Somewhere in the backwoods of Bulgaria, my car sputters and dies. I’m out of gas. I’m not sure whether the nearest gas station is ahead of me or behind me, so I grab my wallet and start walking. Night has fallen by the time I make it, only to find the station doesn’t sell gas cans. With I sigh, I turn around for the long trek back to the other gas station.
Jalopy, from developer Minskworks and publisher Excalibur Games, places you in the role of a man living in East Germany in the final months before reunification. Your uncle is the proud owner of a Laika 601 Deluxe, which is akin to its real-world cousins, the Yugo and the Lada. It’s, well, a jalopy. You’re taking this junk heap on wheels on a road trip—from the German Democratic Republic to Czechoslovakia, into Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and finally Turkey.
This video game is part driving adventure, part management. As you drive to your destinations, you’ll have to juggle just about everything: money, gas, oil, integrity of parts, tire tread, battery charge, even the windshield fluid. Being the jalopy that this car is, nothing on or in it lasts. Engine components constantly degrade. The Laika has horrible fuel efficiency. Tires wear out and go flat. Most of the time, it’s less “upkeep” and more “doing the bare minimum to keep the car puttering along a few kilometers more.”
Somewhat strangely, to pay for upkeep and parts, you derive income largely by finding boxes abandoned on the side on the road. Break them open and you’ll find all of life’s essentials—things like sausages, cigarettes, wine, and textiles. These can be sold at gas stations to offset costs for supplies. Weird, but it’s a passable system.
Jalopy is not for those short of patience. I spent my journey through Yugoslavia going 20 kilometers an hour, angry black smoke pouring out of the engine compartment, trying to muster the power to crest each hill in the hopes of spotting a gas station. Similarly, driving down dirt roads, especially during a rainstorm, without the proper tires installed is equal parts thrilling and frustrating, attempting to keep on the road in a car that has no business driving off of pavement.
Even in those rare moments when your car is running smoothly, it’s just you and the Balkan countryside. It’s rare to see other cars on the road—if this was intentionally done to focus on the “road trip” aspect, I’m not sure. The bright, chunky graphics are undefined but charming; environments do have a tendency to repeat, though each country does have its unique spots, such as the Adriatic coast in Yugoslavia and military monuments in Germany. It is all about the trip; there’s not one ounce of story along the way, and surprisingly, it works. In a way, the story is the one between you and the car.
If you do prefer some substance, there is the option at the beginning of the game to bring your uncle with you on the road trip. Along the way, he’ll give out facts about his life, the country you’re in, and the political climate of the world. It ends up being a hassle having to click through dialogue popups as you’re driving, however. Annoyingly, if opt to leave your uncle behind, he magically appears outside the motel beside your car every time you load the game, nagging you to join the trip. Also, for some reason the developers saw fit to give him a jacket that seems to tear a hole in reality, like one of those autostereogram pictures that were all the rage in the late 1990s, the jacket print shifting as your view does. Uncle has few redeeming qualities.
One thing I would have liked to see is more cities and buildings in each country. At each border checkpoint you choose your route across the country to your destination, and aside from the gas stations, you’ll only come across the next city that houses the next border checkpoint. This—along with the lack of traffic—makes the maps feel like “maps” rather than the effect of being immersed in a real place.
Jalopy is still in early access, and has been since April 2016. At this point it’s essentially feature complete, and the final destination, Turkey, was added back in June 2017. I did encounter a few bugs, the biggest one surrounding gas cans; I couldn’t fill them or use them to fill my car, and they could temporarily get stuck in my engine compartment. The only fix I found was to quit the game and reload, which then restarts your day, losing driving progress—a rather annoying bug for a game that revolves around fueling up the car regularly. As the game is currently being translated into other languages, it seems to be in its last stages before final release.
Can I recommend Jalopy? If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, perhaps. It’s an oddball game, a bit bare-bones. If you’re into driving games like Euro Truck Simulator and want something on the opposite end of the stress spectrum, give it a whirl. It might just give you a newfound appreciation for your next commute to work.
Jalopy is available on Steam.