From the publisher – but not the developer – of the wonderful road-trip simulator Jalopy, comes the road-trip simulator Road to Guangdong. That sentence should tell you why the road to Road to Guangdong has been a bumpy one: fans of Jalopy have been picking apart the similarities; Steam scores have been review-bombed as a result; Jalopy’s developer, Greg Pryjmachuk, has distanced himself from it and the publisher, Excalibur Games. He has been at pains to point out that Road to Guangdong has nothing to do with him, Jalopy or the sequels he had planned.
All of this adds a juicy dollop of drama to the launch, and makes for a fascinating game to review. Does Road to Guangdong hew too closely to Jalopy? Does Road to Guangdong have anything of its own to say? Does any of the controversy matter?
The setup and story is certainly different. You play the role of Sunny, newly graduated and arriving home to the Guangdong province in ‘90s China. Sunny’s father, Ba Ba, has recently died, and – as becomes clear – has left everything to her in his will. This includes a decrepit car called Sandy and a restaurant, also on its last legs. Refreshingly, Sunny’s close family are fine with her inheriting the whole kit and kaboodle, and they all believe that her Art degree will put her in good stead for restaurant management. While I can’t imagine it going down this way with MY family, it adds to the friendly, heartwarming tone.
The car, as it turns out, is key to the success of the restaurant. The menu has become stale, and Sunny has the idea of travelling to family members to gather ‘Tong recipes’: dishes that have been in the Tong family for generations, and would inspire the restaurant to success. It’s not clear why Baa Baa didn’t do this himself, but let’s go with it (for a dead character, you’ll be questioning his decisions throughout). To get these recipes, you have to travel to family members in Guangdong and help with small, personal dramas to gain knowledge of the dish. There are some lightweight choices to be had in these sections, which lead to the family member visiting, or not visiting, your restaurant at a spring reunion party that takes place at the end of the game.
This is a road trip very much in that Jalopy mould: you drive with your partner Guu Ma on largely empty roads at speeds that are less Drivin’ USA, and more Driving Miss Daisy. Petrol and oil levels drop, which means making stops at periodic petrol stations to fill up (and buy canisters, as the stations don’t crop up half as often as they should). The car degrades, which means making stops at scrapyards to salvage – bizarrely free – engines, tyres, fan belts etc that can be swapped in. Fail to manage the various decreasing bars, and you will be driven to the nearest station with a hefty bill. That hurts, as you will be managing a measly pile of cash.
This is the structure for the entire game, and there are roughly eight loops of it in total before the spring reunion party. For those who care about this sort of thing, it takes the play time to just under four hours, and – aside from some achievement hunting, perhaps – there isn’t a strong argument for playing it twice.
Let’s go dish by dish, as the game very discreetly breaks itself up into different meals: the visual-novel-like family moments, the driving, and the systems that support the driving.
The visual-novel bits are warming and hearty, like soup. An elderly couple need the confidence to get married, so you gently egg them on. A young girl wants you to save her favourite chicken from becoming a table snack, so you hide the chicken (or convince her that death is for the best). These are all small-scale dramas, and they’re cute, never lurching into Fallout-style shades of grey or lumping you with moral quandaries. It’s a flavour thing, but I suspect some people will like the vibe, while others will want more substance. I was mostly in: there was an authenticity to the situations that made me wonder if the stories were autobiographical, and some characters, like Guu Ma, stuck with me.
That’s not to say there aren’t small flies in there. Characters tend to spell out how they’re feeling rather than revealing it. The handling of choice can also frustrate: it felt like the choices weren’t right or wrong (the chicken being a good example), and it felt like the game wouldn’t punish me for choosing. As it turned out, the spring reunion finale, and who attends, makes it pretty clear that there IS a right choice if you want a good ending and some achievements. It was a curious mixed-message.
Still, these story sections served their purpose really well: to be payoffs for longer driving sections. And there is definitely a whole lot of driving.
How to explain driving ol’ Sandy? Imagine Outrun, played at one-tenth the speed, with cars that rarely react to you and only dink to the side if you hit them. Imagine Euro Truck Simulator, but without any turnings, maps or journey-planning, and then add safety-ramps to the sides. It’s less Crazy Taxi and more Sane Hearse.
This would all be fine if there was a state of zen to tap into – the state that Desert Bus players often bang on about, where the world drops away and the driving is all that’s left. You get the sense that Road to Guangdong is swinging for this, but it misses. The car just isn’t pleasurable enough to drive, which may fit the ‘dusty banger’ theme, but its heavy handling and acceleration make it feel like a tram trip. This low intensity driving is also a painful mismatch with the reasonably high-intensity petrol, oil and coolant management, so you’re never given a chance to lose yourself in the drive, man.
Most damning of all, Guangdong Province is dull to drive through. I was so, so excited about road-tripping through an area that I knew next to nothing about, that I hadn’t experienced through other games. That was the selling point for me: the thing that would make Road to Guangdong stand out. I was expecting landmarks, history, culture. But Guangdong only has a few different backdrops, no points of interest and an art style that, while stylistically vibrant, airbrushes out any details that might have enhanced the trip. I even forgot that the game was set in the ‘90s, as nothing about the world or soundtrack even referenced it.
Perhaps the boldest decision the developers made was to make it near-completely linear. Pick a destination, and the game will path you there but strip out any potential turnings, like you’re back in the glory days of Road Rash and Super Monaco GP. While it removes the frustration of picking a wrong turn or having to know where you’re going, it’s painfully numbing. There’s not even an easy-left or easy-right to get the pulses going, and when you couple it with the generic, unchanging backdrop, those 15 minute journeys can be a chore. Just to chuck another log onto the fire, the game doesn’t really tell you the distance to your destination, so you often question whether you’re close to your destination, or whether there is a destination.
The systems that back up the driving should have taken some of the load off. Jalopy was never about the gnarly nitrous and drifts, but it had a neat trading system, for example, as you keep the banger going by picking up resources and ferrying them to territories that values that resource.
In Road to Guangdong, money is given as a reward for completing the story sections and nowhere else, and you’re given no indication of which sections will give out the cash. That puts ‘making money’ out of your hands, so that’s one variable in the bin. The petrol and oil need constant management, but the strategy is stripped out because the petrol stations are randomly placed and often too far for one tank. The only strategy is to fill your limited inventory with oil and petrol, and hope the game randomly plops a station down before you run out, again taking a variable out of your hands. There’s certainly no map for a player to plan out their petrol needs.
Searching scrapyards for car parts is a touch more interesting, but it’s nobbled by those car parts all being free. There’s no reason not to upgrade whatever you have and move on, or keep a replacement part or two in your inventory. The optimal choice becomes so obvious, and again strips out the strategy. All that’s left is to drive.
Road to Guangdong is such a disappointment because the ingredients are all there. I would have said a hearty ‘yes’ to a road-trip around China in the 1990s. Yes to an ol’ banger sim, where I strategise where I’ll spend my cash. Yes to owning a restaurant, and finding recipes that make the restaurant more successful. All of these flavours obviously went into the mix, but none of them can be tasted now that the baking’s been done. All we’re left with is undercooked and drab, wondering what might have been, and that’s a real shame.
Too slight to be seriously considered a Ja-copy of Jalopy, Road to Guandong has some adorable visual-novel moments that focus on family. It’s just a shame, then, that the road trip sections to reach them are so lifeless.
This game was reviewed based on Xbox One review code, using an Xbox One console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.