Disclosure: To aid this review a copy of Road to Guangdong was provided free of charge by Excalibur Games
Jalopy, the recently free-to-grab DRM free via Humblebundle, is a game very close to my heart. A delightful little road-trip-them-up which took you through the gloomy vistas of East Berlin to Turkey behind the wheel of your mysterious uncle’s beaten up Laika brand car, aka. the crapmobile.
Despite holding an extremely engaging and unique premise, and letting you explore a setting rarely seen outside first-person shooters, Jalopy always felt like something was missing. It certainly wasn’t heart, which the game held in heaps with its endearing minimalist art-style, its charming little soundtrack and just the sheer nostalgia factor that arises from tapping into a well deep long-forgotten memories of family road trips. What Jalopy lacked was one of the elements from which most of its appeal arises: a sense of family.
Sure, you did have the option of bringing your uncle along for the ride but he never really adds much beyond some canned dialogue, a little guidance and, quite frankly, a lot of dead weight. The spiritual successor Road to Guangdong aims to rectify that void and, by the end of early access, perhaps offer come to one of the most heartfelt familial journeys in gaming today.
As previously mentioned, Jalopy took you from the dull dregs of a grey post-war Berlin to the sunny splendour of Turkey. Road to Guangdong on the other hand, as the title suggests, takes you across the bright and scenic Guangdong, China.
This new setting is presented with a delightful and extremely colourful art-style; which is very reminiscent of modern evolutions of Chinese woodblock painting techniques, in a manner that is altogether simply breathtaking. Almost any screenshot taken in game wouldn’t look out of place on the wall of trendy coffee shop.
Ironically, the visual presentation of the characters themselves can ironically only be described “blocky” – and not in a good way. They seem stiff, jumping around the screen much like the terrifying department store mannequins from Condemned: Criminal Origins and whilst in that game it added to the atmosphere, in Road to Guangdong it does nothing but detract from it.
I attributed this to a result of a general lack of animations; with the game only being released into early access this week it makes sense for the characters to have only a handful of stock shared loops. I expect that this and the apparent jarring lack of scene transitions will be rectified in a future update and preferably as soon as possible.
The reason these stiff animation issues are such a problem is that they really interfere with the narrative that they are trying to convey. As mentioned previously, Road to Guangdong is really about family. The plot itself revolves around your attempt to save a failing family business and you’re presented with a tonne of dialogue-driven interactions which have you repairing damaged relationships on top of your damaged car.
In the gameplay department, Road to Guangdong is predominantly a visual novel and quite a good one at that, focused on your relationship with your eccentric aunt. Slices of the visual novel are delivered in between arcade-like driving sections. The driving mechanics are fairly surface level, although the car itself certainly feels very satisfying to drive with its loud engine and definite weight, you’re only really allowed to drive in a straight line in a manner only comparable to Desert Bus. The simplicity of the driving mechanics do allow you to focus more heavily on the dialogue however, which is probably how it was intended to be, but just a little bit more interaction with your vehicle would be nice and provide some much needed entertainment when the dialogue begins to slow.
Judging from an update released just today however, it seems that this wish is being very promptly granted, adding more detail to the dashboard and making some of the previously redundant dials and meters actually mean something. The game also offers some repair mechanics, but they’re very surface-level. You buy parts and repair you vehicle so it can keep going until you need to buy more parts and repeat the whole process again.
For now, that’s basically all there is to comment on – the game is certainly still in its infancy. Despite its flaws however, I would certainly recommend keeping a close eye on Road to Guangdong. It’s a brilliant story that has the potential to be a beautiful experience, despite being at the moment hampered by some characteristic early-access teething problems.
If you are completely sold on the premise alone, and don’t mind a fair bit of early-access jank, by all means buy the game at once. For those sitting on the fence, it may just be worth waiting until the story can be told at its best in 2-3 months’ time when it is fully released and luckily for you; you can expect a follow-up to this review reflecting on the finished product when it’s finally out.