There are only two radio channels in the slice-of-life driving simulator, Road to Guangdong–one plays some blend of milquetoast “oriental” music, while the other broadcasts more upbeat and decidedly modern synthwave-inspired melodies. It’s this gulf between the two genres that also seems to inspire one of the few highlights behind Road to Guangdong: the light-hearted ribbing between you and your Guu Ma–the Chinese honorific for aunts–as you embark on a road trip together. The elderly Guu Ma’s disdain for the pulsating grooves of electronic music means she will always try to change the radio channel back to the vaguely Guangdong-esque music she’s more familiar with, after much grumbling about the unrefined state of modern music. You can, of course, flip the channel back again, if only to annoy her–and cackle at her exasperation as she reaches out to change the music once again.
While this small interaction is mildly amusing, it doesn’t sustain the game’s novelty for long. Road to Guangdong is a long-winding, exhausting ride–and I don’t mean in terms of hours. Not only is its pacing extremely sluggish, its characters’ minimalist expressions are also overly mechanical and too limited in their range to convey any emotion–an unfortunate design choice that only brings more attention to the game’s flat, lacklustre dialogues. This is made more apparent when Guu Ma occasionally sprinkles some canned advice over the course of your endless drives, one of which is a recurring suggestion to change your radio channel. But why would you suggest that, Guu Ma, if the only other option is these trance-like bangers you hate so much?
This unnaturalness–even a sense of aberration–also extends to the rest of the game. You play as Sunny Tong, a young university art graduate whose parents have recently passed away in an accident. They’ve left behind a restaurant for you to manage, and accompanied by your Guu Ma, you’ll be driving your dad’s heavily battered, decades-old car–lovingly nicknamed Sandy–to visit your relatives across Guangdong. At the same time, you’ll also be collecting hand-me-down recipes from them to run the restaurant with. One part interactive novel, one part road trip simulator, Road to Guangdong alternates between driving to your relatives’ homes and interacting with your extended family.
Road to Guangdong isn’t cavalier about its stories’ cultural context, at the very least. This can be observed in how Sunny addresses her relatives by their proper terms of kinship, as well as through Guu Ma’s gruff pragmatism and awkwardness with verbal affections, which are very quintessentially Chinese. A significant part of this is due to developer Just Add Oil Games’ narrative designer and cultural consultant Yen Ooi, who clearly has a hand in shaping the tale. However, everything else about Road to Guangdong quickly falters, for there is little genuine warmth to be found in the interactions with your relatives. Visits to every household are just messy knots of familial complications that Sunny has to untangle, and all these are unravelled with such muted enthusiasm that it all comes off as incredibly drab.
Like a visual novel, conversations take place by choosing from a list of dialogue options, peppered by insights you can pick up on to expand on your conversations. Ultimately, these choices amount to very little, without any marked influence on how the game eventually plays out. Odder still is the distinct lack of music during these narrative segments, other than the jarringly synthetic UI sound effects that ring when you scroll through your responses, which only echo the sheer emptiness of the family dynamics. Towards the end, I was simply clicking through the dialogue just to quickly conclude the narrative chapters. I honestly couldn’t wait to get back on the road.
That’s not to say the driving is any more compelling than these visits–it only serves as a slight reprieve from the tedium of familial exchanges. The family car is a dilapidated heap of junk that’s barely held together by schmaltz and nostalgia, so it can’t go too fast in case the vehicle gives way. Meanwhile, you also need to watch out for your petrol and oil meter before they get too low, and cycle out car parts that can be conveniently picked up in scrapyards along your journey or purchased at gas stations. It bears a remarkable resemblance to Jalopy–both share the same publisher–but the repairs are nothing more than busywork to pad the game with, as scrap parts can be found in sheer excess.
And while the drive itself can be hypnotic and soothing at times, the cathartic joy of cruising down asphalt is absent. The roads in Road to Guangdong are mostly straight and mind-numbingly linear, with the only pit stops you make the scrapyards and gas stations you’ll see every few kilometers. What makes this even duller, and even unnecessarily grating, are the uninspiring pastel-hued scenery–a joyless rendition of the bustling province of Guangdong–as well as the insipid spin on Guangdong music and electronic tunes on the radio. I found myself turning down the master volume and playing external music over it to take away some of the humdrum.
Guu Ma, too, makes for an immensely stale road trip companion. Rather than replicate the flow and cadences of real conversations, small talk with her feels utterly scripted and stilted. Far from conversing with a beloved relative, this dialogue is more akin to interacting with a virtual assistant for your rickety car, as she regurgitates reminders about the state of your sedan at specific intervals. Is your car guzzling too much petrol? Guu Ma will intermittently drop hints about pulling it over for a quick refuel. The needle in your temperature gauge swaying too frequently into the red? Guu Ma tells you the fan belt probably needs servicing. Or perhaps the car is humming too loudly? Like clockwork, she gives a perfunctory response on how this may be due to a faulty car engine or worn-out tire. While truly a veritable fountain of vehicular knowledge, Guu Ma is sadly not much else. She also dishes out banal anecdotes about the family, but they add no shades of intimacy to your relationship with her and your relatives.
Road to Guangdong seems to hold much promise at first, despite its straightforward premise. There can be a tender charm to find in the simplicity of its conceit–the mix of the storytelling strength of visual novels and the unhurried pace of driving sims. After all, anecdotal tales can be powerfully memorable in their brevity, and the idea of long drives along asphalts roads can have a pleasant, leisurely allure. On paper, Road to Guangdong seems to have the mellow, slice-of-life formula down pat, even though you’ll soon realize its execution is anything but.
And as a Chinese player, I had come in expecting more from a studio called Just Add Oil Games–a name that’s a cheeky reference and a literal translation of the Chinese phrase “jia you,” an expression of encouragement and support. But its cast of Road to Guangdong is little more than an ensemble of lifeless, cardboard cutouts of a Chinese family, despite the best efforts of its writer Ooi (who is coincidentally the only member of Chinese descent on her team). In the end, Road to Guangdong doesn’t quite live up to its modest ambitions as an intimate driving experience, as it shapes up to be a meandering road trip that simply can’t end soon enough.