Broken Roads review — worth taking a squiz (and that’s a good thing!)

There’s a space that exists between the indie titles of the world and the AAA games out there where smaller developers can stretch their legs and try to create games with novel or innovative concepts. It’s also a space where you get derivative work that tries to build on good concepts in a new way. That’s where Broken Roads, a game from Australian development studio Drop Bear Bytes lives. Cribbing notes from games like Fallout 1, Wasteland, Atom RPG, and UnderRail, Broken Roads is set in a post-apocalyptic Australia, aiming to give players an immersive world where their decisions matter. That’s not an easy task. Let’s head to the lands where literally everything wants to kill you and see what Broken Roads is all about.

Exploring Apocalyptic Australia in Broken Roads: Chapter One Let's Play!

The game opens with a hand-animated comic panel-style intro where the narrator declares “When the bombs dropped, eighty percent of Australia’s population was wiped out. Those who weren’t immediately vaporized carried the radiation instead, poisoning all the pretty places they crawled to. The desert swallowed the rest. “ From there, it’s time to pick your character’s origin.

Broken Roads opens by asking you to pick between four archetypes – Surveyor, Barter Crew, Jackaroo, and Hired Gun. The archetypes get attribute bonuses like an extra point in both Awareness and Strength (Hired Gun), as well as a bonus to your start skills — Shooting Master +10, and Opportunist +5 in this case. There are also unique dialogue choices provided by each archetype, not unlike what you’d expect from any CRPG class choice. As is tradition, you’ll occasionally run into characters and opportunities where your specific background might surface a choice, action, or dialogue choice to select.

I was immediately reminded of the Ultima series, as you’ll get a bit of a quiz to flesh out your morality wheel. It’ll ask questions with deep moral implications and then ask how you’d respond. For example, you are presented with a moral decision on what to do with a pair of captured bandits. Your choices align with the four major psychological profiles — Utilitarian, Humanist, Machiavellian, or Nihilist. A Nihilist would execute the prisoners to set an example. Utilitarian types would drag them to town to stand trial. A Humanist would escort them out of town and warn them to never come back. A Machiavellian would free one of them, forcing them to choose who lives and who dies. After a few of these questions you’ll be given a label, though it does nothing to reward or restrict you from choosing any option when you get out in the world.

Sometimes the words or actions you choose don’t clearly align with why your character has an optional dialogue. I chose Jackaroo, a bit of a tinkerer class for my origin story. While investigating a wrecked plane I was able to differentiate the types of vehicle tracks of whomever had beaten us to the punch reaching this place. That makes sense. On the other hand, I’ve got a party member with 75 medical skill, but when asked how many newtons of force is required to break a human sternum (it’s about 3,300 to 4,000 – thanks real-world martial arts training!), my party member stays silent on the subject.

Speaking of your party members, there is voice acting in Broken Roads. Not unlike Disco Elysium at launch, it’s inconsistent but being added to with each patch. Unfortunately, it’s also wildly inconsistent. Sometimes it’s spot on and hearing people talk with their Australian accents adds to the immersion. Sometimes it all feels very forced and jarring. Additionally, sometimes the voicework is on again and off again. You’ll get one paragraph voiced, then a silent paragraph, and then the next paragraph is again voiced. This is one area where folks need to just get into the booth and do the work – it breaks immersion, and it’d improve things if it was just consistent.

Getting into your character a bit, your skills in Broken Roads are split into three categories — Fortitude (Strength & Agility), Temperance (Resistance & Awareness), and Wisdom (Intelligence & Charisma). Each level you’ll get a point to put into one of these subcategories, as well as a handful of points into the individual skills like Shooting Mastery (overall weapon handling and accuracy), Deadeye (an aimed shot that costs additional AP), Vigilance (overwatch), and Drunken Master (you fight better when lit!) as some examples. Each of these have five pips, and hitting those pips at 25, 50, 75, and 100 grants you an additional boon in that category. I won’t ruin it, but there are some skills you’ll pick up along the way, so if you are looking at the rather plain list of skills, rest assured there’s more to uncover here.

There is one skill that isn’t self-explanatory – punt. Punt is a nudge you can spend to push a skill check over the edge when you are close but not quite close enough. It’s not unlike the re-roll function in Baldur’s Gate III, if you’d like an analog.

Many times you’ll see that your character has been affected by any number of special attributes or conditions. Some are obvious, such as being flanked. Others like “Greater Good” or “Don’t you die on me” aren’t quite so obvious. In the case of those two, Greater Good prevents your character from directly harming a party member unless a specific set of conditions are met where it’d save more than it’d harm. “Don’t you die on me” lets your character step into the line of fire if an adjacent party member has less health and would be injured in an incoming attack. On the opposite side of the morality wheel is “Die for me” which pulls somebody into a bullet intended for you. These things aren’t explained or tutorialized, so you’ll often uncover them through practice or by digging around the various menus. Occasionally, however, they also don’t make a great deal of sense. One of my characters picked up a “Flanked!” trait during combat, even though we had slaughtered everyone else but this one person, making flanking completely impossible.

Tooling your character out with solid weapons and skills to match will let you play the game guns blazing, mowing down everyone in your path. If you put points in Charisma and associated skills, you can also talk your way out of things. Unlike a game like Deus Ex Mankind Divided, you can’t do a full pacifist run, so kit out your team accordingly – some problems require bullets to solve.

Combat is interesting. There was a recent patch that improved the beat-by-beat dramatically. Prior to that patch, the AI was less concerned with survival as long as you died in the process. Now they have a touch of self-preservation and tactics that I appreciate. The turn-based combat isn’t doing anything new, but it’s also not doing anything wrong. Powers and skills work well enough, and the weapons feel weighty and pack a punch. Cover provides survivability and becomes necessary when you find yourself surrounded. You have infinite ammo, but you do not have infinite AP. You have movement points and action points as separate pools, and your skills, reloads, switching weapons, running, and special skills all take one or both of those point pools. What it also does, however, is highlight a nagging problem.

In the first three chapters of the game, the storyline introduces you to the characters. They each get a small slice of character development, and you’ll begin to learn enough to differentiate between them. This person lost someone close to them and now has the motivation for revenge. Another character doesn’t want to kill, wanting to serve instead as the party protector. These moments help differentiate each of them on the battlefield. At this point you’ll blink and suddenly you have nine characters and too many of them are interchangeable. “Is this the guy who uses shotguns? Nope, he’s the sniper guy”. It reduces the characters to their weapons instead of personalizing them – the XCOM 2 problem.

The overworld very much reminds me of the original Fallout. You are free to explore the 30-ish locations or more to discover the Australian outback. As you travel (or fast travel to places you’ve already been) you can be waylaid on your path. You have a percentage chance to flee, or you can spend a “punt” point to escape. It reminded me of those first steps in Fallout where you’re headed to someplace known only to run across some chance encounter. Maybe it’s just a bunch of skeletons that look out of place, maybe it’s a crashed vehicle, or maybe it’s somebody injured that needs your help. Of course, that somebody may be part of a trap, or it could be legit. Or your group could be set upon by pissed off wallabies. Literally everything here wants to kill you, and it turns out those roided-out hoppy bastards can wreck your world pretty fast, so treat everything as a threat.

There are some things that are extremely unique to Broken Roads. First, you’re going to learn a variety of ways to say a number of phrases in a very Aussie way, and I don’t just mean the words. This game takes place in Australia, and it’s made by Australian studio Drop Bear Bytes, so the voice work is not only handled by real Aussies, but you’ll run into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (that is to say people living in the passage between the Coral Sea, on the east, and the Arafura Sea, in the western Pacific Ocean). For example, “tucker” is another word for food, a “throwback” is somebody who should have been thrown back into the womb (I’m stealing that!), popping in for a “squiz” means taking a quick look, “Kongk” means uncle, and “digger” is an affectionate term for somebody from the first war. There’s a whole “Cyclopedia” of slang terms and “Noongar”, the language of the Aboriginal people you’ll encounter. Any of these unique terms or places are underlined, allowing you to mouse over them to get a translation or more information – something I appreciated as a “Sepos” (what Australians call us folk from the United States). As you tackle the overworld you’ll also find towns like Koorda, Aldersyde, and see that Coolgardie is different from Kalgoorlie. I’m sure for natives, it’s great seeing places they recognize, and it’s something you’ll only see here.

Graphically, Broken Roads is a pretty clean isometric RPG. The characters are detailed, as are the backgrounds. The areas feel alive with detail, though a lot of it is window dressing. This is a solid AA effort, and I really only have one complaint.

I know that it’s an incredible art and rigging commitment, but it is sad to see that the things you wear do not result in a change for your character. I wanted to don a slouch hat and look the part proper, but my Jackaroo dude is happy with his head exposed to the blistering Australian sun. It’s one of those things you sacrifice from AAA to AA, but I can lament it just the same without dinging it.

If you want to go in blind, you’ll want to avoid this section. After chapter 2 you’ll gain access to some otherworldly powers, if you are inclined to do so – you can avoid it entirely if you wish. These can allow you to use your mind to set fire to the ground or people, lift them up with gravity and slam them, or others that I’ll let you discover on your own. These can be a game changer, especially when combined with melee or firearms. Your secondary characters can also develop some powers, and the same pool of upgrade points you’d be getting at level up can now be spent there as well. Very quickly I had a main character (Who’s name is “Empty” as the game plainly told me “Character name cannot be Empty” – turns out it can be!) that was setting people on fire and then tripping them to lay in the fire till they burned up. The balance can get pretty interesting, and a little more work here would probably be good, but that’s very dependent on what characters you have in the field and what powers and skills they bring to the table – your mileage may vary.

My biggest complaint is that Broken Roads is extraordinarily ambitious, but just didn’t embrace the morality system that clearly was meant to be the central pillar across the board. Nothing you do in combat moves that needle, and too often you’ll be presented with such binary choices that even with the morality wheel turned off so you can’t see the outcomes before you choose, they are pretty obvious. I’d have liked to have seen the team dive into this with reckless abandon, allowing Broken Roads to really differentiate themselves from their contemporaries. So many times I was presented with an awful choice that nobody around me seemed to care about. Make morality choices matter, especially when they are so obviously your core mechanic.

There is one final note I’d like to mention – I’m happy to see just how much Drop Bear Bytes has engaged with the community. They are extraordinarily plugged in to fan feedback, and they’ve been working to address concerns, bugs, and balance with each patch. Even during this review I saw some fairly major swings with the most recent patch. I suspect that Broken Roads will be a completely different game a few months from now, and better for it.

Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief | [email protected]

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming.

Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter.

Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 28 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes), and an Axolotl named Dagon!



Broken Roads

Review Guidelines

Broken Roads is a solid effort that falls short of capitalizing on its central mechanics. While it takes some ambitious steps, it doesn’t realize them in execution. Community engagement suggests patches will address the big rocks soon, but know that it’s a moving target thus far.

Ron Burke

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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