What is it and who made it? Buckle your seatbelt as Milan-based indie studio Santa Ragione takes you on a ride along the Via Aurelia in this stylized cross between interactive adventure fiction and a racing game.
What platforms is it on and how much does it cost? PC/Mac/Linux gamers can take to the roads of Italy’s west coast starting today for $9.99 via Steam and itch.io. PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions are packing the car for an October 5th launch, so sit tight, console players.
How much did we play? Achieved 5 of 16 endings, unlocked 6 of 13 drivable cars, and met 5 of 6 hitchhikers in an hour and a half spent cruising the Via Aurelia.
Any technical concerns, hardware requirements, or other details you should know about? In a few spots I noticed corners of buildings jutting out into the road, like the 3D model had somehow shifted to the side from where it was supposed to have been placed on the map. Sometimes the bumper-car physics when hitting into other cars can look a little screwy as well. No truly serious bugs or performance issues to report though.
Why should you play it?
• Choose Your Own Road Trip: Wheels of Aurelia looks–and is interacted with–like an old isometric driving game, but really it is a choose your own adventure game where the narrative is the centerpiece, the plot twisting and turning as conversations unfold between the driver and passengers and different dialogue choices are made under the gun of a depleting time bar. The story revolves around Lella, the protagonist at the wheel, and a new friend she just met named Olga, who together have decided to leave Italy behind on a trip to France. You’ll soon discover that each character’s journey is motivated by events in their respective pasts and personal lives. The driving mechanic is kept very basic, in order to focus your attention on what’s going on inside the car instead of what’s on the road. You’re confined to staying within the borders of the road, and as far as I can tell you cannot wreck the car or cause accidents. However, there is some freedom to steer, turn off at exits, pick up or pass by hitchhikers, and hold the accelerate button to speed around traffic. If you’d rather concentrate on the dialogue–which is the entire point of the game after all–you can take your hands completely off the wheel and let the car automatically path find its way along the road at a steady pace while you read and carefully consider the next line of text for Lella to speak.
Although a certain level of suspension of disbelief is required to become fully immersed in the world Wheels of Aurelia creates–because some of the events and dialogues really are kind of a stretch–the story faithfully steeps itself in true to life issues of Italy’s past at the time period during which the game takes place–predominantly political strife and terrorism–while also dealing in social topics such as feminism, sexuality, abortion, faith and religion. Splashes of color and humor are injected into the dialogue, and the different characters exchange niceties and make general small talk about lighter topics as well, to keep the narrative from becoming too heavy. As events unfold, you can become caught up in a bank robbery and subsequent police chase, illegal street races, kidnappings, tailing a suspected terrorist, a medical emergency, and heated arguments. Each trip down the Via Aurelia only takes around 10 to 20 minutes, but based on dialogue choices, routes taken, and NPCs you decide to pick up and interact with, the road traveled will end with one of 16 possible outcomes. The unpredictability of the many potential scenarios keeps you wanting to hop behind the wheel for another run, to see what else could possibly happen.
• Radio Therapy: A long road trip without good music to listen to would be a dreary road trip. Luckily that’s not the case here. While the game’s distinct, almost diorama-style aesthetic plays an integral part in building atmosphere, it’s the soundtrack, blaring out over the car’s radio, that truly sets the tone, puts you into the mentality of a road-tripper, and transports the imagination to 1970s Italy. Seriously, go give the soundtrack a listen on Bandcamp, and maybe even buy it to listen to on your next real-life road trip. I’m listening to it over my headphones as I type these very words, and even though I can’t understand a single lyric, I just can’t stop humming along, itching to pop back into the game for more. The only thing missing is the ability to manually change stations. I think it would have been a neat touch to be able to fiddle with a little knob to choose songs, if only for another interactive element to further build immersion.
Parting Thoughts: Storytelling is the main draw here, and for the most part the narrative delivery is well written and executed. That being said, I did notice a few holes. It is slightly disappointing, for instance, that the conversational flow isn’t more dynamic, as it is in other recent narrative games like Firewatch or Oxenfree. For example on one of my playthroughs I decided to outright avoid responding to anyone or pursuing any conversation to see what would happen, and yet at no time did any of the characters react accordingly or question why I was ignoring their remarks. That was pretty jarring. A couple of other moments, where certain dialogues didn’t seem to jive with current or previous actions, had me scratching my head as well. Except for a couple quirks, though, Wheels of Aurelia is a beautiful and actually quite ingenious hybrid of isometric automobile travel and conversation-based choose your own adventure storytelling. The slow pacing may not be for everyone, but fans of ‘walking simulator’ style games and other works of interactive storytelling should absolutely hitch a ride. You just never know where the Via Aurelia is going to take you, and that’s what makes the experience so uniquely compelling.
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Disclosure: A Steam code for Wheels of Aurelia was provided to VGBlogger.com by the game’s publisher.