This taxi is tough on the spine
Last year, I got the opportunity to visit Hong Kong with my husband, where he grew up. On one particularly hot day, we took time out of our busy schedule of meeting friends and visiting old stomping grounds to cool off in the tea house of Nan Lian Garden. The tea house practically empty, the staff was able to speak with us at length about the different kinds of tea they had on offer. We ultimately settled upon two varieties, one which would “energize us to make us feel talkative” while the other would “leave us in a deep, contemplative state where talking is unnecessary.” As time passed, we realized how true this was: we drank one tea and chatted about all we had seen so far, then drank the other, completely zoning out to become in tune with the creaky old building, the gorgeous scenery outside, and the peaceful zither music plaything throughout.
Road to Guangdong transported me back to that day of drinking tea with my husband, an enjoyable time spent with a loved one where some parts make you yearn for connection while others allow you to mentally check out while still somehow being present in the moment.
Developed by Just Add Oil Games and published by Excalibur Games, Road to Guangdong was originally released as an Early Access title on Steam last year but was removed, and a glance at the reviews is easy to see why. As Excalibur Games was responsible for the hit road-tripping title Jalopy only a few years prior, fans took one look at Road to Guangdong and immediately assumed it would be “Jalopy 2,” naturally frustrated when it wasn’t. I’d like to manage player expectations right now for those readers who saw Road to Guangdong and thought the same — it is a different game entirely, and one that deserves to be judged on its own instead of unfairly against another.
Road to Guangdong follows the story of Sunny and her Guu Ma (paternal aunt) Grace as they take the beloved family clunker, Sandy, across Guangdong to visit relatives. The reason? Sunny’s parents have recently passed, so they need both the blessings and recipes of the family members, which will allow Sunny to take over the Tong Family Restaurant. Set in the 1990s, this means that Sunny and Guu Ma must make the journey with no GPS and no cell phones — just a general idea of where they’re going and the dulcet tones of Guu Ma’s favorite songs (since she won’t let you change the station).
Controls in Road to Guangdong are relatively simple, but the game could have used a page for a control scheme, especially when starting out. Sunny will need to look around the car to get things going, doing things like interacting with the car keys to start the ignition. After that, it’s R2 for gas and L2 for the brakes/reverse and smooth sailing from there on out. Sunny and Guu Ma will need to travel across Guangdong, stopping at five different cities all quite far apart from each other. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to complete them in a single circuit, as they’re laid out in a horseshoe shape with the starting point being right in the middle; how you approach the roadtrip is up to you, but be prepared for the long haul.
It’s easy enough to think that there are two main characters in Road to Guangdong, but there are actually three: Sunny, her Guu Ma Grace, and Sandy the inherited P.O.S. It’s nice that Guu Ma holds fond memories of driving Sandy around with her brother — Sunny’s father — but the truth is, Sandy has seen better days and it’d be kinder to put her out to pasture. Nevertheless, it’s Sandy you’ll grind into dust as you chug along the open roads, stopping at scrap piles and garages to fill her up and fix her up as the journey wears on.
In fact, Sandy is so high maintenance that it becomes a major focal point in Road to Guangdong. Taking it slow, making sure you have extra gas and oil, and routinely repairing/replacing her engine, belt, filters, and tires is the key to keeping the clunker happy. One way to make this journey as smooth as possible is to only go about 40 (mph? kmh? never says) and constantly pull over to sift through scrap piles. Once you get to a garage, sell any high value parts you’ve picked up along the way, then have the mechanic repair where possible. Careful money management means you can come out with more cash than you had going in, but you’ll need to cleverly strategize each time you hit up the shop. This means that the going will be pretty slow, but life is a journey and not a destination, right?
While there’s truth to that statement, those destinations are indeed important, as Sunny will need the blessings and recipes of her family to succeed. Each stop on the map means a different family member with different lives and different needs, but all will benefit from the same thing: communication. For example, a pit stop in Foshan (of Ip Man fame) leads Sunny to her martial arts instructor uncle and his students. Sunny can help foster a dialog between her uncle and his students, and their relationships grow stronger because of it. This holds true for all her family members and those Sunny helps — communication is key.
The cultural undertones that truly drive Road to Guangdong forward are abundantly evident as long as you know what you’re looking for. Foshan’s family member being a martial art’s instructor is one example, and the childless couple’s spoiled black-tongued chow-chow (which you can pet) being named something like Baobei (precious treasure/baby) being another. The biggest factor, however, is that push for communication, speaking what is generally left unsaid. Some characters lament that they should have communicated critical information but chose not to out of fear, while others refuse to speak to each other for a decade over an accusation which lead to hurt feelings. As long as Sunny chooses the correct options, she fosters communication throughout the journey, her family members getting over any blocks stopping them from expressing forgiveness, acceptance, and love.
One hurdle Road to Guangdong overcame beautifully was the potential to turn characters into caricatures. There’s a real danger of exoticising Chinese stories in Western media, making them feel too foreign or “other” to relate by casting nuance to the side and clunkily showing culture. I especially worried about the juxtaposition of Sunny, a Hong Kong college student, against Guu Ma, an unmarried older woman, as the standard fare has often been to position the older generation as weird and out-of-touch in comparison to the younger, “modern” generation. Thanks to Yen Ooi‘s strong writing, I was instead delighted by Guu Ma and the simple honesty of her character, one of the few in any video game I would say is a real, legitimate person.
So much of Road to Guangdong’s personality is riding on Guu Ma that you can’t help but feel like she’s your auntie as well. Driving long stretches with calming zither music would start making me drowsy — and, judging by the snores next to me, her too. Using her sleeping as an opportunity to change the station to 90s techno in an effort to stay awake was a useless endeavor, however; it only takes a few seconds for Guu Ma to irritably exclaim that she hates the noise, only to change it back to the soothing sounds of Chinese folk music. She’d also complain that I didn’t drink enough water, that I drove too fast, and would constantly bring up random tidbits about family members that you’ve heard a zillion times before.
But she cared — deeply. She was going along with you on this whole journey because it was the right thing to do. The restaurant honestly should have been hers in the first place, but she’s happy to turn it over to you. And she’ll staunchly protect her little brother, care for her elderly mother, and even take you in to make sure you’re adjusting to your new life without parents. That won’t stop her from being stubborn and terse, but anyone with a family member like this knows that Guu Ma is the glue keeping things together.
Unfortunately, Road to Guangdong isn’t without its flaws; I didn’t see a place where I could readily save, there were a few gas stations that didn’t sell spare gas (MASSIVELY unexpected), and I didn’t understand the way things were measured since there was no unit of measurement attached to the numbers (59 out of 112 to Kaiping? What does that even mean?). There were times where it felt like the music cut out, the controls were not initially intuitive, and not being able to initially discern where stops were along freeways also held it back. I would have been fantastic to have a minimap to see where my car was in relation to the two cities I’m travelling between, and I really would have appreciated being able to save between cities — I messed up on the last stop and didn’t want to play the game all over again to get it perfect. However, it is a fantastic gem that I can see picking up and playing again after a stressful day, and those that like road trip sims would be hard-pressed to disagree.
In the end, I’m reminded again of that day sipping tea in Hong Kong. There was a time for communicating and a time for being present in the moment, and both factors played heavily into Road to Guangdong. When visiting family, I absolutely wanted to speak to each member, connecting with them in a meaningful way to resolve deep-seated issues. But when it came to driving, it was wonderful to zone out, listening to the soothing sounds of the zither and, on occasion, Guu Ma’s snoring. A game of natural, balanced duality, it’s the perfect “reset” button to use as a barrier in-between more tense games, all while still providing a thoughtful journey across Southern China with loved ones.
Road to Guangdong is a brilliant narrative about the importance of communicating with one’s family wrapped up in a road trip simulator. A title that deserves to stand outside of Jalopy’s shadow and squarely on its own strong foundation, Road to Guangdong will likely land within the top 10 games I’ve played in 2020 for its soulful narrative, peaceful gameplay, and surprising need for clever strategy. A small title with a massive personality, Road to Guangdong is on my list of must-have Switch games, and if you’re even remotely interested in the game, it should be on yours as well. The distance between destinations is long and the travelling is slow-going, but the journey is insightful and certainly worth your time.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PS4, XBox, Switch (reviewed); Publisher: Excalibur Games; Developer: Just Add Oil Games; Players: 1; Released: August 28, 2020; MSRP: $24.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a copy of Road to Guangdong given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.