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Game review: Jalopy
By Ron Scopelliti
Have you ever wanted to travel the dreariest roads in Eastern Europe, accompanied by an annoying, elderly uncle, while driving one of the most unpleasant and unreliable cars of the late twentieth century? Neither had I until I reached my first destination in Jalopy, a sometimes-frustrating, sometimes-charming, but always utterly unique indie PC game developed by MinskWorks and published by Excalibur Games.
Though it’s technically a driving game, Jalopy is more about resource management than carving corners. The single-player game starts when your eccentric Uncle Lütfi convinces you to leave East Berlin in an old “Laika 601”a thinly disguised version of the infamous East German Trabant coupe. From there, the goal is to keep moving, picking up supplies you find on the road, trading road trash for gas and tires, and trying to make it to the next city before the Laika runs out of fuel or requires the next in a seemingly endless series of repairs.
The key attribute that Jalopy requires of its player is patience. Simple tasks can be rather cumbersome. For instance, adding gas to the car requires you to unlatch the hood from inside the car, get out and raise the hood, pump the gas, close the hood, open the passenger door, take your wallet from the glove compartment, go inside the gas station to pay, go back out, put your wallet back in the glove box… The bottom line is that nothing in the game is quick and easy.
Game saves are also a bit funky. Saving a game before you quit doesn’t mean you’ll return to the same spot when you continue your game. Instead, you’ll return to the last place that you slept. This means that each gaming session requires you to keep playing until you’ve made it to a motel, lest you lose all your progress for that session.
Somehow, the clumsiness of the tasks fit in with the overall feeling of the game. It’s a game where driving from Berlin to Dresden presents a challenge not because you’re dodging zombies or fleeing spy hunters, but because you’re facing the far greater horror of maintaining a banal existence on meager funds in an environment where everything seems to be going against you. In other words, it’s a lot like real life.
The scenery is as stark as the Laika’s interior, until it starts to rain and things go from stark to downright dismal. Graphics are simple and angular, except for the bizarre herringbone texture of Uncle Lütfi’s sport coat, which has a surreal way of staying still while the coat moves beneath it. It’s oddball touches like this, and like Uncle Lütfi’s reminiscences of the Eastern Block, that give the game much of its charm.
As for the actual driving, I’d compare the overall feel of the Laika to a 1970s Dodge Dart running on a third of its cylinders, with four completely worn shocks and iffy idler arm bushings. The brakes of the Laika, however, are far superior.Though I experimented with using an Xbox controller for driving, I eventually went back to keyboard/mouse controls. Steering wheels were originally supposed to be supported, but this option never made it to the final game release.
So Jalopy offers a rather clumsy experience driving in a slow-moving car with an annoying uncle through a bland landscape. And while it’s not a game I’m tempted to play for hours on end, I’m glad I bought it. Maybe because it’s so completely unlike any other game I own. If you’ve got the patience, Jalopy offers a one-of-a-kind gaming experience, at the relatively low cost of $14.99 from gog.com or Steam. It’s available only for PC, and runs on Windows 7, 8, or 10.