Your journey in Broken Roads, an isometric RPG set in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Western Australia, begins with a test. Similar to Blade Runner’s Voight-Kampff, it poses a series of hypothetical situations and asks how you would react. What would you do if you found out that a man being taken away to be executed is probably innocent? How would you deal with scavengers looting a place you found first? How would you deal with a captured bandit who ransacked your home? Each of your answers is plotted on a literal moral compass, a persistent and permanent mechanism that will shape your character’s worldview for the next 25 hours or so.
This compass is divided into four segments – humanistic, utilitarian, nihilistic, and Machiavellian – and your position on this spectrum dictates the dialogue and actions your protagonist can perform. A humanist character, for example, won’t be able to say the most heinous answers simply because they would never consider saying them. But experiences shape us, and your character’s worldview can gradually change over time. A utilitarian might slowly find their hearts and become humanistic, or slip down a manipulative slope and end up Machiavellian. Sometimes your worldview expands to accommodate multiple perspectives, opening up more options for dialogue. Other times it will shrink, locking in options but also granting you special abilities that reward your dedication to a specific worldview.
At least that’s the promise of Australian developer Drop Bear Bytes. When I first played the 30-minute Broken Roads demo at Gamescom earlier this year, which only has two short quests, there wasn’t enough time to see how the compass changes at each new decision. Naturally, I won’t be able to see the impact of my editing decisions until Broken Roads arrives in its entirety. But I’ve since replayed the demo three more times, using protagonists designed around very different worldviews, and watched with fascination as these two demo quests change and morph appropriately.
It all begins in a dusty street, where a woman lies sobbing over the corpse of her dead husband. By the side of the road, her son, Will, is holding a smoking gun. This simple scenario branches out like a tree in full bloom. Will you talk to Will, carefully convincing him to drop the gun? How about catching him off guard and snatching the gun from his hands? Or will you shoot him, ending the situation in a flash of mouth? For my humanist construction, this last option is completely impossible. The most violent option I have, only available after progressing through many branches of the dialogue tree, is to shoot Will in the leg. My character with muddier morals, on the other hand, can blast the kid away from the outside. But such action requires justification that further defines their philosophy. The Machiavellian option considers the boy “too threatening”, while the nihilistic option is much darker “this family is doomed anyway”. Both require the same physical trigger pull, but they are clearly separate choices.
Tragedy by the Road technically plays out like any talking CRPG I’ve played, but it reminds me much more of the moral choice scenarios in games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead. He feels incredibly pressured, with each new dialogue option demanding care and composure, especially if your goal is to save Will from his own gun. Although he’s only known this boy for a few minutes, the sense of relief when he puts the gun down is overwhelming.
Whatever choice you make, it is instantly reflected back to you by your party members. Ella, a hardened sniper, approves of you putting Will out of his misery, while Dreamer – a more hopeful crew member – will be enraged if you shoot him and thrilled if you save him. Drop Bear Bytes promises that companions will learn to love you or hate you, and can even be manipulated into sharing your own worldview over time. Other decisions will also bless or haunt you many hours later; the boy will come back if he survives, for example.
Later, in the small town of Kokeby Waystation, community leader Tina tasks you with the second quest in the demo. She recently hired a mercenary, Ian, to protect Kokeby, but he has become a problem and refuses to leave town. As in the previous situation, there are many methods to complete this quest. You can simply pay him, an option available to everyone regardless of your moral standing, or convince him to abandon his position through utilitarian reasoning if your character is capable of it. Go for aggression, however, and things get more complicated than the previous encounter, in more ways than one.
Ian, like any good mercenary, has a gun, so any attempt to kill him will see the favor returned in kind. This triggers Broken Roads’ turn-based combat, which – at least as far as the demo goes – is the project’s weakest element. The interface is currently clunky, and the lack of options beyond “move” and “draw” makes it appear tactically thin. It also seems at odds with the previous storyline, in which the use of a gun is a deliberate and dramatic choice rather than just a trigger for video game combat. It echoes how Disco Elysium has done so well with violence; the very rare occasions when you were able to throw a punch or fire a pistol at Ravachol felt like a colossally important choice, rather than a fact of life.
Demo menus reveal that characters will eventually unlock more combat skills, and hopefully continued development will make turn-based encounters more engaging. But I hope combat is a rarity rather than a standardized practice. Killing someone in a game like this should be a choice, not a mechanic.
Broken Roads – screenshots from gamescom 2022
Despite my reservations with the fight, I leave Kokeby Waystation with nothing but anticipation. Broken Roads, already full of deliberate writing and layers of dialogue, has the potential to be the next game in the Planescape: Torment line of deeply introspective and chatty RPGs. It is not a coincidence; The creative lead for Broken Roads is Colin McComb, who helped create Planescape and its successor, Torment: Tides of Numenera. He promises that, like all projects he’s drawn to, the story will get weirder and weirder as it progresses, even if it’s confined to the scientifically precise areas of astrophysics rather than anything. strangely fantastic. It will also explore locations in deep detail, just this time they draw inspiration from Western Australian and Aboriginal cultures (the latter of which was researched and created with the help of indigenous consultants) instead of the Dungeons and Dragons multiverse.
But McComb is also keen to point out that Broken Roads isn’t just his creation; he names game director Craig Ritchie and narrative director Leanne Taylor-Giles as the project’s beacons. A former McComb collaborator on Numenera, I hope Taylor-Giles brings a fresh take on Torment’s writing values on which Broken Roads is so clearly built. It was the secret sauce behind Disco Elysium, and now developer ZA/UM has secured a place in the RPG pantheon (at least, for now). If Broken Roads delivers on its demo promise, Drop Bear Bytes could follow.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.
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