Wheels of Aurelia has to be one of the oddest yet most compelling games I've played in recent years. Described as a narrative road trip, the game is basically a "walking simulator" on wheels. Gameplay is similar to an old-school isometric arcade racer, but the driving takes a backseat, as we focus more on Lella, a restless young woman, and her conversations with the various passengers she picks up as she drives through the west coast of Italy along the famous Via Aurelia.
Here's what I liked:
Addictive – It takes only 15-20 mins to complete Wheels of Aurelia. Yes, you read that right. In fact there's an achievement to unlock if you can do it in less than 15. Despite this, I feel like I've had more gameplay, from Wheels of Aurelia than any other walking sim to date. The reason being is that there are 16 different endings to find. How these endings vary depends not just on which routes you take, but on how you converse with the various passengers and hitchhikers you meet along the way. On my first couple of playthroughs I was slightly confused by this premise. It's over? Really? However I soon came to love the pulpy feel to the adventure and hearing the end credits reminded me of hearing the theme song to your favorite TV show after another great episode. If you've ever been hooked on marathoning a series on Netflix, you'll love blasting your way through each playthrough to find the next ending.
Engrossing – Wheels of Aurelia is set in 1978, during the real life kidnapping of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro by a terrorist organisation known as the Red Brigades or Brigate Rosse. It's an era I knew nothing about going in but the writers do a great job of telling just enough to pique your interest, without bogging us down with a European history lesson. Whilst some of the conversation is the usual inane small talk you make with strangers, Lella is a politically minded young woman, steering the chat towards controversial topics such as religion, communism, abortion and feminism making her one of the most interesting and complex characters in a game this year.
70s Vibe– As previously mentioned, the game is set during the 70s, but not in the over-the-top cartoony way this era is often portrayed. Being set in Italy, we don't hear mainstream American or British music but instead are treated to Italian jazz and funk. The characters also speak with 70s colloquialism chatting about their "signs" and discotheques and getting away from "the man" and there's even some David Bowie references for the trendy types to look out for. The characters do dress in typical late 70s attire, with Lella often being referred to as a punk or communist and whilst we also meet a hippie and some groovy looking gents in cravats, there's nothing resembling your parents at a dodgy fancy dress party. Somehow Wheels of Aurelia manages to stay on the cool side of 70s; a challenge in it's own right!
Here's what I didn't like:
Limited crossroads – I haven't found all 16 endings yet, however, I can already see that the route itself to some of these are beginning to look fairly similar. As you unlock the quite obviously different endings, it becomes harder to see the minor differences you need to make in subsequent playthroughs to find the remaining endings. Currently there's not too many different paths you can physically take, so finding all stories will see you driving through a lot of the same areas and repeating a lot of dialogue. In fact, I actually stopped picking up a couple of the hitchhikers because I was fed up hearing the their conversations and they didn't seem to affect the story's outcome. Developers Santa Ragione have a great concept here, but I would love to have seen it expanded upon with more routes to take and new passengers to find.
Eyes on the road – The driving is fairly limited in Wheels of Aurelia mainly to allow players to focus on the conversation in hand. There is even the option to forego controlling the car altogether and allow the game to auto pilot your vehicle, however the AI is not the greatest driver, often bumping into other cars on the road. It also moves at a snails pace so there are a few sections where you do need to take the wheel, such as during a some illegal street races. These sections were enjoyable enough, especially as you unlock more vehicles, but since since you need to hold A to accelerate the whole time, I found I needed to sacrifice conversation in order to win races as it was just too awkward to also press X to move the chat options along. This could have been improved if there was an option to pause the conversation during these sections or if the controls were designed in a way that doesn't mean you need to perform finger gymnastics.
Whilst not strictly a walking simulator (potentially closer to a visual novel), Wheels of Aurelia probably compares best with this fairly new genre of games. It's also probably my favorite walking sim so far with it's continental setting and political backdrop. Presentation wise, the graphics are basic but bright and cheerfully adequate, though the soundtrack is a real standout if you enjoy a bit of funk. The characters and their stories are intriguing with just enough mystery to tempt you into another short but snappy playthrough. And with 16 variations of endings, this oddly short game has more than enough content to warrant the $9.99 price tag.
Score: Highly Recommended
Wheels of Aurelia was developed by Santa Ragione and was published by MixedBag Srl on Xbox One. It was released on November 18, 2016 for $9.99. A copy of the game was provided for review purposes. Purchase the game on Xbox One here.