REVIEW: Open Roads is a ride well worth taking

Bring some snacks and buckle up

27 March 2024
by rawmeatcowboy 0

In the last decade of gaming we’ve seen the industry spread its wings in terms of genres. Just 25 years ago it would have been hard to imagine much beyond first-person shooters, platformers, sports sims, RPGs and other usual fodder. There’s nothing wrong with those genres by any means, but we now live in an era where games can pretty much be anything a developer can dream up. Gaming has grown far beyond the perceived limitations of the earlier days and gamers have grown along with it.

One such genre that has really come into its own is the Walking Simulator, which is a specific offshoot of the adventure category. Walking Simulators put story first, and much of the gameplay involves nothing more than traveling from point-to-point and perhaps solving a few light puzzles along the way. We’ve seen countless Walking Simulators in recent years, some of which have garnered critical and consumer acclaim alike. This shows that in just a few short years, Walking Sims have gone from niche to established, welcoming traditional gamers with an open mind and gaming newcomers at the same time.

The latest Walking Sim example is Open Roads, which follows a mother and daughter working their way through the grief of a mother/grandmother who has passed. While getting the fallen family member’s house ready for sale, the duo happen upon an interesting discovery locked away in the attic. This sets the wheels in motion for a road trip across the country that has the mother and daughter learning new things not only about themselves, but the family around them as well.

Where it all begins...
Where it all begins...

In standard Walking Sim fashion, Open Roads is all about the story. Outside of moving around a handful of environments, the bulk of this game is about watching the tale unfold. You’ll do this through investigating environments for items that can be used to foster conversations, be they a photo, a stuffed animal, a letter and so on. There will also be a few hurdles to overcome on the journey, but nothing taxing by any means. You’ll have to hunt down a key for a locked door, an alternate path to a blockaded building, and other similar stumbling blocks. At most, these will take a minute or two to figure out, and they’re meant as a bit of color for the experience. In other words, don’t expect the puzzle elements here to be anything akin to Myst or similar adventures.

Gameplay mechanics of a Walking Sim are pretty straightforward, which means these experiences live and die by their stories. Without a good narrative to tell, a Walking Sim can go from engaging to boring very quickly. Even the flashiest of settings or ideas can falter if the writing gets stale and the yarn becomes plodding. You need a story with heart, characters that feel real, genuine discussions, and pacing that keeps things moving. Luckily, the team behind Open Roads knew exactly how to bring all of that together, and that’s no easy task.

As with most Walking Sims, the joy in Open Roads comes from discovering the story’s many layers as you work your way through it. Open Roads is a very grounded tale about family, love, loss, connection and so on, and revealing those intricacies in this feature would rob you of the journey. What I will say is that the writing in this game is among some of the best I’ve ever come across. It’s incredibly difficult to create characters that not only feel real, but resonate with players. There are innumerable games, movies, TV shows and so on that offer characters that feel hollow or make decisions that seem to completely miss the mark. Open Roads keeps the focus tight on the mother (Opal) and daughter (Tess), and there’s not a single moment where the two come off as anything other than fully-realized and intricately human.

Welcome to your new Summer home!
Welcome to your new Summer home!

While Opal and Tess will talk about other family members, such as Opal’s sister or Tess’ best friend, every bit of conversation feels authentic. The two main characters are deep, flawed, lovable, interesting, introspective, and so many other interesting things. There’s not a single conversation between the two where you don’t learn something important, be it a major plot point or a peek into their mother/daughter relationship. Even the banter between the two feels spot-on and instantly made me think about how I joke with my parents. Honestly, it’s not possible for me to stress appropriately just how impressive Open Roads’ writing is.

While Open Roads would still sing as a purely text-based adventure, the main characters are brought to life by Keri Russell (The Americans, Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker) and Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart, Uncharted 4). I say the following without hyperbole; if these two don’t get nominated for voice actor of the year at the very least, then the industry is doing them a great disservice.

Russell and Dever are absolutely pitch-perfect in the roles of Opal and Tess. Much like the voice actors in The Last of Us, Russell and Dever take the characters of Open Roads to a completely different level. It’s clear these two knew the characters inside and out and brought them to life with some of the best voice acting I’ve heard in a game to date. The conversations between these two characters feel so real it’s honestly breathtaking, and even personal asides come off in exactly the same way. Russel and Dever are usually in front of the camera for their roles, but being an on-screen actor doesn’t automatically translate into being a high-caliber voice actor. That’s what makes their work in Open Roads all the more impressive, as they’ve slid into these roles with ease, giving Opal and Tess an incredible amount of depth and expression.

I can feel the spiders watching me...
I can feel the spiders watching me...

Open Roads offers a multi-layered tale that runs the gamut from funny to serious, sullen to tense. To see Russel and Dever deftly handle these beats only further shows their incredible talents. Again, the story of Opal and Tess would be a deeply engrossing one no matter the medium, but what we get through the works of Russel and Dever is simply unforgettable.

Just like Russel and Dever, the game’s visual style also makes a strong impression. The developers went with a very unique approach, as it mixes traditional 3D environments with 2D drawings of the characters. These character drawings can best be described as something close to that of Don Bluth, who created the art for games like Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace, or films such as The Secret of NIMH and An American Tale. Bluth’s artwork isn’t highly detailed, but it uses bold brush strokes and strong colors married with beautiful animation to create a vivid style. While Bluth has no involvement in Open Roads, the game’s characters give off a very similar vibe.

What some people might take issue with is how these characters are animated during the game, as it’s a mix of ideas that we don’t usually see. Instead of still character frames that change with each text box or fully-animated, lip-synched scenes, you get a modest middle ground. Character lips may move a bit, but if they ever match up with what’s being said, it’s a happy accident. Instead, animations are played that aim to match the tone of what’s being said. There’s no doubt it’s a bit jarring of a decision at first, and I found myself so distracted in the beginning that I was missing out on dialog because I was too busy trying to decide how the animation decision made me feel.

Is that you, Rogue?
Is that you, Rogue?

While it took me roughly 20 minutes to settle into the animation choice, I actually came to really appreciate it as time went on. I give the team credit for going with such a different idea from what we usually see in games. Just the mixing of 2D animation and 3D backgrounds is interesting in and of itself, but this approach to partially-animated characters is one I can’t really recall seeing all that often in gaming. There’s no doubt it’ll have its fans and critics alike, but as time passed during my playthrough, I found the choice to be a pleasant one.

Where there’s sure to be more agreement is with some of the technical hiccups in Open Roads. I want to make it clear that there’s nothing game-breaking by any means here, but there is one particular problem that was definitely immersion-breaking when it cropped up.

As you wander throughout the locations in Open Roads, you’ll find a lot of things you’ll need to pick up and examine. 90% of the time this works without issue, but every once in a while you’ll grab an item and it’ll accidentally clip through something in the background. A folder that clips through a desk, a postcard that clips through a door and so on. The item still functions as it should and you can do everything you need to, but seeing that visual glitch took me out of the experience for a moment. It’s an odd bug for a Walking Sim that I can’t recall ever seeing before, but thankfully it doesn’t ruin the game or break anything. That said, an update to fix this issue would no doubt be welcome.

I DESPERATELY want that jacket
I DESPERATELY want that jacket

On the lesser side of gripes would be some quality of life improvements that would make the game a bit more enjoyable. First off, there’s no ability to crouch in Open Roads. When I was exploring certain set pieces, there were a few moments where I wished I could have gotten a bit lower in order to get a better look at something. Along with that, the game has an option that basically snaps the camera to points/items of interest. For my tastes, the snapping was a bit too aggressive and it ended up dragging me to something when I was actively trying to look away. As I said, this is an option in the game’s menu, so you can toggle this off and avoid the struggle completely.

Those quibbles aside, Open Roads is an absolute gem of a game. While I love games that are about high fantasy and filled with action, I equally love Walking Sims as well. In a genre that has some truly stellar entries, Open Roads manages to make its mark and then some. It’s worth noting that it achieves this through a very down-to-earth narrative that pretty much anyone can relate to. It’s unbelievably challenging to craft something like this and make it both engaging and realistic. Nailing day-to-day moments, interactions and intricacies is a recipe for disaster, as any small moments of dissonance can ruin the entire journey. Open Roads avoids all of that, and seemingly with ease.

I hope this isn’t the last we see of Opal and Tess, or the world of Open Roads in general. I’d honestly like to see this relationship explored further, and it doesn’t matter how. I’ll take another game, a novel, a comic series, you name it. These characters are too wonderful to leave them behind after just one outing. That said, I guess there’s some beauty in an adventure that leaves us wanting more instead of overstaying its welcome. If we never get to see more of Open Roads, I can at least take solace in knowing that what we got was damn near perfect.

About rawmeatcowboy


GoNintendo's founder, and bearded wonder. Although his beard is a little greyer nowadays, RMC is more than ready to tackle news and features. When not playing/talking/writing about games, RMC enjoys comic books, pro wrestling, anime, and more.

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