Broken Roads review: this Fallout-style RPG is Vegemite and (some) magic

Drop Bear Bytes, the studio behind post-apocalyptic RPG Broken Roads, are named after Australia’s deadliest creature. The Drop Bear might look like a normal koala, but they’re actually dangerous predators, fond of jumping from trees to maul unsuspecting chumps who forget to take adequate precautions, like urinating on themselves. Really, the story is a wind-up the aussies like to blag tourists with. If it looks like a koala, it’s just a koala. But it’s this sort of character, inspired by love for Australia’s unique landscape, culture and good-natured mick-taking, that forms the heart of the best bits in Broken Roads. I say ‘best bits’, but I should probably say ‘the only bits that I actually enjoyed’, unfortunately.

Bombs wiped out 80% of Australia’s population, and left the remaining nail-hard Nancys and tough Tobiases to fend for themselves in a world short of resources, but shockingly plentiful in both guns and pre-made Vegemite sarnies. You’ll pick one of four character classes – I went with ‘Jackaroo’ (cattle hand), because it was called ‘Jackaroo’ – before tackling a short tutorial section. You’ll then be thrust into some events, where you’ll meet the rest of your starting party and kick off the game proper.

mates get their tinny on in a pub in Broken Roads
Image credit: Drop Bear Bytes

This is primarily a dialogue-em-up, so reading is what you’ll be doing most. I’d say my notes were an even split between writing choices I liked and didn’t. Lines like “we’ve bought you more ex-food for our future food” instead of just “here’s the shit you wanted” reek of writerly over-tinkering (spoke the kettle, blackishly) but then an overmap encounter will tell you “you’ve been waylaid by right bastards and must defend yourself,” and it turns out those bastards are actually giant mutant ‘combat wombats’ and, hey, these are creative choices I can get behind. Basically every item in the game has a grin-worthy or otherwise useful description, too, and there’s a lot of them. It’s not all gags, either. There’s plenty of good prose to fill in the small details, working alongside the sometimes hauntingly good music to really sell the desolate setting.

Ok, here’s a very subjective complaint: Broken Roads bases a lot of its moral choice system and presentation on the standard Western philosophy canon. I don’t like it. I think it fundamentally misses what’s actually interesting about making choices in RPGs. From this singular choice-bean sprouts problems both ticklishly minor to choking vine major. First, minor: Loading screen quotes are all from Trivial Pursuit-tier philosophers. It’s very dry, often irrelevant, and feels at odds with the otherwise salty-earthy Aussiness found elsewhere. Why not use songs? It’d fit the tone better. I’m sure there’s a Phoebe Bridgers or Nick Cave line for basically any philosophical epithet you could want. Was Bertrand Russell really more cognisant of what makes us human than King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard? Did De Beauvoir truly say anything about femininity that Kylie Minogue did not also say, but catchier?

A vendor in Broken Roads
Image credit: Drop Bear Bytes

The much more damaging effect on my personal enjoyment is this: I reckon that many good quests from your Planescapes and New Vegasi took inspiration from classic moral philosophy anyway. Then developed and shone it through the lens of the writers’ personal experience and imagination and all that good stuff to, effectively, make some interesting well-disguised trolley problems and other quandaries. Labelling responses to tough calls with which morality they broadly correspond with just feels like presenting the quiet part of the dilemma loud, a dry WIP framework rather than a juiced out script. “I team up with others when they suit my purposes” was the ‘Machievallean’ response to one question. What Machiavellian worth their Florins talks like that? That is a textbook answer, literally.

But you look outside this stuff, and Broken Roads is brimming with character. I spent 20 minutes playing ‘find the little pewter Monopoly dog’ with an otherwise intimidatingly stoic woman who kept hiding it in other character’s hair and on their pillows. One time it was in the inventory of a vendor named ‘Honest Wade’ who’d wired his smoking pipe to his teeth permanently because he kept losing it. Sometimes the only responses to a question are either “yeah, nah” or “nah, yeah”. Everytime you level up, it plays a little jingle and the sound of a thirsty man cracking open a tinny and sipping it.

It’s not just this sort of part self-depreciating, part celebratory Australian humour, either. The game has some genuinely thoughtful themes spun out from Oz’s thorny history with colonialism (spoke the kettle, Britishly), and indigenous and working class cultures. It’s not short on worthwhile themes and vibes, but I think the academic textbook approach just gets in the way more than it intrigues or elucidates. Anyway, I realise this is me saying that one of the game’s major conceits and perhaps central standout feature among its peers does nothing for me. This may well have coloured my entire experience, causing me to overlook qualities that you, dear reader, might appreciate. So there’s my bias transparency for this one.

A combat warning in Broken Roads
Image credit: Drop Bear Bytes

Ok, combat. Classic Fallout is the easiest comparison here. Partly because of the setting, but mostly because you sometimes go multiple turns with people just whiffing every attack. You already know what you’re getting here I reckon. Imagine some CRPG turn based combat with AP, cover, overwatch, free melee hits on broken contact, curatives, grenades, and the like. Now make it a little more boring. A little slower. Just a teensy bit more, and we’re on the same page.

The page contains a system where both friend and foe characters have less action points to spend the more wounded they get. You know how some tactics games steadily widen their action economy, resulting in absolutely, perfectly ridiculous turns that you actually need to pull off by that point in the game to stay in the arms race with equally tougher foes? Someone asked: “Can we do the opposite of this universally fun thing?” And someone else said: “Brilliant”. I like wounds and other debilitations when they create emergent mini-moments, this one just merges minutes, and it’s mboring.

Broken Roads throws a few more of its unique RP systems into the pot. There’s your usual bits like testing perception, science, and the like to interact with certain things. There’s also some inventive twists like the Punt system, which lets you tinker with certain outcomes. And despite what I said about the morality system, it does play into combat and conversation with some unique perks. There are also some less mundane skills you’ll unlock later, I won’t spoil them except to say that they almost make combat interesting. I should also say I really dug the way the overworld map fills in as you explore with a mix of major discoveries (new settlements) and minor ones (bloke with a traffic cone hat who thinks he’s a wizard).

If you’ve been following Broken Roads for a bit, you’re likely aware of the delays to fix performance. So how is it now? I’ve got bad and good news. The bad news is that I wrote down “to be honest, I am not convinced these roads were ever built to begin with,” when I played it last, and I can’t use that anymore. So, yeah, it’s much better. I did have a few freezes, but it autosaves often. Bugs were also scant, which is a commendable feat in this genre especially.

a quest to remove a sheep from a fence in Broken Roads
Image credit: Drop Bear Bytes

Bugs or no bugs, though, I still can’t recommend Broken Roads. Take any individual quest or conversation in the game, and I’d probably be able to tell you something I liked about it. But big picture-wise? There’s nothing driving me forward. I appreciate the open-ended quest design, but when I meet a stranger who asks me for ten radio parts, with no context, and this becomes another ‘main quest’ alongside several other, mostly contextless main quests, how am I supposed to feel motivated to push on? I’m not completing quests to progress through a story, I’m knocking off journal entries until something happens. I’m batting the air for a thread to grasp and I just can’t find one. Not the bigger picture story. Not a single party member I want to hear more from, or spend more time with, or solve their problems. Not a system I love playing with and need to progress, to watch evolve, to poke at the edges of.

This might just be me, but do you ever find RPGs give you dialogue choices you find really funny and would like to pick, but you’re too worried about potentially causing chaos, breaking your roleplay or alienating people that might turn out to be allies later? I never felt that here. It was entertaining to be selfish, and the game accommodated it well, but the point is, I don’t play like that in RPGs that I’m invested in. Sure, this is partly because the game has a fine sense of chaotic humour about it, but it’s also because the game never really sold me on itself strongly enough to care.

Broken Roads isn’t bland. Fun writing and odd ideas prevent it from being so, but it does feel like a bland place to spend time. These roads aren’t broken, but they’re so serpentine that the game cannot help taking wrong turns and getting in its own way. If the setting and themes appeal to you enough to overlook the rest, then sure. Otherwise, save your dollarydoos.

This review was based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher.

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