On paper, there’s no real reason I would be interested in Wheels of Aurelia. If there’s three things I know very little about, it’s visual novels, racing, and the rise of neo-fascism in 1970s Italy. And yet, it’s this wild trio of things that I find myself having to understand amidst the rush and hubbub of Wheels of Aurelia.
Wheels of Aurelia (Android, iOS, PC [reviewed], PS4, Switch, Xbox One)
Released Sep 2016 | Developed / Published: Santa Ragione
Genre: Racing, VN | HLTB: 30 mins
There’s no doubt that the theme drew me to Wheels of Aurelia initially. One thing I think with no small amount of conviction is that games can be about anything, provided there’s a bright enough vision behind it. With that in mind, it’s probably not terribly surprising that Wheels of Aurelia looks immediately interesting, with its slick aesthetic and touting a promise of a narrative-led experience set amidst the backdrop of Italian ‘70s racer culture. I mean, it’s intriguing, right? It’s the beauty of self-published indie games; free of the burden of publisher constraints, a company can make a self-indulgent project and hopefully the process of crafting something unique winds up rewarding for them.
And, in fairness, I was definitely interested in seeing how exactly a visual novel-style narrative adventure and racing would mesh together. I have a limited history when it comes to car games – I played a little bit of Gran Turismo 2 as a child (an altogether too-intense experience for 8-9-year old me) and had some grand fun smashing up against cars in the rise of the racing games that were more about vehicular carnage during the early aughts like Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and the Burnout series, but my knowledge of games about cars largely comes to an end there. In my head most games about racing tend to be either for customization geeks who want to tinker with car parts or for purists and authenticity snobs who want the most accurate recreations possible and are content to run seemingly endless laps around this year’s most photorealistic edition of the Nurburgring.
The answer, according to Wheels of Aurelia, is to keep it ultra-simplified, and to lean into the narrative and style angles instead. It’s not really a racing game, per se; it’s a game about racing. You spend your entire time driving but it uses it as a conceit within which it explores a series of emotive narrative topics. To manage this, the driving is kept, as I said, very simple. Once you’ve selected a car and begun the game, your vehicle trundles along on its own, and you’re given just one button to accelerate and you can steer left or right. Everything is presented from an isometric viewpoint, so sometimes the steering doesn’t quite feel as accurate as one might like, and it’s very easy to bump into other cars. This doesn’t have any truly serious effect; oher drivers will honk at you and might grind to a halt around you but that’s about it for the obvious consequences. Some endings actually require you to avoid drivers and not cause crashes and bumps, and others want you to floor it through the game and beat it in under 15 minutes, so for all the endings you’ll need to get familiar with the driving.
The reason the controls are so straightforward though is to free your thumb up for dialogue selection. While you’re driving along, our main character, Lella, will start to chatter away to her passengers. Dialogue options pop up on screen and you can cycle through them with the up and down buttons. Once you have an option you’re happy with, a little timer bar counts down to its selection. There’s an eclectic set of topics covered by the game, ranging from a burgeoning feminist movement and its discussion of abortion morality and rights, to the rising threat of homegrown fascism in a country all-too familiar with the damage it can cause. Some are a little less heavy, such as chats with a UFO-watching conspiracy theorist or calling out a Juventus supporter who doesn’t live in or come from Turin, but what Wheels of Aurelia is trying to do is keep players invested and playing by offering snippets of storyline, requiring you to come back and try different dialogue options or actions in order to see if it changes the movement of the narrative.
Lella herself cuts an enigmatic figure. While parts of her personality are naturally shaped by your dialogue choices, some things remain constant. For a start, she’s clearly on a road trip through Italy, and at the beginning of the game she picks up another woman, Olga, from a disco and the pair of them decide to drive all the way through to France. Whether they get there is, of course, up to you. Your reactions and choices of narrative topics allow you to start exploring Lella’s personality, but the decisions you make while driving also feed into what ending you wind up getting. As you drive you have the option of picking up hitchhikers from laybys; you can choose to ignore them in favour of continuing to talk to Olga, or brush your new friend off to natter to your new companions, and you also don’t have to drive them where they want to go as the road branches off in multiple directions and you have the freedom to follow whichever path you choose.
Naturally everything feeds into the game’s multiple endings, but sometimes it’s hard to think how your decisions led to a particular point. At times the game feels a bit disjointed, with sequences occurring which seem also as if they belong in an action film or thriller. That’s intentional though; the developers were inspired by various works of Italian cinema, in particular commedia all’italiana works of the ‘50s to the ‘70s. If you’re familiar with this era of film then presumably sequences which seem to come out of nowhere like a race with a haughty punk which turns into a high-speed tailing of a neofascist, or a harrowing experience with paparazzi hounding our protagonist perhaps feel like they belong. Working out how to unlock each ending can be a brainteaser because of how many options you have the chance to make differently in each playthrough; thankfully the playthroughs are short so as not to make exploring and trying new things too much of a chore.
As an experiment in smushing together two genres that seem to me to be quite disparate, Wheels of Aurelia makes for an entertaining time. Its driving game branding probably won’t truly endear it to racing fanatics; the blurb maybe oversells how much racing is in the game and doesn’t entirely convey that it’s a game about driving rather than a driving game, if you see the distinction. It also probably carries a lot more resonance for fans of Italian cinema, but a lot of the tropes are timeless and even to someone entirely ignorant (like me) it’s still quite recognisable. Really its main draw is the narrative, and it does rely on you wanting to play the game through multiple times; without doing so, you might struggle to get enough of a connection to the characters or to see the different sides to Lella.
4/7 – GOOD.
Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.