Nothing beats a long road trip, especially in the long stretches of unfamiliar road that coat a new vacation, but in Wheels of Aurelia, the roads are all too similar, and the dialogue that accompanies them tells stories of an eclectic group of people. This range of conversations strewn over each of the 16-minute micro-sessions of play boasted a string of attached convictions but dropped any sense of narrative structure. Still, the amount of times I caught myself slightly giggling or tapping next to see what happens kept me playing the odd text adventure.
Our expedition by car starts off easy enough, the player leading a girl, Lella, to France with a friend named Olga. Discovering the history between the two characters makes for a detective-like analysis that spans every quick assertion and seemingly meaningless conversation. These puzzle pieces combine to clear out what Olga and Lella were, who they are, and what they’re doing. The great thing about this is that if you don’t want to, you don’t have to uncover their history. There are points in the story of Wheels of Aurelia that make the player choose between stories. It does this by introducing new characters and locations that impact the base story. These new characters and locations all derive from the driving that the player does.
The overworld of Wheels of Aurelia where most of the events of the game occur is a literal road through which Lella is traveling. Along this road, you are tempted to make decisions both in text conversations and in driving. You might want to make a snarky comment while also picking up a hitchhiker on the side of the road. These actions will have different consequences based on the seriousness of the conversation or person picked up. What this mixture of arcade driving, textual conversations, and making decisions does is create a setting in time and place that tried to immerse me but failed. Driving on the roads of Wheels of Aurelia was repetitive enough. The same trees and same looking buildings would be in my gaze the entire time, and rarely would I get a break. The bright colors and contrasting greens and yellows were beautifully designed, but the fact that I ran into the same textures so often meant my eyes were often bored. This led to a sort of passiveness that couldn’t help but weigh down the rest of the game. But this passiveness wasn’t the only thing wrong here. Wheels of Aurelia made me confused when it came to its flowing conversations with the people I picked up in my car.
These conversations would take place on the road as I was heading from place to place. Along this path of the literal road and the figurative conversations, I was lost in the pieces of story received in a rushed manner. This was mainly due to the fact that dialogue options that explored a person’s background further were often skipped because of how fast these conversations had to be. If I wanted to discover more about a given subject, I can, but that tangent can only go so long before I eventually end up at my next stop. This led to many holes in the story that I couldn’t quite get right, and it made Wheels of Aurelia feel overall like a quick exposition-filled ride rather than a long and narratively structured story. Sadly, this remains true even when discovering different dialogues and people to encounter. Part of this could have been the fact that games are by nature a visual medium. The only things developers can use to make us feel the intended emotions in games are visuals and gameplay. Seeing as both gameplay and visuals revolved around such a still setting, like the roads of Italy, it bogged down the narrative elements.
The only story that was fleshed out to a greater degree than the rest was that of our two main characters, and even then it ran a little stale and uncomfortable seeing as the conversations needed to fit in between long car rides on highways. This stinks, seeing as Wheels of Aurelia boasts a campaign filled with 16 different stories packed in one, all ending in drastically different resolutions. Though it’d be difficult, having me care about all of these storylines, instead of just one or two of them, would’ve been ideal for Wheels of Aurelia. Instead, what we get is a widespread collection of narrative attempts that yielded few triumphs.
The only thing I think Wheels of Aurelia did perfectly was the very cool building of the game world which it takes place in. I, and many others probably playing, don’t know anything about Italy circa 1978. With the help of characters and a real sense of setting, Wheels of Aurelia makes this point in history an interesting time and place to play around in. The radio spewing out reports you’d probably hear from the period, storylines mentioning historical events, and political plots developing in the wake of a political party-centered conflict across Italy. All of these things combine to produce a work centered on the world it’s in; it’s just too bad this world was filled with all too samey art and uninteresting storylines.
Considering the game as a whole, Wheels of Aurelia had a fun dynamic going for it. A fun, lighthearted setting which dotted its historical fiction between long stretches of car rides. But developers Santa Ragione failed to bring any narrative depth to this otherwise fantastic setting and even failed to produce more than a few miles of eye-catching trees and buildings. The fumbling of this cute concept meant there were a few times that I fell fast asleep on the roads of Italy, and rarely did Wheels of Aurelia ever wake me back up.
Developer: Santa Ragione
Publisher: Santa Ragione
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: 2nd November 2017