April 13, 2018 // 1 p.m.
Publisher: Excalibur Games
Car games usually aspire to perfection. From Forza to Grand Turismo, they focus on grunting supercars rendered in millions of pixels, all competing for supremacy to cross the finish line first or post the fastest time. They obsess over handling and tyre wear, how sunlight glints off the bodywork, and how rain affects the friction of the track. Imperfections are punished mercilessly. A slip in the corner results in you losing your place, while a collision will shatter your car's pristine form.
Consequently, all your top-tier driving games are very similar in form and function, technologically stunning but bereft of new ideas. Jalopy is all about getting away from this cycle of pushing toward a vehicular singularity, stripping away all the glitz and glamour associated with racing sims, presenting us with a lo-fi adventure in a lo-fi world, enabled by the lowest of lo-fi cars. What results is a love-letter to the automobile written in a very different style, one that focusses on the car as a facilitator of adventures, rather than something that should be forced to go ever faster in a circle.
Jalopy is set during the last years of the Soviet Union, after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before the collapse of Communism. Within this period of uncertainty and turmoil, the game inserts a surprisingly gentle tale which sees you travel on a “Grand Journey East” with your Uncle. Commencing in your Uncle's scrapyard at Dresden, you make your way across the border into the Czech Republic before travelling through Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria to your final destination of Istanbul in Turkey. Carrying you through Eastern Europe is your Laika 601 Deluxe – a fictional variant of the East German Trabant.
Obviously, Jalopy doesn't represent these countries to-scale. Indeed, a clean run-through of Jalopy will take around three-to-four hours. The chances of you making it to Istanbul in one go, however, are fairly slim. This is because your little Jalopy is about as reliable as a British political poll, and you'll need to deal with all manner of obstacles on the road.
In its broader strokes, the game resembles a blend of linear driving simulator and a roguelike, using a blend of randomness, repetition, and improvement as its key pillars of play. After a brief tutorial that instructs you on the basics of assembling and maintaining your car, you can select one of three routes to travel from Dresden to the German border. These routes are procedurally generated, varying in terms of length, road-type, ambient weather, and the various sights you'll see along the way. To some extent this is a cosmetic choice, although picking new routes becomes more important as you venture further into the game.
Like so much else in Jalopy, the act of driving the Laika is a halfway house between arcade and simulation. The driving controls are straightforward, using WASD to accelerate and steer, while smaller interactions like pulling the handbrake and turning the key in the ignition are done with the mouse. Where Jalopy gets more complicated is in its mechanical simulation. Your car's engine is comprised of several components, which includes the engine block, carburettor, air filter, battery, and ignition coil. These components degrade over time and will eventually need repairing or replacing. Jalopy also simulates tyre wear, fuel use, and even the use of water for cleaning your windscreen.
All the core systems revolve around keeping your car on the road. You can purchase repair kits and replacements as you travel, but your funds are generally limited and you can only carry so many objects in your boot at one time. Ideally, to keep your Laika on the road, you'll want a jack, a spare tyre, a repair kit, a tyre repair kit, a can of fuel, and a bottle of two-stroke oil to mix with your fuel. But this leaves little room for extras, and it's these extras which are important for funding your journey.
As you travel along the road, you'll notice boxes and crates scattered on the hardshoulder. Opening these reveals tradeable items like cigarettes, wine-bottles, and, er, sausages, which you can sell at shops for a small profit or try to smuggle across the border for a considerably larger profit. But filling your boot with contraband takes up space you could use for more functional items. Hence there's a central tension: Do you make hay now and hope your car stays roadworthy until you get to the next town, or leave the goodies by the side of the road and travel to your next stop safely but poorly?
There are systems in place to ensure you never go completely broke, but nonetheless this central tension works well. There are two other aspects of Jalopy I particularly like. The first is its wonderfully tactile feel. Everything from changing a tyre to refuelling your car is communicated with a real hands-on attitude. When you're navigating a muddy Czech backroad on a rainy night and suddenly hear the thudthudthudthudthud of a punctured tyre slapping against the ground, it really does induce that feeling of 'Oh God, really?'. I'm also entirely in love with the whole road-trip concept, and the game really does capture that excitement of picking a path and seeing where it leads.
That said, I don't think it communicates this as well as it possibly could. There are some enjoyable enough sights to see on the road between Dresden and Istanbul, from the various towns you drive into to unique locations like a road that runs through a cave system. But I also found certain areas repeating quite a lot, particularly roundabouts and train stations. While the lo-fi visual style works with the slightly grubby, workmanlike tone of the game, there are areas where it is downright ugly, the effect on your Uncle's tweed jacket being one particular example.
Meanwhile, sometimes the game overdoes its tactility, and becomes fiddly and annoying. You can only carry three items in your arms at once, which, while realistic, means that certain actions like selling your goods or any complex maintenance involve a lot of backtracking to your car. This issue is compounded by the game's desire to minimise long stretches of driving. Jalopy wants you to get out of your car and stretch your legs as much as possible. This is understandable given the driving itself is fairly simplistic, but there are times when Jalopy forces you to stop every thirty seconds, and when that occurs frustration quickly sets in.
Nonetheless, for a smidge over a tenner, I think Jalopy is absolutely worth a go. There's a surprising amount of depth beneath its textureless surface, and there's nothing else quite like it in gaming. Sometimes the balance veers off into the woods of frustration, but it's a price I'll happily pay for such a bold and innovative vehicular adventure.