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Review

Broken Roads Review

Strike me flamin’ roan

Editorial note: Broken Roads, the Australian outback post-apocalyptic RPG from Drop Bear Bytes, has been a mainstay in our coverage of Aussie games for the better part of five years now. We’ve run previews, launched new shows around it, and broadly been in the corner of this attempt at infusing Fallout-style isometric roleplaying with a local flavour. I establish all this upfront because I don’t think it serves anybody to pretend like, collectively, we didn’t want this game to be great. But it serves even fewer of you to pretend like the past two weeks spent with Broken Roads haven’t been an uphill battle against game-breaking bugs, multiple platform testing, immense crunch, and eventual resignation that Broken Roads reaches far beyond its grasp.

Your experience with the game will likely (hopefully) be far different than mine as a reviewer, your copy having the benefit of extensive, last-minute patching. What this means is that portions of this review may be functionally useless, the overwhelmingly broken experience I had colouring my understanding of the game at a systemic level in ways I can’t control. The line between poorly implemented and outright broken was fundamentally blurred for most of my time with Broken Roads– at the time of writing this I’m still getting GB’s worth of patching that might have made even my most recent attempt irrelevant in terms of performance.

This is the most inside baseball way we could kick things off but it’s difficult to talk around such a review experience. And if your metric for a good review is how it addresses the state of a product, my upfront advice would be to wait and see if this road mends itself before walking down it.

Choosing from four origin stories, Broken Roads sees you fill the shoes of a survivor of a cataclysmic war that has left Australia’s coastlines decimated and its harsh, beautiful centre a battleground of remaining forces, cultures, and people. Whether Hired Gun, Surveyor, Barter Crew, or Jackaroo, your adventure will kick off a little differently, each class playing through a portion of Broken Roads designed to flex the unique roleplaying traits associated with its distinct Aussie roles. For instance, the Barter Crew is a short, speech-focused round of trading with some locals, while the Surveyor pokes his or her nose around a small settlement for information and odd jobs.

No matter your choice, you’ll get a brief introduction to a few baseline systems like combat and dialogue before being thrust into Broken Road’s overarching narrative and structure. Through a series of variable events, your player is enlisted into an ensemble cast of survivors, all loosely working toward reforming the outback into a functional society. The path to such a nirvana is of course impossibly dangerous, as your crew collides with ramshackle outposts, ethically compromised and diverse settlements, mysteriously thriving cities, and a small army of raiders, critters, and NPCs to shoot or shoot the shit with.

Handdrawn art lends every scene warmth and texture

There’s a comfortable familiarity to Broken Roads’ systems, having firm roots all the way back in the late 90s design ethos and reignited by a contemporary resurgence of wordy roleplaying experiences. These are genre fundamentals and mechanically where Broken Roads is at its most sound, its tweaks to the formula landing with varying degrees of success. The Moral Compass is effectively the narrative core of the experience, a four-quadrant, colour-coded distillation of the human experience as understood by utilitarianism, humanist, nihilism, and Machiavellian leanings. The deeper into a pathway the player chooses to explore, the more focused passive and active skills become, these often being unique and varied with beneficial and detrimental applications akin to Fallout’s traits. As a system and exercise in academic abstraction of roleplaying in video games, I fuck with it.

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Likewise, its impact on combat is broadly interesting and goes a long way to enrich a rudimentary turn-based system. Your party of up to five members will often get pulled into sticky situations that require a bullet or bludgeoning instead of a chinwag, and while there is a nice assortment of combat-specific skills to deploy, moment-to-moment engagements feel underwhelming. Sometimes this is because of the unknowable difficulty peaks and valleys, other times it’s because the game can’t differentiate between close targets and refuses to let you pick one. Others still it’s the cover system not working for you but for the enemy. Or the game’s prompting you to flee tough situations without telling you how, let alone that it needs to be done by individually moving each member out of the combat zone, a glacial and baffling process.

It’s a series of unforced errors that chip away at an otherwise fine combat loop, a fate shared by the Moral Compass and its surrounding systems. No matter how headily fascinating I find the compass, it’s embedded into a world that is ostensibly looking to avoid the gamified edges of morality but instead buffs them completely. It doesn’t ultimately matter if the narrative is attempting to subvert the binaries of good and evil if the resulting story is unengaging. After a dozen or so hours spent in Broken Roads’ outback, I realised I couldn’t tell you a single character’s name, let alone motivations, desires, quirks, or purpose. They exist in a kind of suspended state of Aussie-slang drenched inoffensiveness, each one happy to spout exposition and establishing information but rarely primed to move beyond.

Combat is decent but often a little messy to control

There are pockets of compelling writing, and these deserve to be celebrated. An early town, Meridian, is a personal favourite of mine– a walled society that has apparently reclaimed some form of civilisation through its no-nonsense rules and utilitarian leanings, your first introduction to its streets is one ripe with political intrigue and set-up. The mayor is facing re-election and the civilians are getting restless, her opposition approaches you to run interference on her campaign and solve a local mystery, meanwhile, the town is filled with folks in old tradie gear who seem reluctant to explain why. Turns out it’s because this place is effectively being run by slave labour, and indentured workers whose petty crimes have been converted into lifetime sentences as menial task runners.

It’s barbaric and exactly the kind of post-apocalyptic warping of Aussie boomer bootstrap ideology and dehumanising of the working class I’d expected from a game set in our backyard. But as time marched on, and I tried different narrative approaches, I realised I couldn’t find a way to actually engage with this set-up. In one run, I did a load of small fetch quests for some of the workers, attempting to get to the heart of the system to dismantle it. But the mayor is a major player in the next chapter and the functional state of the town seems immaterial, so I was left with some shrugs and a gentle ‘move along.’ Another run at it, I called the mayor out from the jump, landing myself in front of her goons in the process. I get roughed up, let out of jail, and whisked away to the end of chapter narrative beat, during which I’m given dialogue options about the town’s workforce my character never got the chance to meet or even hear about.

Linear narratives can absolutely work in an RPG setting but Broken Roads feels torn between what it wants to allow you to do and what it can accommodate. It runs deeper than broad tonal issues too, the game is frustratingly obtuse in its quest design and player direction, and without any discernible difficulty modifiers or guidance, I ran into several instances of progression halting in one form or another. There’s also no real sense of exploration here, its modest towns peppered over a static map that occasionally throws combat encounters at you but is largely filled with single-screen instances.

The Moral Compass is a great concept

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Exploring these spaces becomes an increasingly anaemic experience, as combat’s shortcomings compound over time and reasons to engage with the world fall away. There aren’t enough flowers in the world for the game’s aesthetic work but broadly its sound design is also somewhat confusing. Voice acting comes and goes with no real cadence or reason, the performances all decently making their way through a script that uses Australian dialect like a theme park attraction. The attached slang dictionary is a nice touch but there is language in here that I can’t imagine any Aussie has spouted for fifty years, let alone this deep into the end of the world. It’s a flavour that will undoubtedly play well in overseas markets but much like the smoothed edges of the game’s morality, there’s a nuance lacking in its playful treatment of Australia’s culture.

It’s slack that’s picked up by the game’s exceptional art direction and music at least. Broken Roads looks rich, an incredibly textured and expressive world brought to life by hand-drawn art and attention to detail for local flora and fauna. There’s a level of care found in every detail, an almost romanticised encapsulation of the harsh, dry beauty of the outback dotted with bursts of colourful and vibrant character and location art. Backing it up is a score that hums along nicely in the background of every moment, with twangs and melancholic strings placing you in this aesthetically considered landscape.

Final Thoughts

These markers of care are almost incongruent with the game they adorn, Broken Roads’ ambitious ideas and theoretically sound systems bear equal signs of consideration but are so critically underdeveloped. A clear visual identity can’t mask the game’s incurious roleplaying and slightly clumsy combat loop. It goes beyond the fundamentally broken experience I had in the review window– even under the best circumstances, Broken Roads struggles to have its rubber meet the pavement.

Reviewed on PS5 and PC // Review code supplied by publisher

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Broken Roads Review
C'arn mate
Broken Roads is a gorgeous Aussie world undone by incurious writing, ambitious but poorly implemented ideas, and unstable performance issues.
The Good
Gorgeous hand-drawn art
Atmospheric soundtrack
Unique setting
Combat fundamentals are solid
The Bad
Unrewarding roleplaying experience
Underdeveloped world and characters
Poorly communicated systems and quests
Post patch builds in unconfirmed condition
5
GLASS HALF FULL
  • Drop Bear Bytes
  • Versus Evil
  • PS4, PS5 / Xbox Series X|S / PC / Nintendo Switch
  • April 10, 2024

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Broken Roads Review
C’arn mate
Broken Roads is a gorgeous Aussie world undone by incurious writing, ambitious but poorly implemented ideas, and unstable performance issues.
The Good
Gorgeous hand-drawn art
Atmospheric soundtrack
Unique setting
Combat fundamentals are solid
The Bad
Unrewarding roleplaying experience
Underdeveloped world and characters
Poorly communicated systems and quests
Post patch builds in unconfirmed condition
5
GLASS HALF FULL
Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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