Open Roads Review – Bumpy Road Ahead

You can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your family; that’s what they say, right? I’m paraphrasing, but you get the point. 

It’s a sentiment that pretty much everyone can get behind. Even though your sister might be a dweeb that made your life hell, or your mother is constantly breathing down your neck to see them more often, most of us know that when push comes to shove, we would do just about anything for them.

For say, drop settling your mother’s estate to travel across the country with your teenage daughter to sate their curiosity surrounding the faintest possibility of a family secret. Okay, perhaps not all that relatable, but undeniably interesting. 

This is the central plot point that drives the story of Open Roads, a narrative-driven walking simulator that aims to tell a poignant story of a fragmented family battling through hard times, and the secret story of Opol’s mother, who seems to have a secret past that raises many questions about who she truly was. 

This all revolves around a mother-daughter dynamic, as you, Tess Devine, intend to have one more carefree adventure before life, as you know it, changes forever. But is this a story worth playing through firsthand? Well, fill the tank with gas, and let’s hit the road; this is Indie Game Culture’s Open Roads Review, conducted on PC. 

These Roads Aren’t All That Open

There’s only one logical place to start with a walking simulator, and that’s the walking! 

That was a joke; we are obviously looking at the narrative that drives this whole thing, but as a quick side note, god, the walking was slow. 

To set the scene, Open Roads places you in the shoes of Tess Devine, a typical teen from Middle America who has been living with her sick grandmother along with her mother for some time now.

Sadly, her Grandmother has passed away, and the house has been sold from under them, so when we begin this adventure, we are tasked with packing up Tess’ room and the house as they prepare to vacate and find a new place. 

Open Roads suitcase
A secret suitcase? Who wouldn’t drop everything and jump down this rabbit hole

However, after finding a few hidden items up in the attic, new discoveries and a burst of nostalgic feelings act as the catalyst for a cross-country road-trip to find the truth. Now, I have to say, that before I had even left the home for this road trip, I had put all the puzzle pieces together in my mind and had drawn a conclusion on what twists lay before me, and not too sound like a swot, but I was 100% correct on all counts. I won’t spoil any of the beats for you, but this was a real letdown for me. 

A good writer allows for these conclusions to be drawn, leaving clues and leads out in the open for players to latch onto, but they also throw in Red Herrings, smoking guns, and other plot devices to make you question yourself before hitting you with a genuinely shocking twist.

Open Roads never had me questioning myself for a second, meaning my enjoyment would then rely on the world around me, and the relationships between Tess and those close to her. 

Thankfully, the world-building is rather strong, allowing me to discover things at my own pace, and giving me ample info to get to know people intimately and get invested in their lives without ever meeting anyone outside of Tess’ mother.

For example, by the time I had even left the opening room, I knew that Tess’ Grandmother had died of dementia, that her mum and dad were separated, and that she idolized him. That she was a web designer not keen on the traditional college route, and she had a best friend called Fran. This isn’t an exhaustive list of details in that room, but you get the picture. 

open roads game opening room
Probably the most powerful moment, and it relied on zero dialogue

It’s the same approach that Gone Home took when building a world that you could interact with, play around with the stuff lying around, uncover silent stories attached to each item, and gradually piece a story together through exploring thoroughly. 

However, what brings this whole thing down is the game’s inability to let the players put it all together themselves. The game constantly prompts you to get your Mother’s perspective, and get a huge dump of exposition each time, rather than trusting the player to contextually understand what’s going on. This also seeps into the gameplay as each new objective might as well be a note pressed into your forehead with a sharp thumbtack. 

Coffee, Please, And A Shot of Cynicism 

So, the story isn’t as deep and nuanced as I would have liked, and I wasn’t left to my own devices to truly exist within this world. Well, that poses the question. Was the mother-daughter dynamic the game was ramming down my throat worth the intrusion? 

Sadly, for the most part, not really. 

Right from the off, I got a feel for the thing the Open Roads Team was going for here. They were attempting a coming-of-age story, crossed with a heartfelt story breaking through the steely shell of a woman unwilling to let others in. So basically, Gilmore Girls. 

open roads value7lodge coffee
I dunno, I think Lorelai sold it better

The similarities are so clear to see right from the off, from the report card showing that Tess is a great student, to the numerous big gulp cups dotted around the house hitting at a nearby diner they frequent often.

Heck, Tess even takes the time to interject when you lift instant coffee to show their disdain, which I understand is universal, but equally, it’s the lifeblood of that 2000s sitcom, which was in its pomp in 2003 when this game was set. Honestly, I was surprised they stopped short of having them attend a town meeting and mock the town’s zany major. 

But I could have put up with this had the relationship between Opol and Tess had been as strong as Lorelai and Rory, but it’s a pretty one-sided deal here. There are witty interjections and repartee, but it’s all on Jess’ side, as her mother is a buttoned-up, stubborn, and generally unlikable woman who had me screaming ‘seek therapy’ at the screen multiple times. 

I have to say the voice acting is great on both sides, and Kaitlin Dever is excellently cast in this role. However, I never connected with the mother in this story; I felt that due to the short runtime of the game, the heated exchanges popped up out of nowhere and fizzled out again with no real peaks and valleys to make them believable, and when it all wrapped up with a happy ending of sorts, I just felt a little disappointed. 

It just feels like another art-house production from Annapurna where paying for big names has probably affected the parameters developers have had to work within, leading to a shorter game, a game limited in scope as far as writing is concerned, and another story that goes through the motions, but falls short of the Annapurna catalog’s big hitters of old. 

Art House Cinema Goes Gaming

Speaking of art-house design for the sake of being different, the art direction for Open Roads is both interesting and needlessly jarring.

The game employs an animation style that places hand-drawn cartoon-style character models and assets in an otherwise traditionally 3D-modeled video game setting, which undoubtedly sets the game apart and makes for some rather eye-catching screenshots, but in action, it is very hit-and-miss. 

open roads tess
Look at that, look me in the eye, and tell me those art-styles blend well. I dare you.

Where this works best is when the player is actually exploring and interacting with the world through gameplay, as the cartoon assets tend to be still, almost highlighting them in this 3D world in a striking way that looks rather appealing. 

However, when the player enters conversations or cut-scenes, which account for about a third if not half of the game, you’ll find that the animation style just feels lazy and unfinished. 

Due to the lack of lip-syncing and only a few frames of movement from moment to moment, it almost feels like a rough draft, which I understand is by design, but it just doesn’t look great, and due to the dialogue often continuing long after animation ceases, it can feel like one of those games that opts for comic book strip cut-scenes rather than actual rendered cutscenes. 

If I were to make a direct comparison, I would refer you to Titanic: The Legend Goes On, an unwaveringly terrible movie with half-baked animation.

The story and production value may be insurmountable higher where Open Roads is concerned, but if all that money has been spent to warrant this comparison from me, then I have to ask, is that money well spent? 

A 2000’s Time Capsule

I can’t completely rag on the overall aesthetic of this game, as the world-building and the abundance of interactable models within the game are undeniably very impressive.

This isn’t a new thing, obviously, as Gone Home managed to do this, and arguably better in 2009. However, what has to be commended is the use of these models to create a feeling of a time capsule transporting us back to the early 2000’s. 

open roads francine text message
Oh, Francine, I’m afraid I’m busy writing a review, so TTYL xo

It’s the text-lingo on screen as Tess texts her dad from her Nokia, the Tamagotchi that she forgot to feed in the chest of drawers, the printed directions as they make their way to their next destination, or the fact that Tess mistakes The Pirates of Penzance for Pirates of the Caribbean, which was in theaters at the time. God, I’m old. 

All these little details transport you back to this period when the internet was more of a luxury than a necessity, and while I was never bowled over by the overall art style, the way they have used assets and built a compelling set of areas to explore in this distinct setting has to be commended. 

Closest Alternatives

If you’re looking for something that feels rather similar to Open Roads, then we have a few walking simulators that will probably be your speed: 

  • Gone Home
  • The Unfinished Swan
  • What Remains of Edith Finch
  • I Am Dead
  • Tacoma
  • Outer Wilds

The Verdict – 6/10

In the end, I can’t help but feel disappointed as I once again sit here wondering how Annapurna keeps trying and failing to capture the magic of past walking simulators of this ilk. At the end of the day, it was never about the personnel delivering the lines in games of this nature.

Hell, Gone Home was a much stronger narrative game of this nature, and the voice acting played such a minimal role there. So projects like this, Maquette, 12 Minutes, Hindsight and more just feel like style over substance. 

Unlike those games, though, Open Roads has no unique quirk, as it goes back to Annapurna’s walking sim roots, and therefore has nowhere to hide. It has to have a great world, a great story, and likable characters, and while it’s not the worst attempt in the world, it only delivers what was promised in patches. 

Due to some weak characters, predictable writing, jarring visuals, and a lack of player agency, all combined with the fact that the game’s runtime never allows you enough time to really invest enough to be affected by the emotional moments, Open Roads delivers a short, average experience which I wanted to love, but much like the characters within this story, I had to let that notion go. 

Pros

  • Great world-building through environmental assets
  • The player character is fun and likable 
  • A nostalgic 2000’s time capsule 

Cons

  • Jarring visuals that are very hit-and-miss
  • A lack-luster and predictable story
  • So short that the game feels undercooked

Play Log

Callum played Open Roads in full within the space of 3 hours, missing only four achievements, which he may clean up via the chapter selection function at a later date. 

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