A wise person has described my personality as being that of an East German man who was raised under communism, got used to communism, and then the Berlin Wall fell, freedom broke out, and I wasn’t interested and would just prefer to go back to bread lines and travel restrictions because I was doing just fine before, thank you. This is a 100% accurate assessment of me, and probably explains what drew me to today’s piece of the Big Steaming Pile, 2016’s Jalopy, by Minskworks.
(Author’s Note: This is a review of a game currently in early access. While available for purchase now, some features may be added, removed, or tweaked as production continues.)
Jalopy takes place in 1990, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before Germany officially reunified, so, while you live in what is still East Berlin, East Germans are now free to leave the country, and so you shall. You and your Uncle Lutfi are embarking on a road trip from Berlin to Istanbul, Turkey, stopping along the way in several Eastern Bloc countries. The titular jalopy you’ll be driving is a refurbished Laika 601 Deluxe, the flower of the East German auto industry.
Now, that said, despite being a German car, the Laika is not exactly a Mercedes or a BMW. It’s based on the Trabant 601, an actual East German car that can best be described as adorably terrible. As such, your Laika has about as much power as a go-kart and all the durability of an ice cube sitting on a hot summer sidewalk, and the biggest gimmick/obstacle you’ll face during your journey is the upkeep and maintenance of your decrepit hoopty. Engine parts will wear out and fail, tires will pop, your windshield will get muddy, and you’ll have to keep the tank filled up, not just with gasoline, but with engine oil because your two-stroke engine requires it to function. Crummy roads littered with potholes and oil spills can do a number on your vehicle, as well as the occasional other motorist in a Western automobile that isn’t terribly thrilled about having to share the road with your commie lemon, so even if all your parts are in tiptop shape, you have to be mindful of the road and its hazards.
You won’t have the money to buy new components at every stop, either, so what this effectively means is that you’ll have to rely on the road to giveth as well as taketh away, and indeed, it does at times. Abandoned Laikas found on the side of the road can be cannibalized for parts, crates and boxes can be found that provide goods that can be sold at stores, and scrapyards can be located that carry random parts that you can use or sell later. The catch is, though, that scrapyards are locked, and to open the gates, you’ll have to figure out how to make the truncated car out front start, usually by plugging in one of your Laika’s parts (though you can take the parts back after solving the puzzle) or repairing a component. If you do manage to scrimp and save enough cash, you can stop in at Laika dealerships in each town and peruse the available upgrades, from stronger engines and larger fuel tanks to a cargo rack that you can attach to increase your inventory space.
You also won’t be able to just stash everything you find, either. Your Laika has a VERY limited amount of trunk space, and managing your inventory becomes key. Fuel cans, a spare tire, a jack, a crowbar (for opening locked boxes found on the roadside), and a can of oil take up a lot of space, so trying to cram anything bigger than a pack of smokes or a bottle of wine might require you to dump something, and weighing the merits of dumping that extra fuel for that expensive engine part you’d like to sell becomes a pretty critical decision. Not to mention that certain items can be considered contraband in certain countries, and if the border guards decide to rummage through your trunk and find something illegal, you’ll be facing some hefty fines.
I’m also happy to report that the maintenance mechanics here are extremely simple, so even those of us with no actual repair skills can assemble and disassemble their Laika from scratch without a problem. There’s a tutorial that explains what each part is and what it does, and most of the components literally snap into place at the press of a button and can be pulled out by holding the mouse button. Changing a tire, much like real life, requires you to jack the car up and loosen the lugnut first, but that’s really the most complex repair you’ll have to accomplish, and even then, the process is so idiot-proof that you can’t even accidentally attempt to drive off with the jack under the car.
Another interesting aspect to Jalopy is that, while your destination is set in stone, there’s more than one way to get there. Every day, before you get underway, you can choose from one of three routes to get from town to town. Some routes might be shorter, but the road conditions might be poorer or the weather might be bad (and your Laika will slip and slide around in the rain like you’re driving on Teflon), and some routes might be longer but feature a gas station or a handful of crates along the way. Uncle Lutfi also likes to narrate the journey, taking the opportunity at times to talk about the current political climate or interesting snippets about the country you’re driving through.
Much like American Truck Simulator, there’s something very meditative and zen-like about driving your little rustbucket through the backroads of the Eastern Bloc, and more than a few opportunities for memorable moments, like trying to squeeze every last drop of fuel out of your Laika to reach a Hungarian border town and running out of gas just as you reach the parking lot of the gas station, or breaking open a roadside crate in Yugoslavia that just happens to be loaded to the brim with expensive medicine that can be sold in Bulgaria for some DESPERATELY needed money. You’ll even begin to develop a bit of affection for the car itself, so your journey of two really evolves into a quest for three, and it’s a testament to the developers that they managed to make me feel attached to a virtual car, especially one that can barely break 50 miles per hour and blows through tires like prunes through a goose, although that might just be the Ossi in me talking.
Visually, Jalopy captures the spirit of the other side of the Iron Curtain very well. Most everything is awash in very drab, very bland colors, and the art style is very blocky and brutalist, kind of a cross between Papers, Please and Minecraft. The towns don’t look terribly interesting, the roads are rather dark and empty, and your Laika looks like an extremely squarish hunk of metal and plastic, but there is a charm to all that, and every now and then, you’ll see a beautiful scene that pokes out from all the lethargy around you. The sounds are a lot brighter than the art, from the pounding, incessant rain of driving through a storm to the putt-putt sound of your crummy two-stroke engine, even the songs on the radio that sound like the Human Music from Rick and Morty being punctuated by German speech that I don’t understand, it’s much more a treat for the ears instead of the eyes.
Jalopy is a very unique take on the concept of the road trip, from the Eastern Bloc setting to the realization that you are taking this trip in a car that should never be used to do so. It’s basically Go Trabi Go: The Game, but the execution is strangely enjoyable, even if a lot of the game involves replacing broken-down parts and trying to scrounge up enough cash to keep gas in the tank. There’s a lot of potential for unintentionally memorable moments, and the multiple available paths and upgrade system make for some quality replay value. It also strikes a solid balance between being realistic without being overbearingly so, so gearheads and non-gearheads alike can find fun in discovering ways to keep your little wagon rolling along. I highly recommend Jalopy for someone looking for a new way to look at the road trip genre, especially those who want to experience the open road in a very closed society, or for anyone who wants a fresh spin on a survival/inventory management simulator, just be warned, although your Laika is a loyal companion, he’s not a very fast one. Give him some slack, he’s doing his best.
Current Price – $14.99
Is It Worth It? – You might want to wait for the official release, for the sake of bugs and such, but this early release is highly promising.