The harsh sun bears down on the dried-out trunks that once fought so hard to stay alive. Drought is here, the flies are crook, and that stick on the ground’s more likely to be a brown snake now that there are fewer people stomping around. Welcome to Broken Roads, a CRPG set in post-apocalyptic Western Australia, the debut game for Drop Bear Bytes, a small game studio headquartered in Victoria. This game was a highlight of my time spent on the show floor at PAX Aus 2023, but it wasn’t until I got to spend more time with the publicly-available Steam demo that I fully grasped this game’s character and merit.
CRPGs have enjoyed something of a higher profile this year thanks to the sudden success and popularity of Baldur’s Gate III, but for the uninitiated, what you’ll find here is a role-playing game more akin to Dungeons and Dragons than Skyrim. Your characters have many stats that affect various outcomes in conversation, combat and traversal, and trying to achieve particular outcomes can see you rolling virtual dice to determine your luck. Where Broken Roads really stands out though is in two key areas, one of which is its authentically realised setting.
Broken Roads is dripping with Australiana thanks to an excellent mix of sarcasm and wit in the writing, coupled with authentic Aussie voice acting. You’ll find callbacks to little things that Australians will instantly recognise, like wheelie-bins, Aussie-rules footballs and cricket wickets painted on the sides of buildings. Casual mentions of Damper, Cold Beers and Doovalackies also had me feeling at home in a way that a game hasn’t made me feel since I first played Florence back in 2018. Camels and Kangaroos feed off of hardy brushes, indicating that maybe the flora and fauna that were here before us will be here long after us too. It all comes together to create a cohesive and convincing depiction of what Australia could look like after it all went to shit.
On the PAX show floor, we spoke to Leanne Taylor-Giles who is the Narrative Director at Drop Bear Bytes. She said that “Everywhere you can go [in Broken Roads] is a real place, but it has been changed by more than 100 years of time and apocalypse,” so people familiar with the Wheat Belt of WA will be able to recognise certain cities and landmarks within them, but the sights and sounds of Brookton might not be depicted in the same way that they exist today.
Your character starts this demo off as a hired gun for a group called The Scouts who reside in Bally Bally Hall; it’s a small building surrounded by makeshift workstations, paddocks and a shooting range, all protected by a barbed-wire, corrugated-iron fence. The members of this station have delightfully Aussie nicknames (like Dreamer, Jonesy and Mad), and they each bring unique perspectives, outlooks and character to the team.
While not every line of dialogue is voiced in this game, the lines that you do hear are used judiciously to keep the story and character moments engaging. Not only is it a delight to listen to real Aussie accents (compared to the Aussie accents we get in games that make me want to crawl out of my own skin with embarrassment), but the performances of the cast are also earnest and heartfelt. A chance encounter with an unnamed woman who just lost her husband had me tearing up after I heard her struggle to get the words out from between her sobs.
The second key area that makes Broken Roads stand out is its bold new take on dialogue choices and morality, spearheaded by the Moral Compass. When you start a new character you are given six hypothetical scenarios to read through, each with four choices that determine how your character would deal with each respective scenario. These four choices align with the four quadrants of the Moral Compass, which are labelled Humanist, Utilitarian, Machiavelian and Nihilist.
The choices you make in these hypothetical scenarios determine where your character lands on the Moral Compass. Do you manipulate a group of stragglers with a Machiavelian dialogue option so that you can follow them back to their home base and steal their supplies? Or do you offer them some of your own food and water because the Humanist in you can see that they are clearly in pain? Within seconds it becomes clear that there will rarely be any easy answers to choose from in this wasteland outback.
As you converse with people and stumble across situations, you’ll be presented with dialogue options that affect and are determined by this compass, and each choice you make of a certain type influences your moral tendency. In practice, this means that your character can’t say something that’s completely Nihilistic and devoid of emotion if they have Utilitarian tendencies, but you can make progressively more Nihilistic choices to slowly change your character over time, while still holding onto the fact that you used to be a Utilitarian. This is an elegant way to provide a simultaneously transparent and complex system of ephemeral ideals and philosophies through gameplay. The constantly-reacting visual nature of the compass efficiently shows you how one choice will affect your character’s nature, or why another choice is unavailable to you given your character’s past decisions. When you consider that dialogue choices in games frequently boil your options down to “A or B”, or “Good or Evil”, this game’s sea of grey and murky decisions is very exciting to engage with.
When asked what unique writing opportunities the Moral Compass system allows for, Leanne said that characters can have “the ability to be mean in a way that’s not evil… because you can be a real arsehole, but it doesn’t mean you’re evil, it just means you’re an arsehole. And the ability to be kind, without being good.” When I suggested that the system probably allows you to be more of a shit-stirrer too, Leanne replied with “Yes, definitely!”
Good news for you larrikins out there!
While you’re out on the broken road, you’re given the chance to show initiative from time to time, but remember that you’re not the leader of this group, so you may find that situations play out in ways that you wish had gone differently. This is a far cry from other narrative-focussed adventures where so often you are thrust into a position of authority over an entire group of people, and it was refreshing to tell one of my team that I wanted to stick around to resolve a situation and just be told “No.” We then walked away from a family that I wasn’t convinced would survive the night, but it just simply wasn’t up to me, and I had to deal with that.
For as strong as the writing is in bespoke story moments, I did find that talking to everyday townsfolk left something to be desired. Dialogue choices always started with a similar batch of questions, which led to me feeling like these optional discussions weren’t worth my time, and while the variation I was hoping for was sometimes buried just barely beneath those surface-level questions, the stark contrast between main-quest content and optional content was plain to see. There’s also plenty of fuss made at the start of the demo about meeting each of the characters from The Scouts, but once you set out, it’s difficult to interact with them unless you’re progressing the main story. I’d love the option to talk to them at will while we’re roaming around in order to further that sense of authenticity and realism that each character brings, rather than needing to start a conversation with someone else before they’ll pipe up.
I was also disappointed that despite the sounds of didgeridoo and an acknowledgement of country greeting you in the main menu, there seemed to be little to no Aboriginal culture included in the demo. I hope that there is more inclusion of Aboriginal characters and culture past the confines of the opening of the game that I played, as playing in a version of Australia where our First Nations people no longer exist might be a bit too bleak for me.
While I didn’t get much opportunity to engage with the game’s combat systems (as I spoke my way out of the confrontations available in the demo), I’m bloody excited about Broken Roads after giving it a go. The care and attention-to-detail being poured into this game from the small development team makes it a joy to experience, and the startlingly refreshing dialogue and morality systems are providing a much-needed shot in the arm to the tried and true storytelling that the games industry has come to lean on in recent years. I can’t wait to get back to The Scouts to see where the roads take them.
Plus, any game where I can discuss the merits of jam-less lamingtons with a local farmer is an instant Game-of-the-Year contender in my book.
Broken Roads releases on Xbox Series X/S and PC on November 14, 2023, with Switch and PlayStation versions of the game soon to follow in the coming year.