Your journey in Broken Roads, an isometric RPG set in the post-apocalyptic wastes of Western Australia, begins with a test. Akin to the Voight-Kampff of Blade Runner, it poses a series of hypothetical situations and asks how you’d respond. What would you do if you discovered that a man being taken for execution was probably innocent? How would you deal with scavengers looting from a place you found first? How would you treat a captured bandit who raided your home? Each of your answers is plotted on a literal moral compass, a persistent and permanent mechanic that will shape your character’s worldview across the next 25 or so hours.
That compass is split into four segments – humanist, utilitarian, nihilist, and Machiavellian – and your location on that spectrum dictates what dialogue and actions your protagonist can perform. A humanist character, for instance, will be locked out of saying the most heinous responses simply because they’d never consider saying them. But experiences shape us, and your character’s worldview can gradually shift over time. A utilitarian could slowly find their heart and become a humanist, or slip down a slope of manipulation and end up a Machiavellian. Sometimes your world view widens to take in multiple perspectives, opening up more dialogue options. Other times it will narrow, locking out options but also granting you special abilities that pay off your dedication to a specific worldview.
That is the promise from Australian developer Drop Bear Bytes, at least. When I first played Broken Roads’ 30 minute-long demo at Gamescom earlier this year, which contains just two short quests, there was nowhere near enough time to see how the compass shifts with each new decision. Naturally, I won’t be able to see the impact of my mounting decisions until Broken Roads arrives in full. But I’ve since played the demo through another three times, using protagonists crafted around very different worldviews, and have watched in fascination as those two demo quests shift and morph appropriately.
It all starts on a dusty street, where a woman lies sobbing into the corpse of her dead husband. To the side of the road her son, Will, holds a smoking gun. This simple scenario branches like a tree in full bloom. Will you talk Will down, carefully convincing him to drop the gun? How about catching him off-guard and wresting the pistol from his hands? Or will you shoot him, ending the situation in a single muzzle flash? For my humanist build, that last option is completely impossible. The most violent option I have, available only after progressing through numerous 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 off. But such an action requires a justification that further defines their philosophy. The Machiavellian option deems the boy “too much of a threat”, while the nihilist option is the far bleaker “this family is doomed anyway”. Both demand the same physical pull of the trigger, but they are clearly separate choices.
The roadside tragedy technically plays out much like any talky CRPG I’ve played, but it reminds me much more of the moral choice scenarios in games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead. It feels incredibly pressured, with each new dialogue option demanding care and composure, particularly if your aim is to save Will from his own gun. Despite knowing this boy for mere minutes, the sense of relief when he puts down the pistol is huge.
Whatever choice you make, it’s instantly reflected back at you via members of your party. Ella, a hardened sniper, approves of you putting Will out of his misery, while Dreamer – a more hopeful crewmember – will be furious if you shoot him, and elated if you save him. Drop Bear Bytes promises that companions will learn to love or hate you, and can even be manipulated to share your own worldview in time. Other decisions will also bless or haunt you many hours later; the boy will return should he survive, for instance.
Later, in the small town of Kokeby Waystation, community leader Tina tasks you with the demo’s second quest. She recently hired a mercenary, Ian, to protect Kokeby, but he’s become a problem and refuses to leave town. As with the previous situation, there are numerous methods of completing this quest. You can simply pay him off, an option available to everyone no matter your moral stance, or convince him to abandon his post through utilitarian reasoning if your character is able to. Opt for aggression, though, and things get messier than the previous encounter, in more ways than one.
Ian, like any good mercenary, has a gun, and so any attempts to kill him will see the favour returned in kind. That triggers Broken Roads’ turn-based combat, which – at least as far as the demo shows – is the project’s weakest element. The interface is currently clumsy, and a lack of any options beyond ‘move’ and ‘shoot’ makes it appear tactically thin. It also feels at odds with the earlier scenario, in which using a gun is a deliberate, dramatic choice rather than just a trigger for video game combat. It echoes how Disco Elysium got violence so right; the very rare occasions you were able to hurl a punch or shoot a pistol in Ravachol felt like a colossally important choice, rather than a rote fact of life.
The demo’s menus reveal that characters will eventually unlock other combat skills, and hopefully continued development will make the turn-based encounters feel more engaging. But I hope that combat is a rarity rather than a standardised practice. Killing someone in a game like this should be a choice, not a mechanic.
Broken Roads – gamescom 2022 screenshots
Despite my reservations with the combat, 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 lineage of deeply introspective, talky RPGs. That’s no coincidence; Broken Roads’ creative lead is Colin McComb, who helped create Planescape and its successor, Torment: Tides of Numenera. He promises that, like all the projects he’s drawn to, that the story will become increasingly weird as it progresses, although it’ll be confined to the scientifically accurate realms of astrophysics rather than anything outlandishly fantastical. It’ll also explore deeply detailed locations, just this time they draw upon the cultures of both westernised and Aboriginoal Australia (the latter of which has been researched and created with the aid of indiginous consultants) instead of Dungeons and Dragons’ multiverse.
But McComb is also keen to point out that Broken Roads is not solely his creation; he points to game director Craig Ritchie and narrative director Leanne Taylor-Giles as the project’s guiding lights. A previous collaborator of McComb’s on Numenera, I’m hopeful Taylor-Giles will bring a fresh take on the Torment writing values that Broken Roads is so clearly built upon. That was the secret sauce behind Disco Elysium, and now developer ZA/UM has secured itself a place in the RPG pantheon (at least, for now). If Broken Roads lives up to the promise of its demo, Drop Bear Bytes could follow.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.