Broken Roads Review

April 30, 2024


Also on:
Xbox Series

The 90s was the golden age for the CRPG and developer Drop Bear Bytes knows it. It’s clear from the outset that Broken Roads is an indie game trying to mine the seam of similar CRPGs such as Disco Elysium, Fallout or Wasteland but with a far smaller budget. The question is how well this Australian-set story compares to true classics of the genre and whether its ambition exceeds its ability to deliver. 

Ambitious, it certainly is. The much marketed moral compass — four quadrants covering Humanist, Utilitarian, Machiavellian and Nihilist outlooks — offer a potentially thrilling approach to role-playing. A questionnaire at the start of the game teases out your preferences in how you approach a given scenario. Would you leave a group of captives behind while you escape alone? Would you bring along the useful ones and let the helpless family fend for themselves? Each answer steers you to a particular quadrant and gives you a flavour of how the game’s dialogue options will open up. At least, that’s the idea. As you’ll discover, the execution is far less satisfying. 

Someone needs a therapist

The story starts off slowly but familiarly: you’re a post-apocalyptic survivor in a harsh Outback environment and, depending on which character archetype you pick, you’ll get a different origin story. In my case, I was a surveyor who turned up at a ramshackle town to get accompanied to another town by a couple of locals. The first few locations are small, with maybe three to five NPCs to initially launch full conversations and a few more who are background actors. I learned how the basics of combat work (and coming off the back of Baldur’s Gate 3, this feels like moving from algebra to times tables). More importantly, I got to know and like the characters, despite the game trying to distract me with its lack of polish at every turn. 

Combat could really have used a bit more excitement

After the town you’re in is attacked and many of its inhabitants slaughtered, you decide to tag along with the survivors and help them relocate rather than head home. The reasons for doing so are unclear, although given I was firmly in the Humanist camp for most of the game, it seemed like a decent moral alignment for my character. Other survivors will dip in and out of your party throughout the game. Their characterisation is grounded but indistinct. There are no huge personalities or even small ones, just a bunch of weary shell-shocked folks trying to survive

Moral options appear in conversation but their impact feels minimal

Combat takes its cues from the likes of Wasteland and XCOM; it's functional but far less interesting. Your party can move around with movement points, attack or use items or skills with action points, and that’s about it. Flanking or taking cover isn’t really explained at a game level, and the skills on offer for your characters — such as the precision aid Deadeye —  are either so specific as to rarely be used, or far less effective than spending your action points on standard attacks. Enemy AI appears to be adjusted to just attack with little nuance. I found myself avoiding combat wherever possible, which isn’t too difficult since you can flee random encounters or talk your way out of possible hostile intent in a lot of the quests. When you can’t… hoo boy. Hopefully you’ve levelled up and picked up an upgraded weapon or things are going to become a slog for you. In an absence of originality these are identical to normal weapons but labelled +1, +2, and so on. You move your people around, take shots, hope they hit, and repeat. The enemy does the same. It’s tediously slow and the animation doesn’t help, nor does your inability to easily select enemies to target if they're behind other people or foliage.

Pillars of Eternity-style story beats break up the normal RPG patter

You would think that the moral compass might have some bearing on both your character and your companions. My experience says otherwise. Broken Roads’ intriguing premise is quickly sidelined, the impact of its dialogue choices ignored. The quadrants you pick when navigating a moral dilemma are merely set dressing in a coloured font, laid over standard good/bad/evil/neutral replies. It’s hard to invest in a story when the impact of your actions is so negligible. You can help a town’s dubious mayor in an election or their equally questionable opposition, but neither results in anything of note in terms of your character’s development. At the same time, your travelling buddies — who clearly have their own opinions about morality, given they all respond differently when you ask them early on what makes a good leader — blithely accept you helping a clearly corrupt woman, or screwing over a nice community leader. Even the original Baldur’s Gate had members of your party permanently leaving in a huff if you took action contrary to their alignment. Here, a quarter of a century on, there’s nary a shrug of the shoulders when you blast a massive hole in a town with a superweapon.

Rule for life

When the playfulness gets a chance to shine through the mundanity, Broken Roads does have fun moments. You might be breaking a guy out of jail using a saw smuggled in a vegemite sandwich, or searching for a Monopoly dog in a game of hide-and-seek around town which has been hidden by a bored local. Traversing the map might result in random encounters initiated by “right bastards”, including spiders and dingoes. If this Aussie humour had perpetuated throughout, it may have made the quests a little more bearable. But I had little interest in finding five books, or catching three possums, or any other banal set of tasks I’m assigned to pad out the playing time. 

But...I have a VIP pass!

Traders have all manner of food, weapons and tools to sell, but at the start it’s difficult to know which will be useful and which are just window dressing, since the flavour text doesn’t really expand. Should I buy that toolbox? What will it get used for? How about those philosophical texts — are they important? You’re left to guess at what you may need and what can be ignored. That might be fine if you didn’t have very limited cash from the outset, but early doors may see you stressing about decisions the developer probably wasn’t envisaging. Moral compass, schmoral schompass. I want to know what this bunch of flowers might be used for! As well as normal quests there are Ventures (i.e. a different type of fetch quest) which use unique items bought from traders and which are then delivered to people you meet. The point of these appears to be to unlock some additional lore about your surroundings or the inhabitants’ back stories. As a gameplay element though, they’re far too simplistic; you simply end up buying the unique item in each store that sells one, and when you find an NPC that wants it, it’s removed from you automatically in exchange for XP and some bonus chat. Even the “fetch” part of these fetch quests is subdued. 

Philosophical tenets weave through the game, but struggle to find a story worthy of them

Bugs still persist, despite the game having its release date pushed back several months due to its build quality. The journal marks every quest with the same time of day. Navigation is janky at times; you can’t trigger conversations until your party is fully in place around a target, even if that means one or more of the party taking a circuitous route and ending up half off the map. I experienced quests complete without my active input, such as one which required me to find obscure trivia to enter a settlement. The guard let me in thanks to my inadvertent gaming of the dialogue choices; I asked him to pose an earlier question (which he’d never asked me previously), and after doing so, I somehow had the right answer as an option. Success, yes, but confusingly so. 

Trigger points sometimes took me halfway across the map to where I’d originally met an NPC, even if they’d subsequently moved. They then kicked off a conversation, miles away from my party, making me feel like I was shouting across a desert. Some NPCs didn’t respond despite having a chat icon over their heads, while some dove straight into the trade screen without preamble, which felt at odds with the ones who introduced themselves. Bigger issues abide, such as a potential party member you’re trying to rescue appearing in your list of selectable companions, even if you haven’t rescued him, which then kills off the rescue quest entirely. On another occasion, a location locked the screen when I discovered it and refused to let me move my party further around the map to explore it, until I reloaded a save game.

Everyone’s a stranger until you talk to them.

If I could say these were occasional or even minor issues, I might be more forgiving. But they compound and when coupled with the dull combat, lethargic navigation and mundane quests, the result is a game that simply isn’t fun to play. I really wanted it to be better, because Broken Roads has a unique personality. The dialogue and descriptive text drew me in. Not as immediately as Disco Elysium (although find another game that can enthral me so quickly through the written word alone and I’ll be your friend for life), but through a charm all of its own. The characters and NPCs aren’t wacky stereotypes but subtle shades of humanity surviving in a hostile world: a wide-eyed negotiator whose parents kicked her out as a kid; a hard-bitten pair of siblings; a young man looking for forgiveness; a headstrong youth. Their voices aren’t especially distinctive, but they all contribute to the setting along with the Australian slang which is translated for you as you mouse over words in the dialogue box — though sometimes it doesn’t make sense (“the sharpest tool in the shed”, for instance, highlights “tool” as an incompetent person despite it not fitting the idiom). 

Brass tacks then: Broken Roads is unfortunately but appropriately named. There are systems here that are screaming out for a better developed and more engaging vehicle. To even reach that state though, the entire package needs to be fumigated as the bugs — while not game-breaking — significantly impact enjoyment. Perhaps in a year’s time there’ll have been a Cyberpunk level of overhauling to turn it around. Right now, it certainly isn’t fair dinkum.

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Broken Roads has elements of a great RPG, but they’re buried beneath a broken quest system, tedious combat and numerous bugs.
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.