Wheels Of Aurelia PC, PS4, Xbox One
Developer/publisher Santa Ragione Format PC (tested), PS4, Xbox One Release Out now
The beauty of the road movie has always been its ability to bottle the feeling of an era. Think of Easy Rider and its sober reflection on the failure of ’60s counter-culture, or Thelma & Louise and its story of female empowerment in the ’90s. Those were films that focused on the rebels, the outsiders, the hellraisers ushering in the new ideas at the expense of the old. Wheels Of Aurelia slots neatly into this continuum, evoking a cheerful, pastel-coloured version of ’70s Italy that belies the personal and political turmoil bubbling under the surface. But where those films put you in the passenger seat as a viewer, Wheels Of Aurelia asks you to assume the role of driver, and that’s where it stalls.
Driving around the roads linking Rome, Siena and Bracciano is pleasing enough at first. There’s an autopilot for the car that means focus can theoretically be placed on the conversations of protagonists Lella, Olga, and the hitchhikers you decide to pick up along the way. But you’ll quickly realise the autopilot is prone to error, crashing into the back of cars and slamming into roadside barriers on particularly tight corners. Those instances are accompanied by scrapes of metal and the dull thump of bumpers, and they dominate the game for that moment. Yet no one – neither Lella nor Olga, or any of their passengers – passes comment on the brazenly reckless driving endangering their lives.
It creates a disconnect between your input as the driver and the conversations in which you engage. Those conversations are, at their best, funny and touching, but they’re not robust enough to support the multiple playthroughs the game demands of you. With each journey lasting only 15 minutes, replay value comes from inhabiting the different personas of the characters, teasing out the divergent branches of both the road and conversations. But after the fourth or fifth playthrough you’ll come across the same questions and responses, the frustration increasing each time. Dialogue begins to take on a sense of automation, dissolving the realism it conjures during the first few journeys.
Wheels Of Aurelia does, however, click in its final moments. Having guided Lella and Olga through a small portion of their journey on the Via Aurelia, you’re presented with two frames of text set against an impressionistic image of the landscape. They’re written in a literary style, in contrast to the pulpy chat that constitutes the bulk of the game. Each of those frames outlines how their lives were altered irrevocably by what you’ve just played, and the meaning of those decisions is made clear. Some are heartwarming; some are tragic. It’s a shame the journey itself can’t match the poignancy of the final destination.
Be prepared to play the game with a concise history of Italy to hand.
WheelsOfAurelia is dense with references that add depth while simultaneously alienating those unfamiliar with its period setting