Even though we’ve seen a few road trip adventures recently, it remains a genre (sub-genre?) full of untapped potential. The possibilities are almost limitless – a road trip can take players far and wide, entailing numerous surprises and encounters along the way.

Minskworks’ Jalopy tries its hardest to tap into that potential, and while it’s easy to see what the developer set out to achieve, it hits more than a few potholes along the way.

The premise and structure are both well-grounded, at least. Set shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall in the early ‘90s, the silent lead and their mild-mannered uncle Lutfi make their way across the Eastern Bloc, passing through border control checkpoints and staying in motels. Rather than making their journey from Berlin to Turkey in comfort and style, however, Lutfi presents you with a Laika 601 – a cramped rickety banger prone to breaking down.

Viewed entirely from first-person, using a cursor driven point and click interface, it’s up to you to repair and maintain the Laika, driving it steadily from one country to the next. It’s a process more painstaking than it may sound – Jalopy falls within the simulator genre, with every task and action taking considerable time and effort.

The opening sequence makes this apparent from the outset, acting as a tutorial as you help Lutfi get the Laika roadworthy by replacing engine parts, topping-up fluids, and fitting new tyres. As tempting as it is to speed ahead here, doing so will put things out of sequence – Lutfi’s instructions must be followed perfectly.

Once on the road, it’s then a case of monitoring wear, with each of the car’s components having its own durability rating. If this becomes too low, you risk a critical engine failure and a roadside breakdown. Fortunately, it’s possible to fill the trunk with repair kits, fuel cans, and water bottles to prevent this from happening. Planning ahead is crucial.

The driving aspect starts off reasonably enjoyable. Sure, the Lakia offers a bumpy ride, but there’s still joy to be had by cruising the open road, with each location featuring unique backdrops. You can even turn on the radio to drown out Lutfi’s mumbling.

Towards the journey’s end the roads become longer, taking as long as thirty minutes to navigate, and more rugged. A single pothole can blow a tyre, so you need to pay attention. By this point, driving definitely feels more laborious. Jalopy really isn’t afraid to punish players, either – a mere oversight, such as forgetting to bring a repair kit, can cost dearly.

Such failure results in heading back to the previous town’s motel. This is the one and only place progress is saved – turning in for the night signifies the end of the day and the start of the next leg of the trip. Upon waking the next morning, Lutfi is ready to hit the road again. It’s up to you to choose the next route to take, with a choice of three available. You can also visit the petrol station and Lakia dealership before heading to border control.   

Lakia upgrades are something of a luxury. The duo only has a small amount of cash between them, making funds severely limited. As such, you’re often forced to make educated purchases and stock up on essentials rather than spending frivolously. Lutfi will generously give a handout when things get desperate, but usually, it’s barely enough to pay for the next motel and a few gallons of fuel.

This is where the trading element comes into play. Each petrol station stocks a randomised assortment of goods, varying from packs of sausages to bottles of wine. Prices within each country vary, allowing the market to be played by buying discounted goods at one store and selling to the next. Not all goods can be taken through border control, however – if officers spot contraband, you’ll be hit with a fine.

Trading isn’t explained particularly well initially, coming across as an optional feature when in fact it’s near essential. Upon arriving in the second country, Lutfi simply mentions there’s a “market” nearby to sell goods. This prompted us to aimlessly walk around, looking for a literal market, before realising the petrol station doubles as a place to trade.

If being able to turn a profit at the petrol station wasn’t odd enough, it’s also here that the crudeness of the game’s programming is more than apparent. By carrying previously acquired goods to the till (there’s no inventory – everything is stored in the Lakia’s trunk, and only three items can be carried at once) it’s possible to generate a negative balance, which can then either be refunded into your wallet or spent on more supplies.

Once the Lakia is stocked with goods, repaired, and refuelled, it’s then off to the next country to do it all again, only with rougher roads to navigate before reaching the next destination. Maybe a thunderstorm too if you’re unlucky, or a wrecked vehicle to salvage items from if ‘lady luck’ favours you that day.

And that’s Jalopy in a nutshell.

By this point, you may have the impression that Jalopy sounds pretty good. Brilliant, even. As we said, the concept of a road trip holds appeal. There’s just one problem – the game engine is as crude as they come, which in turn makes for a very archaic experience.

It genuinely looks and feels like something from the mid-90s, the modern-day version of which being one of those notoriously niche PC farming/lumberjack/fireman simulators. We’re talking dated visuals, glitches galore, wobbly physics and scripted AI. There aren’t even any other cars on the road.

We can forgive the fact that Jalopy is a low budget affair – the minimalistic visuals hold a degree of artistic appeal, and that’s despite a colour palette consisting of putrid shades of yellow and brown. Even the fact that the three key locations in each city – the petrol station, motel, and dealership – are identical from one country to the next isn’t too discouraging, given the small size of the development team.

However, we can’t forgive the fact that barely an hour passes without Jalopy freezing up, losing all progress up until that point. Whenever we started to become engrossed, it would either crash or an irksome bug or irregularity occurred, such as Lutfi failing to commence his scripted end of day routine, or a newly purchased wheel jack simply vanishing from existence, leaving the car floating in mid-air. Much to our amusement, Lutfi even started talking in tongues during the tutorial.

Less amusing was the fact we had to start the mountain range trek no less than four times due to the car becoming snagged on scenery. Sometimes we could free it up by repeatedly slamming the boot, but even then, this could take up to ten minutes of messing around. The other option? Write off the last 30 minutes of playtime.

To top it all off, the point and click interface is beyond finicky with a joypad, making such routine tasks as changing tyres needlessly complex. Not much thought has gone into this conversion at all.

When faced with a game that has arrived in a poor state we usually suggest waiting for a patch, but sadly, we can’t see things improving. Jalopy first launched on PC in 2016 as a Steam early access release. This console version appears to be based on the ‘final’ build from March 2019. Even after three years of updates, it’s still in rough shape.

The outline of something special is here – a game that could have been truly great – but the developer seemingly set their ambitions too high; something not helped by the rock bottom production values. This is an economy class trip with a bump at every turn and only a few scenic views. An exceedingly raw experience, only the most patient of gamers will reach the journey’s end.  

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