The fall of the Soviet Union resulted in Europe's balance of power changing rapidly over several years. Moreover, it brought many countries their first taste of capitalism in one or more generations. In Jalopy, you play as a young German man who gets the keys to his first car right around this time period. It's up to you to keep this little clunker running while you drive your uncle across Europe.
The core of Jalopy's narrative is quite simple: make it all the way to Turkey with your uncle. Doing this the first time is a real challenge as the stock parts for your vehicle don't last very long before puttering out. Even with good maintenance, you'll still need to spend money purchasing replacement tires (or tire patch kits) and repair kits for your car to keep everything in tip-top shape.
Fortunately for you, the boxes full of salable goods litter the roadways of Europe. You can snap them right up and stow away in your trunk to sell at a gas station later. Some boxes are simple cardboard affairs that just require peeling back a piece of tape to open. Other boxes are made of wood and secured with a padlock, openable only with a crowbar. If you don't happen to have a crowbar you could simply stash your roadside treasure into your car. Do be warned, trunk space comes at a premium and boxes aren't always filled to the brim with useful goods.
Mainly, you'll be spending your money on three things. Staying at motels in-between border crossings, paying any fines you may have accrued due to unsafe driving (read: people ramming into you or vice versa), and paying for maintaining your car.
Car maintenance is a must in Jalopy. You can limp along for a little while with one or two components on the fritz, but everything eventually grinds to a halt. In my first few attempts, I just couldn't make it past the first few towns. I inevitably had a critical mechanical failure or ran out of money. Eventually, I stumbled onto the core gameplay loop through trial-and-error. Pick a route, drive along, pick up boxes, sell stuff at the next town. Hold onto a bit of cash for fuel, the motel, etc., upgrade your vehicle if you can, and move on. I think it's entirely possible to do it with just the stock car and a bit of luck, but I elected to leave my uncle behind and try to upgrade my car.
You see, while you have to pay for fuel and incur maintenance costs as you're driving, you can always return home for free as a failsafe. Additionally, a full set of everything you need to kit out your car with stock parts and fill up the tank is always available in your home garage. I noticed that these default items could be sold, and I thought that surely the game would not let me load my trunk up with a dozen car jacks, sell them (and my spare tires!) for profit, and return home for free. Unfortunately, this easily-exploitable behavior is doable without any real issue. That's the first of many design flaws that popped up during my time with the game.
Jalopy procedurally generates the routes you drive on and the prices for the six different types of salable goods. I had managed to acquire a couple dozen bottles of wine which can sell for anywhere between 10 and 100 Marks a piece. Most of the high-end car parts cost anywhere between 350-400 Marks. If I managed to sell the wine at or near its maximum price, I would be able to upgrade half of the core components in my car to their best available version.
I eventually figured out that the most efficient strategy was to continually "return home" without ever leaving. Gaining wine with each restart, I'd leave with trunk worth 100 marks or more. I'd then drive to the next town to sell it, return home, and repair what I needed for free. Eventually, I upgraded all of the stock parts save the engine.
Emboldened by my blazingly fast top speed of 100 kph (just over 62 mph), I decided to push things a bit further and go for longer journeys. As I traveled onwards, I discovered abandoned cars (which I salvaged for parts and loot) and many, many boxes full of goods. I wanted to shoot for making a run to Turkey & back all in one go for an achievement and I was dead set on upgrading my car along the way. My car was completely maxed out in every respect. I would have successfully made my trip uninterrupted were it not for bugs that cropped up every few towns. I was once forced to restart after my vital navigational tool became stuck in an unreachable position. That killed the achievement right there.
I decided to press on, but the bugs continued. Purchased items simply disappear at the gas station register. Objects occasionally floated outside the car, including my Uncle. Situations where I couldn't progress kept cropping up, including receiving an unpayable border fine. The gallery below showcases just a handful of the bugs I encountered.
[gallery type="slideshow" size="full" ids="231650,231651,231652,231653,231649"]
The game's system for fines was another particular area of annoyance for me. Getting busted with contraband during a border search or causing property damage results in a 10 mark fine per incident. Unfortunately, the NPC drivers in the game are content to ram your stopped vehicle all day long. After that, the game has the gall to blame you for the accident.
Ultimately, you're trying to upgrade your Laika and have enough cash on hand for traveling and maintenance expenses. Once you've delivered your Uncle to his destination in Turkey, there's not much else to do. Basically, you can just drive around and scavenge stuff at the side of the road. I have seventeen hours in the game, and twelve of those were just driving in order to upgrade my car. There is no more story, no quests, and no random events to undertake. Just make money for the sake of making money or drive for fun.
Graphically, Jalopy is quite simple in many respects but that's an appealing part of the design. The style and excellent aesthetics stay consistent save for objects occasionally being where they don't belong. It sort of feels like a game based on a communist propaganda poster.
As for the sound, the Laika 601 Deluxe's puttering engine is kind of cute in a way. Most of the SFX were fine, although I found that the sound of the water bucket & sponge has an annoying mic pop still in it for some reason. Sounds did occasionally bug out and loop or play at the wrong time. The in-game radio is pretty delightful and reminiscent of the sort of Euro-pop you'd hear in the era. If you're really into it, you can even pick up the soundtrack separately.
I really wanted to like Jalopy. I can totally empathize with having a car that's falling apart all around you, nevermind the willingness to pick up salvage on the side of the road. Heck, "picking up salvage at the side of the road in a barely-running car" describes a good portion of my own childhood and that of many of my friends. The idea of the game and what it was going for appealed to me greatly. Its execution of that idea was another matter entirely.
Jalopy is a game that feels like it peeled off the Early Access label a bit too early. Poor design decisions and bugs that outright break the game stand out. A lack of content beyond free-roaming in the end game makes for a slim package overall. Like an old buggy, Jalopy could be an excellent title with a few mechanical tweaks and more polish. I sincerely hope a post-release patch fixes these issues. This game should reach its fullest potential, just like my own little yellow Laika.
Jalopy is a game with an interesting concept and good mechanics behind it. Sadly, poor design, a number of irritating bugs, and a lack of things to do beyond the game's single quest make for a disappointing experience.
- Interesting Car Maintenance Mechanics
- Great Soundtrack That Fits The Era
- Pleasing Aesthetic Style
- Poor Design Decisions
- Numerous Bugs That Interrupt Or Halt Gameplay
- Short Story & Lack Of Content After That