built around this despotic regime, the means of wreaking havoc against The Man often feel toothless, and the characterization of the two leads feels artificially rushed.  DigixArt is dealing with a straitened budget (Mile 0 retails for $12.99) and a modest 5-hour runtime, but that should impel the team to hone in on what’s narratively important.  All of these specific critiques weed their way into a story that doesn't have much to assuredly say.

Gameplay falls into two main categories: endless runner bits or narrative adventure segments.  The latter is essentially a first-person TellTale game with some extra mechanical flourishes.  Oftentimes you'll make dialogue choices or inspect something within the world; sometimes you'll do random tasks that are allegedly comedic in nature, like spamming the action button to throw newspapers at townsfolk.  Like old TellTale, the majority of decisions do little to alter or influence the outside world; instead, they gradually shift each protagonist's stance. 

The stark duality between Zoe and Kaito is felt through their interior thoughts and separate progress bars.  One of the best character transitions occurs when they're both meeting atop an apartment complex: Zoe feels like she's stepping into a strange new world, whereas Kaito intimately knows certain tenants and comments on them potentially being arrested.  Each mental meter categorizes different attitudes: Zoe's trust/distrust with the regime and Kaito's eagerness/hesitancy to fight back.  Aside from being locked out of a certain ending, I never earnestly bought this was steering the story nor evolving the characters.  Again, because of the sub-par writing, these internal fights never feel earned; Kaito has no reason to doubt his intuitions until a convenient 8th-inning reveal and Zoe should’ve been convinced about Tyrak ages ago.  She literally fits the definition of insanity: witnessing obvious signs of the regime and consistently responding with shock and dismay.

If you noticed during the beginning, the musical runner levels are psychically mythologizing a character's current state of mind – accompanied with trippy visuals and a licensed track.  Zoe isn't simply eluding her new bodyguard around the neighborhood; instead, she’s roller-blading past traffic and up a skyscraper while The Offspring blasts "No Brakes" in the background.  Kaito isn't just thinking about the upcoming election; beyond that, he's literally weaving, jumping, and ducking past obstacles on his skateboard while a Godzilla-sized Tyrak looms over and warns him that the walls are closing in.  As creatively and visually stimulating as these two segments are, the runner mechanics feel so stiff and lifeless.  General locomotion and jumping is far too clunky and inconsistent to ever fee rewarding, to the point of reaching S+ rankings on these levels being a repetitive bore.

When discounting the solid roster of licensed tracks, Mile 0's presentation is more of a negative than a positive.  I'm not sure what was occurring behind the scenes, but it's apparent that not all voice actors did their roles in the same studio.  There are three different vocal backgrounds to expect: normal sound-proofed room, regular room with part of the actor’s voice bouncing off a nearby glass bottle, and the bottom of a well.  You literally have to train yourself to ignore how different Kaito and Zoe's backgrounds sound when they're standing side-by-side; moreover, you have to block out the mismatched lip syncing as well.  While I should re-emphasize that many musical runner segments are diverse and creative - especially how the Tyrak Regime level occasionally taps into those stark USSR propaganda images - the majority of White Sands does nothing for me.  You can tell DigixArt was dealing with a straitened budget.

Although constraints can lead to good games finding creative solutions, Road 96: Mile 0 is assuredly not one such example.  Every quality about it feels like a rushed and artificial way to expand DigixArt's world without considering design, tone, or context.  There are distinct pockets of inspiration that I can appreciate; exploring dual protagonists from wildly different backgrounds is a great starting point, for instance.  But the crucial thing hindering that idea beyond insipid dialogue, confused stakes, and poor pacing is simply… the lack of inspiration.  From production to the haphazard design, it epitomizes the prequel (or side story) that feels like it's just spinning its wheels.  Perhaps that's why the subtitle fits so well: it feels like you go nowhere.

Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

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This review is based on a digital copy of Road 96: Mile 0 for the XS

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