Broke Signal Badlands is a pocket Fallout RPG for weird western dice-addled mystics

It’s hotter than the inside of a horse here, so what better time to play an RPG about driving randomly through the desert in search of enlightenment. The RPG in question is Broke Signal Badlands: A World of Desert Adventure, and yes, that’s a very upbeat subtitle for a game in which you can perish after getting your hand stuck in the door of an abandoned Fonts Museum, or while yanking cacti out of your foot. There are gunfights, too, with dice serving as bullets, but so far, I’ve only managed to die of pathetic human error and clumsiness. Consider me unenlightened, but enthused.

Coming this year to Steam with an older version already for sale on Itch, Broke Signal Badlands casts you as a line man (a telephone repair engineer, I think) who has abruptly decided to steal the company truck and go on a mystical roadtrip. Over the course of the subsequent hour or two, you’ll WASDrive across a tilted 2D map painted in glaring shades of hazard yellow and Vimto purple, investigating landmarks such as forgotten mines and dealing with fleeting pop-up events such as hitchhikers.

I’m not entirely sure which technology or medium or period the visual direction is channelling, but I like it. The map reminds me of both the original Fallout‘s overworld and the pulp comic stylings of last year’s The Fabulous Fear Machine. The HUD is interestingly abrasive: scratchy illustrations of events and quests materialise slowly from the bottom up, as though slithering out of the belly of a fax machine. This invests the accompanying text with a peculiar mixture of suspense and irritation, as you either tap your cactus-punctured foot waiting for the full scene to reveal itself, or shrink back at the thought of seeing the horrors described. The writing itself is as sparing and dry as the bones of a cable repairguy who went looking for himself on the barrens and suffered a mortal wound while tidying up tumbleweeds after dark (yes, this is one of the quests).

A scene from Broke Signal Badlands, with a monochrome illustration of a dry lakebed on one side and some text describing it on the other

The world of Broke Signal Badlands at night - a black and purple expanse of desert roads and mountains

Image credit: Forward Instinct

The weird western premise and vignette-driven structure obviously recall Kentucky Route Zero, but rather than being an experimental episodic adventure like KRZ, Broke Signal Badlands is a shortform pen-and-paper-style RPG in the vein of World Of Horror. Again, the game is a search for enlightenment. How does one become enlightened? By Mad Maxing your stats, apparently.

There are three – Guile, which describes how crafty and underhand you are, Strength, which describes how likely you are to fall and hurt yourself while scaling a mesa, and Attunement, which describes both your level of empathy and your sensitivity to stuff like passing UFOs. Each point you plunk into a stat gives you a die you can roll to complete or fail an event or quest. You’ll need plenty of Guile, for example, if you’re going to sneak into the back of that Fonts Museum. More Guile than me, anyway.

If you can level each stat all the way to six, you’ll pierce the veil of ignorance and emerge from the badlands a more complete and rounded being. More likely, you will injure yourself repeatedly, with each injury reducing the number of quest actions you can perform each day. When that number falls to zero, it’s game over.

Broke Signal Badlands is apparently based on real-life trips to the Mojave – some of the illustrations look like they were created using photographs from those journeys. I do have to ask whether developers Forward Instinct found enlightenment in the process, and whether this game is the result? If you like the atmosphere, but would prefer to play something with more lavish writing, I recommend Where The Water Tastes Like Wine.

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