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Broken Roads review - a lonely scavenger hunt for scraps of interest

Nominative determinism.

Broken Roads official screenshot showing a ramshackle desert town with several party members gathered in conversation
Image credit: Versus Evil/tinyBuild
Broken Roads neglects its best ideas, padding out its runtime with fetch quests that leave you asking "why am I here?" for all the wrong reasons.

My favourite RPGs are the ones that really consider exactly who the character is - or can be - in their world. From Tyranny's power-grasping fatebinder in an occupied land, and Harry du Bois's desperate reflection of the ideologies around him in Disco Elysium, Broken Roads' promise of philosophically mapped out moral quandaries in a lawless post-apocalypse looked to fit right in.

The idea is that your decisions and dialogue fall across a moral compass, being somewhere between utilitarian, humanist, nihilistic or machiavellian, and that these morals can be uniquely tested in the wilds of the post-apocalyptic outback. If the trolley problem happened at London King's Cross, you'd have to factor in a £1000 railway trespass fine - but if it's raiders in the desert that are responsible, it's just you and your moral impulses.

Broken Roads is a world where the social contract is in flux, where you can see exactly how societies are constructed when they have to be rebuilt from scratch. Concepts like 'justice', 'safety' and 'freedom' mean vastly different things to the travelling scavenger, the isolated homestead, and the walled-in city - and Broken Roads is very happy to gesture towards the conclusion that maybe the societies we live in are equally artificially constructed, even if their histories are a little longer.

Here's a Broken Roads trailer.Watch on YouTube

The problem is that, despite initial appearances, Broken Roads's investment here is entirely in its worldbuilding. It summons a handful of 'what ifs' - and then forgets to include the player in answering them. For instance, in the first major settlement you come to, it's apparent that its economy relies on a class of 'dettos', or indentured servants. Raiders who attacked Merredin generations ago were taken for ransom, which went unpaid. Now their children and grandchildren provide labour to pay off that debt.

The use of debt and the construction of subjugated classes for the exploitation of labour, in a game that up front says it's about moral philosophy, are capital letter Topics. But Broken Roads mistakes presenting an idea for engaging with it. You meet one detto, and you can choose to pay to smuggle her out, or try to legitimise her freedom via one of the game's very rare skill checks, or neither. It's a quest you could take out of any other RPG.

Screenshot of Broken Roads, showing the moral compass UI, with a highlighted segment overlapping ‘humanist’ and ‘utilitarian’
Screenshot of Broken Roads, showing the ‘Jackaroo’ background in character building
Screenshot of Broken Roads, showing the character sheet at an early level
Image credit: Versus Evil, tinyBuild / Eurogamer

It's far from the promise of complicated moral dilemmas. It's a choice you make at no risk to yourself, with no argument, and no consequences - and if it feels like I'm picking on an arbitrary quest, they never feel like they get any meatier than this. I never felt like I was in a tricky situation from a roleplay perspective, let alone earnestly challenged in my beliefs, as Broken Roads initially suggest I might be

Broken Roads being this underwhelming comes as a surprise, because to start with the signs are there that it is going to be the game it suggested. In character creation, you go through building a history where you make choices that feel genuinely grounded in their belief systems, and the early game regularly shows off the moral compass. There's even one conversation where my precise position on the moral compass locks me out of a utilitarian option because it hews too closely to the machiavellian edge of the segment. It's a fascinating prod at the idea of how self-serving a 'greater good' belief system can be - and then the game never strays anywhere close to ideas like that again.

Once the game opens up, even underwhelming quests give way to scavenger hunting. With the ability to travel freely, you're sent pinging between settlements to speak to every vendor and every trading NPC on the map in an attempt to remember who sells one of four required tea ingredients, or five required philosophy books, or ten required radio parts.

Screenshot of Broken Roads, showing Jasper defining ‘dettos’, and the available response that you’re there for an errand.
Screenshot of Broken Roads, showing a turn-based combat view, and someone aiming a sniper at a large wombat
Screenshot of Broken Roads, showing two utilitarian dialogue options, but one is crossed out and unavailable
Screenshot of Broken Roads, showing dialogue options, where a machiavellian option is crossed out and unavailable
Image credit: Versus Evil, tinyBuild / Eurogamer

It's at this point, too, that the idea that your decisions and actions have moral consequences drops off. The moral tags are saved for extremely literal discussions - describing my precise utilitarian beliefs to someone in a discussion about values, for example - but lying, manipulating and committing outright violence to get what I want goes unexamined.

Combat feels like an afterthought, consisting almost exclusively of optional random encounters as you travel from place to place. Each of your companions is particularly skilled at a few things, so it's mostly a case of remembering who shoots and who stabs, and trying not to let the enemy stand on top of you and become impossible to click on.

Combat was the only thing I needed my companions for - which was odd, because they clearly all have moral alignments of their own. If I ask Jess what she thinks makes a good leader, she'll say I need more compassion, which I can only take to be a gesture towards the more humanist slice of the compass. It really doesn't seem to matter though, as my companions won't conflict with each other, or take issue with my choices, or even offer up any opinion beyond that specific check-in.

Screenshot of Broken Roads, showing a settlement with a well maintained garden
Image credit: Versus Evil, tinyBuild / Eurogamer

This question is one of the only two ways I ever hear from my companions, after the initial introduction. 'What do you think makes a good leader?' and 'How are you?' There's nothing new to ask them about as I wrap up quests, and they almost never comment on things while we're out travelling - I think I counted maybe four comments, in the entirety of the game. Beyond their introductory blurbs, I never learned anything more about them, and they never asked anything from me. Functionally, despite making their different moral alignments clear, the four I consistently travelled with were 'spear', 'sniper', 'revolver' and 'healer'.

It is difficult not to feel like something went horribly wrong. I remember learning more about my companions in the demo than I did playing the full game. Broken Roads feels lonely and pointless, but not like that's what it was aiming for. There's a drive throughout that getting to your final destination is very important - even while it was never especially clear to me why. You aren't a struggling scavenger, but a new leader who left somewhere secure to do something important, so why does it all feel so purposeless?

I know my time with Broken Roads was significantly affected by bugs. Parts of scenes didn't load in correctly, dialogue options would appear from wrong or future contexts, and interacting with objects was hit and miss. The game not properly tracking quest progression was a real issue, to the extent that when there were four potential routes through the critical path, three of those routes locked out before I could finish them, in one way or another.

Screenshot of Broken Roads, showing a trade menu exchanging the Metaphysics of Morals for some rope and plastic bottles
Screenshot of Broken Roads, showing the companion Mad explaining her worldview
Image credit: Versus Evil, tinyBuild / Eurogamer

It's possible that I don't know how much I've missed because of bugged parts of the game not firing. When I contacted the developer's PR to check, it was agreed that I may have missed some dialogue, but also that there will be more added after launch. Maybe in the world where everything was where it was supposed to be, it would be a very different feeling game, and one where the ending didn't feel so bizarre and out of nowhere. But looking at what's present, instead of speculating on what's absent, I think it's more likely that whatever went wrong happened long before I ever booted up the game.

The most disappointing thing is that I came to Broken Roads anticipating that it would take its place among some of my favourite RPGs of all time. It was a concept that seemed full of passion and curiosity and, especially when Broken Roads seemed to make good on all that promise in the very beginning, the last thing I expected was for it to be bland. In the end, it's missing even a single spark. Its problems aren't interesting to solve, its companions have nothing to say, the plot feels vague and combat is barely a footnote. A disappointingly unconfident game, with enough early promise to distract you for a little while.

A copy of Broken Roads was provided for review by Versus Evil and tinyBuild.

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