Road to Guangdong Review
Road to Guangdong is a hybrid road trip simulator/visual novel where you travel long stretches of highways through the province of Guangdong to visit various friends and family members and attempt to solve their problems. You play as Sunny, whose parents have recently died and willed their family restaurant to you. You must journey across the province of Guangdong to inform your family of this changing of the guard and receive their blessing, bond more with your aunt — who is your closest surviving relative — and take in some valuable life lessons that are integral to growing up and running a small business.
Gameplay takes two forms: driving and chatting. The driving simulation is quite simplistic, and the only challenges you face are potentially running out of gas, oil, or taxing your parts by driving too fast. You’re encouraged to drive slowly, and I played most of the game rhythmically tapping on the gas. You’re riding in a vintage car named Sandy, so petrol leaks quicker than the boat at the end of Jaws.
Most of your time in the game is spent on the road, which offers views of simplistic, somewhat repetitive vistas of the countryside and of more industrialized areas, sporadic commentary from your Guu Ma — your aunt — and the occasional vehicle. The game is neither a true simulator — there is no collision detection and therefore no crashing, and there are few turns and no lights — nor a breezy arcade experience as you must drive sluggishly to make sure your coolant meter doesn’t go into the red. At the same time, if you don’t maintain your parts at garages and manage your funds so that you can buy new ones and pay for replacements — you get more money by completing vignettes or by selling parts you find in scrapyards — you can easily get a game over and be forced to cut your trip short and watch a truncated ending. I always had just enough cash on hand to get by with some crummy, deteriorating parts, but during one drive I forgot to replace an oil filter, my car broke down, and I didn’t have enough money to pay the mechanic. I took my game over and was able to start again at the beginning of that same fateful drive. It isn’t completely mindless, but there is a hypnotic quality to the gameplay where you can let your eyes glaze over and just take in the scenery. I often found it very relaxing.
At each stop you’ll find another family member to update about your life and vice versa, and then you’ll help them out with a specific problem that’s typically a combination of slice-of-life story and parable for the protagonist to learn something about community, work, and family. A few of these are beautifully told. I particularly loved the ones about meeting your Guu Ma’s boyfriend and helping your niece hide her favourite chicken from her family so she wouldn’t be forced to eat it. However, they are, for the most part, binary moral qualms with easy and obvious solutions that you clearly state via dialogue. While playing, I wasn’t aware that any of the dialogue choices had consequences, as it wasn’t always clear what the “right” dialogue choice was, and the scenes played out without any incident. At the end of the game, your Guu Ma makes a list of judgements of “bad” choices you made. The game has a very clear worldview about right and wrong, and does force that a little onto the player. I figure the choices I made that were chastised had to do with me obfuscating information or lying. In the moment though, it seemed that most of the stories proceeded one linear way independent of my responses.
Aesthetically, the game has a neat, distinctive jagged style and expressively animated characters. The city environments are chunky, intimately detailed, and neon-lit, too. The game is supposed to take place in the 1990’s while Guangdong is rapidly becoming more industrialized and modern, and the landscape and settings illustrate that transformation well. However, the game is technically quite iffy. There is a consistent stutter during every driving portion of the game; cars often float above the road rather than riding on it, which looks goofy and distracting. Every garage is identical, with identical objects and dialogue from the mechanic. Each vignette is well-illustrated, set at a specific time of the day and with a more unique background. I just wish there were more of them.
I felt that way about much of Road to Guangdong. It’s a brief game that I feel would have actually benefited from being longer. The driving isn’t immersive enough or long enough to really settle into, but if it had been more fleshed out it could have been addictive and mind-melting like one of those Truck Simulator games. The vignettes are too compact and easily dealt with by the protagonist to require the player to really internalise the problems and stories and deduce what needs to be done, even if the only action the player can take is through dialogue. There are certain things the player can do — cooking meals, hiding chickens, practicing martial arts — that would be perfect fodder for a mini-game. Everything feels too slight. The protagonist is more of a recipient of life lessons than an active character making her own — or representing the player’s — choices.
There are only five main vignette stories, and each are quite short, too. Having said that, I liked the actual stories being told, found some of the dialogue heartwarming and clever, and really liked the vibe of the game. There is a distinctive point-of-view and a sense of family and community, and a palpable anxiety about modernity and change. More road stops and a more active protagonist would have been welcome.
I found Road to Guangdong relaxing and engaging, especially during the dialogue portions. I do think enjoying this game requires a player who is willing to be quite bored — which is in no way bad — or who wants something to play that requires very little input from the player. I had a warm, fuzzy feeling during much of my playthrough and it took my mind off of things. The style of the game and its rarely seen setting make for an experience that’s greater than the sum of its — admittedly quite flawed and sparse — parts.
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