Broken Roads official key art for the philosophical post-apocalyptic cRPG

Broken Roads, more so than many other games I've reviewed, made me upset. Not upset because it's bad, mind you, but rather because it managed to get me completely hooked on its world and premise, only to then pull the rug right from under me just as things got interesting. There is a core of an amazing game here, but whether due to a lack of resources or time, that idea just wasn't carried through all the way to the end. So despite having a blast with it, I just can't help the feeling that Broken Roads is actually the first half of a much grander storyline that simply doesn't exist.

If you're curious what exactly makes me say that, as well as how Broken Roads managed to get me so invested in it, allow me to share with you my thoughts after spending the past few weeks desperately scrounging for scrap in a post-apocalyptic Australia that, for once, isn't just ripping off Mad Max!

 Video version of this review (~17 minutes)

The premise

Set many generations after nuclear war devastated Australia's cities, Broken Roads is a story about survival in an extremely harsh environment, as well as the painful process of rebuilding civilization. Unlike games like Fallout or Wasteland where the wilderness is full of deranged mutants and rabid beasts, most of Broken Roads' conflicts are a result of people being people, which gives its world a grounded and rather unique feel.

Things do eventually get a bit outlandish as actual-factual magic enters the scene, but it's treated as enough of a novelty that the world never loses that connection to reality. Because of this, I found Broken Roads to be very easy to immerse myself into.

Broken Roads also tries to stand out from the crowd by contrasting the nitty-gritty details of surviving in a post-apocalyptic desert with some more high-brow ideas that stem from various works of philosophy - both ancient and contemporary. While I'm personally not the biggest fan of waxing philosophical, I did appreciate Broken Roads trying to add some extra depth and flavor to many of its interactions.

Broken Roads screenshot of some very serious dialogue

The dialogue can get quite serious, and there's always a bunch of different ways to approach it

Your moral compass

Instead of giving you the classic "good boy" vs "bad boy" points, your actions in Broken Roads influence your Moral Compass which is divided between four ideologies: humanist, utilitarian, Machiavelian and nihilist. Or in extremely simplistic terms, the idea that: everyone's life is equally important; the greater good is what matters the most; the ends justify the means; and "me, me and only me".

While this might sound massively complicated, in reality it's just a way of letting you know the tone of a dialogue option at a glance. After all, if you have a dozen choices presented to you, it's quite handy to know which ones are or aren't going to be compatible with your type of character. There's also some passive buffs you can get by really pushing your character in any given direction, but they're all thankfully small so you can just focus on making your own choices and not following some arbitrary path.

Broken Roads screenshot of the Moral Compass

The compass is here to offer a bit of flavor, and not to guide you in any specific direction

Writing and immersion

Throughout your journey you'll have plenty of opportunities to make these choices as most of Broken Roads' quests can be solved in a variety of different ways, even if some of them do converge towards the same resolution. These quests generally fall into two categories: bite-sized pieces that mostly serve to introduce you to new places or get you into combat, and more heavily involved adventures that will have you shape the fate of a major community.

The first are fairly straightforward so there isn't much to say about them. As for the second type of quests, these are definitely Broken Roads' best and most memorable content as they're essentially a collection of everything that makes a cRPG compelling. They let you talk to a myriad of interesting characters with different viewpoints. They let you solve inter-personal dilemmas and major conflicts in all sorts of different ways, and most importantly of all, the choices you make and how you make them all influence the eventual fate of the settlement.

These settlements include a pseudo-religious commune that has created an oasis in the middle of a literal desert, a small city full of scientists that all seem to be at each other's throats, and even a vibrant tribal community hidden underground. Needless to say, they're all interesting places to explore, and while some of their quests might not be as exciting as the others, I found all of the locations to be quite fascinating.

Visually pleasing too, because even though Broken Roads doesn't have the highest graphical fidelity, it has a stylish, hand drawn look to it that gives it a ton of charm. It's obvious that a lot of effort has gone into placing tiny details all over the place, details so small that most of them aren't likely to get appreciated or even noticed. 

These are things like the weathering of wood, the rusting of medal, the occasional bit of trash around houses, a couple of chairs surrounding a barbecue, or even a bit of discoloration on the ground from the frequent foot traffic. When combined, all of these little details really help sell the idea that this is a living, breathing world and not just a theme park with quest-dispensing automatons. And as someone that likes to get immersed in his cRPGs, I really do appreciate that sort of thing.

Broken Roads screenshot of beautifully detailed locations

Even irrelevant locations are beautifully detailed

Besides wandering across the endless desert and occasionally fighting off a drop-bear attack, most of what you'll be doing in Broken Road is talking to people, whether this be to solve a quest or simply to learn more. Luckily, Broken Roads' writing is generally quite solid and engaging across the board. The whole thing also feels very authentically Australian, which I think is partly due to most 'normal' people swearing and using slang in their day-to-day conversations, just like how they would in real life. I also find it quite amusing how Broken Roads treats this Australian slang as some kind of indecipherable arcane language by giving you pop-up translations for even the most basic terms, but I suppose it's for the best as you just know someone out there would be super confused about why "yeah, nah" just means "no".

The only time I felt the writing floundered was when it got too deep into philosophy. Broaching a deep and nuanced topic is all well and good, but when a conversation starts sounding like a high school debate where two people just throw quotes at each other, that's when my attention would start slipping and my eyes focusing on that ever more tantalizing "continue" button.

Aside from a couple of these moments, Broken Roads' major questlines generally had me heavily invested in what's going on. I especially liked the big twist that happens right after the intro which I won't spoil here, but it was a very 'WTF' type of moment when contrasted to everything that came before. Looking back at it now, I'd say that was definitely the moment when Broken Roads got its hooks into me. It really lit a fire under me and made me want to dig deeper in order to figure out how such a thing was even possible.

Broken Roads screenshot from one the early cinematics

Some major moments also come with short, comic book styled cinematics

Where it starts to fall apart

Unfortunately, the finale completely deflates all of that intrigue and tension. As soon as I've gotten a grasp on who's who in the world and started to pursue the main mystery, Broken Roads just ended. Words cannot describe how much the end credits surprised me, because the entire buildup to the climactic finale was done over the course of 15 minutes!

I went from having essentially no knowledge about the bad guy to learning all about their plans in a couple of conversations, then I had a fight against some pathetic enemies and BAM - I was teleported to the last boss fight. This was such a shock to me that I figured I ran into some sort of glitch that would make a speedrunner salivate, so as soon as I was done I replayed the last few quests in order to see if I missed anything. And no, regardless of what I did or chose, Broken Roads always ended abruptly and unceremoniously.

The truly bizarre thing is that the last chapter takes place in a massive city with an even more massive mine complex underneath it, yet most of the quests there just revolve around a couple of buildings. Given how much buildup this place got I was really looking forward to spending hours upon hours scouring it for secrets and talking to everyone that would listen, but when I actually got there I found it to be surprisingly barren. Outside of following the main quest there was very little to do, which for a city that has an actual magical academy, among other novelties, is a massive letdown. 

It's a similar story with the companions. They started off nice and chatty. A bit simplistic, perhaps, but definitely interesting enough that I wanted to learn more about them over the course of our adventures. However, that moment where you have a deep heart-to-heart conversation and come to an understanding with them never came. Outside of a few times in the major quests, and the ending where they can turn on you, they barely ever talked to me. Eventually they just ended the game as exactly the same people as they started. Nothing learned, nothing gained.

Broken Roads screenshot of the fairly closed-off companions

Your companions don't seem to actually want to talk to you

And again, the same goes for the items and equipment. Throughout most of the game I had a feeling that I was only just getting started as I was using relatively weak equipment and could only afford a singular good weapon across my entire team. But no, that's actually it. All of the items Broken Roads gives you access to is what in any other game would be considered early game stuff - gear that gets you going but quickly gets replaced with much spicier and more interesting variants. So if you're like me and you decide to be a shotgun wizard, your weapon progression is going to be as simple as Shotgun > Shotgun +1 > Shotgun +2, which is such a boring way of handling RPG gear since there's no actual choices to make or options to weigh against each other.

Because of all of this, Broken Roads feels like the first half of a much grander storyline that simply never came to be. Whether that's actually the case, I obviously don't know, but what I can say is that if the current ending was the conclusion of Act 1 or Act 2 I would've been genuinely excited to push onward as Broken Roads' world is just the right mixture of normal and magical, of wasteland and civilization, and of depressing reality and lofty philosophical ideals. Alas, what we've got is a strong start and a thoroughly unsatisfying finish - the kind that makes me wonder if I've just wasted a dozen hours of my life getting invested into a story that went nowhere.

Broken Roads screenshot of a very cool floating orb

I don't want to spoil the ending, so here's a cool floating orb instead!

Combat woes

Since I'm already complaining, I suppose this is as good as time as any to talk about Broken Roads' weakest aspect - the combat. In theory the combat looks like it should have a lot of depth since there's over a dozen unique combat and support skills to smash enemies with, each of which has their own specific upgrades. Many of the abilities are quite interesting as well, but none of that matters when the enemy AI is unable to pose a challenge past the early game. All they really know how to do is to stand and shoot, or run and punch. If you're lucky they might use a grenade, but that's as far as it goes. Even the final boss, the big bad guy with the power to literally melt people by touching them, just kind of stood there while I repeatedly clubbed them over the head.

Perhaps that's for the best as the combat has a very serious lack of quality-of-life features. There are no hotkeys or even a hotbar to help you, so you have to manually select abilities through two small radial menus that you cycle between. Spell effects cover the entire ground in visual noise so it's often impossible to even see where you're trying to walk, which is a serious problem when one of the early game spells spews fire everywhere. Every single time enemies take a turn the camera spends a moment just staring at them before they finally spring to life and slowly, very slowly execute their attacks. And worst of all, there is no hotkey for the end turn button! This means that every single time one of your characters runs out of action points you have to move your mouse to the bottom right of the screen and manually hit "End Turn". Every, single, time!

Individually each of these things would be annoying yet manageable, but when you stack them all together you end up with an aggressively mediocre combat system. And it really didn't have to be that way. With more varied and challenging enemies, a couple of UI tweaks and some general polishing I could easily see the combat becoming a fun little diversion from all of the philosophical talk. As it stands, it's just kind of there.

Broken Roads screenshot of a burning drop bear attack

You do get to light evil koalas on fire, so there's at least that!

Technical stuff

When it comes to the technical stuff, I've only really had one notable issue, though it was both a recurring and a frustrating one. Seemingly at random all of my inputs would stop registering and I would be forced to restart the game in order to continue. Repeating the same steps would result in the exact same lock-out, so every time it happened I had to go do a completely different quest than the one I originally planned in order to avoid problems. Aside from that, Broken Roads has been a fairly smooth experience all the way through. I've had no stuttering, no crashes or any similar technical issues that are sadly all too common these days.

To end all of this on a positive note, I just want to commend Broken Roads on its pathfinding. It doesn't matter how complicated the environment is or how far you're going - the characters will always find the best way there. This might not sound like much, but after playing a couple of ancients cRPGs recently it was quite refreshing to not have my characters rub their face on every single wall, Duke Nukem style!

Broken Roads screenshot of the clever pathfinding system

High or low, they always know where to go!

Closing thoughts

Broken Roads has me very conflicted. On one hand I love its world and I found myself deeply invested in the struggles of its people. On the other hand, the combat was rather uninteresting and the ending portion felt so rushed and unsatisfying that it retroactively soured my experience.

So when it comes to recommendations, I think Broken Roads is a game for cRPG connoisseurs. Or in other words, people with a bit of genre experience that are accustomed to overlooking some problems in order to experience an engaging story. Because if you're that kind of person, there's a lot to like about how Broken Roads does things.

As for me personally, I really do hope the Drop Bear Bytes team continues working on cRPGs in the future. Broken Roads really does have a good core, and while I do have some notable complaints, I did also genuinely enjoy my time with it. So with some valuable experience under their belt, and hopefully a bit more time, I can easily see their next game being a smash hit with the RPG crowd.

P.S. I've also taken the opportunity to create a brief beginner's guide covering some of the most important tricks and strategies I learned throughout my time with Broken Roads. So if you'd like your first playthrough to be a nice and pleasant one, despite the whole nuclear apocalypse thing, I'd welcome you to give it a look.