Political injustices of Western Italy in 1978 may sound more like a Mastermind chosen subject than a backdrop for the latest indie game, but that was before Wheels of Aurelia came onto my radar. The game doesn’t pour the politics down your throat like some exceptionally bad tasting waterboarding technique – Lord knows we’ve had enough of that in 2016 – but it uses this time period to provide the characters in the game plenty to talk about throughout their journeys on the Via Aurelia.
You play as Lella; a twenty-something driving along Italy’s west coast into France. Her motive isn’t known straight away but that doesn’t matter, her first big dilemma is whether or not she wants a cigarette. She decides to stop off at the local disco to pick some up. In there, Lella picks up a hitchhiker, another lady named Olga, also needing to get to France. The beauty of the story comes from replaying the game and picking up little titbits from reading the conversations and piecing together the motives behind each characters actions. Italy in 1978 was a country full of terrorism, kidnappings and questionable laws, all of which feature prominently in the conversations between the characters.
This is how Wheels of Aurelia starts, and cannot be changed. So much so that subsequent playthroughs can avoid this introduction altogether. And in a game designed to be played 16 times at least, it’s a welcome option to skip these first few minutes.
This is because Wheels of Aurelia offers something different than most games; a short road trip where each playthrough of the game lasts around 15-20 minutes. This is counteracted by offering 16 different endings with a diverse cast who you can choose to engage with or not. Sometimes you will decide whether or not to ditch Olga to instead jump in the car with a world famous race car driver, other times you will keep her in the car as you chase after a man who has just kidnapped someone else. How you start usually ends up taking a massive tangent to where you end up finishing; at one point I was told Lella became a heroin addict simply because I didn’t win a race at the end. It wasn’t necessarily the ending I was hoping for in that playthrough, but these tangents helped keep the game fresh and kept me on my toes.
Finding all the 16 endings is the ultimate end-game in this case, but trying to do so adds a puzzle element to the experience. It does involve a lot of replay, especially frustrating in the first five minutes where the story between Lella and Olga does not change. But after choosing whether to turn off at the junction or continue on, the story can be kept refreshing and full of surprises. Providing you don’t repeat a story you have had already, which can easily be done if you do not keep track of what you have and haven’t done to alter the narrative.
The car that you choose to drive, from a choice of 13 when you have unlocked them all, will auto-drive allowing you to concentrate on the speech that Lella chooses, or ignore it all and take in the scenery, though you can hold the A button down and effectively speed run through a playthrough. And the scenery, whilst not graphically superior, is a joy to look at. Bright pastel colours do give off a Mediterranean vibe. And a road trip wouldn’t be complete without a suitable soundtrack and Wheels of Aurelia has a pretty good one. It may not suit the tastes of all the passengers you meet along the way, but you can choose to ignore them if you so choose. The driver always chooses the music after all.
The way the game is designed means that only Lella and one other person can talk at a time; if you have more than one additional passenger you can choose who to speak to. These additional people usually come across in the form of hitchhikers who provide a welcome break from having to talk to Olga all the time, again especially at the beginning. All this is done via speech bubble in the lower half of the screen, which does sometimes cover the road and even the car, making it very difficult to steer. There are some situations where you will need to manually steer and having the speech bubbles pop up and demand you select an option for Lella to speak whilst driving away from the police can get pretty tricky.
The game is separated from just one long road by stopping off at different locations every so often, and here there are cutscenes where you will meet further new characters. The choice in which location to stop off next however seems the only way to influence the outcome of the story. I can play Lella as an awful person, particularly to Olga, but she still wants to cadge a lift to France with me despite me ignoring her the whole journey. The only way to influence her to leave is in a pre-determined cutscene which differs depending on whether I turned right or carried straight on. This feels a bit restrictive knowing that there are only four or five ways to change the outcome. There are still 16 endings which is a decent amount, but you quickly find out how and where your actions have any real bearing on the game.
There are 25 achievements in the game, and most are fairly simple. 16 achievements are related to finding each of the different endings, and then there are achievements for completing miscellaneous stuff in the game, none of which are really very difficult. A completion should take no longer than 8-10 hours, but the game is priced accordingly at around £7.99.
For anyone looking for a refreshing change from open-world time sinks after the glut of Mafia III, Watch Dogs 2, Skyrim: SE and Final Fantasy XV, Wheels of Aurelia may be the perfect game for you. Each playthrough takes no longer than 20 minutes and it can be completed in a tenth of the time these games take. It’s also recommended to those that like getting the most out of games as by the end you will have a preferred ending and despite its short length, it’s a game people can have different experiences with and then share those stories with each other, much like the most successful AAA titles.