- Genre: Puzzle, Simulator
- Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PlayStation, PC
- Developer | Publisher: Just Add Oil Games | Excalibur Publishing
- Age Rating: PEGI 3+ | ESRB E (Everyone)
- Price: £16.74 / $19.99
- Release Date: 28th August 2020
Review code used, with thanks to Excalibur Games! And thanks to James Butler for reviewing this game. Follow James @Ludonymist on twitter!
An emotional ride – in every sense of the word. This review is being written in a tiny hamlet in North-West England, in the middle of a grey wet November and a concurrent pandemic lockdown. I provide this information not to date this summary, but to draw attention to the true extent of the cathartic role that games hold in our lives. I miss the days of long drives, on road both familiar and unknown, small chit-chat with a passenger, looking at unusual names on road-signs, particularly obnoxious adverts, and curious landmarks that dot the horizon – as well as the inevitable missed turn and even the thrill of feeling ‘I can make it to the next petrol station. I know I can. … I hope …’. The core gameplay of this title replicates that sense in full. Especially after nearly 8-months of travel restrictions and being stuck in a small place with seemingly no end in sight getting to truly know your accompanying passengers; the title offers a means of participating in a virtual road trip, and all the emotion that comes from such trips.
Story and Characters
The story is where the soul of the game comes into play. It is a highly personal trek that the player is invited along on in order to reconnect and collect family recipes from relations, whilst getting to know the story of your immediate family – especially your constant companion, your Guu Ma. At every step/stop a kodak moment Is captured on the stat summary screen, which hammers home the intimacy of the experience. Some critics have commented on the use of Cantonese terms peppered throughout the game with little explanation provided – but such a Clock Orange-style glossary would absolutely take from the immersion. We all have pet names of endearment and familiar traditions which Road to Guangdong captures perfectly : those hazy moments of being, of family, of love.
Road to Guangdong is – at its very core – an efficiency-and-optimization led puzzle game. The objectives are to reach estranged family members on a highly personal journey, and ensuring that your car – which runs on little more than hope, prayers, and love – can withstand each leg, through carefully balancing finances with anticipated wear-and-tear. Fan belts, oil and air filters, tyres – bought new and scavenged from scrap pules … the savvy player will also need to keep a quantity of oil and petrol on hand – just in case those long desolate roads are a little longer than initially anticipated. And I love that. Puts me in mind of my own first car. Routine is key – you even have to turn the key to start the engine, and manually press a button on the dash to turn the lights on, keeping the car going at a steady pace once you have found the sweet spot that doesn’t overheat the engine or guzzle petrol too quickly.
Graphics, Sound, and Performance
Road to Guangdong’s low-fi aesthetic (described by the publisher as ‘a visual novel’) shines through at every level of its composition. There is very little that seems as though it would tax even an original psx console, but that simplicity of the environment and overall form allows the player to imagine what lies just beyond the horizon. The lighting is simple, but majestic, and captures the sense of a remembered time and space perfectly. The one thing I would have really liked to have seen would be an increased level of traffic – both motor and bike-based – but again, the low scale effects capture the style of a memory with veering slightly towards distant headlights as you look around to check out an interesting doodad of scenery or keep a diligent eye on the temperature gauge.
The sound and music (controlled entirely by the radio, of course) is minimal – but soothing. There is no spoken dialogue, which fits nicely into the whole memory / graphic novel compositional form.
The performance is understandably smooth given the minimalist elements in play, but players expecting an accurate physics model for destruction or a touch of decorative customisation to make the old family car will be disappointed (which could have been a lovely little touch if implemented given the game’s premise about visiting distant places, consolidating family history, and making new memories), but then such physical mementoes might overshadow the very point of the experience.
The game takes its time in explaining the fundamentals, making sure every little detail is hammered home before the player is given the freedom to choose their own path, and begin the process of planning optimisation. There are a number of destinations which have to be visited, and each presents a slightly branching narrative that touch upon moral choice and consequence at a deeply personal level. Although this might offer incentive for a re-play, such would detract from the very nature of the game and make it less a memorable experience and more just a story – which would be a shame.
The is very little to challenge the player once they are familiar with all the dials and parts needed, and the monotonous nature of the driving is overshadowed by beautiful scenery and the occasional one-sided chatter from your passenger – once again drawing on particular moments familiar to most of us, but artfully crafted into a whole new culturally-edifying experience.
Road to Guangdong captures the spirit of a last-minute road trip with aplomb. It doesn’t provide the trickiest of puzzles with its maintenance system, and the actual driving is incredibly dull; but like many great adventures, it isn’t the destination that matters but the experiences encountered on the way – a cheesy sentiment, maybe, but all the elements come together to provide a wonderful little slice of mental refreshment; especially during these unprecedented days of 2020 lockdowns.
A slice of personal nostalgia that is made the player’s own, despite the unfamiliarity of the cultural nuances that comprise the soul of the narrative. It is not an accurate portrayal by any means, but a distilled sense of personal discovery and authenticity. This title offers a new take on immersive roleplay, and it does so wonderfully.