One the the things I love most about the indie community is their ability to mash together different worn out game genres to make something totally new and insanely interesting. So, when I first heard about a game that combined a narrative adventure with an arcade driving game, I knew I had to check it out.
Wheels of Aurelia is currently still in development, but has received some critical notice thanks to its appearance at last year’s Fantastic Arcade, where it had its own arcade cabinet, complete with steering wheel controller. The beta version of the game, which was the one demoed in Austin, is available to purchase on itch.io for $4.99, so I decided to give it a try.
The story and setting are also much more interesting than I expected from something that appears at first glance to be a total gimmick. Set in 1970’s Italy against a backdrop of political turmoil (kidnappings and riots where regular occurrences), you take on the role of Lella, a young would-be anarchist and Feminist on her way to France on the Via Aurelia across the coast of Italy. Your initial companion is a woman named Olga, who has her own reasons for wanting to go to France, but there are also a number of hitchhikers and other characters you can meet along the way, as well as car chases, illegal races and tense political debates.
Because the game is still in development, there isn’t really anything in the way of a tutorial, or much indication of how to play. However, through a bit of trial and error I figured out that I could control the car with A & D or left & right, or my mouse, choose dialogue with the up & down buttons, or the mouse wheel and that I could accelerate by pressing Space or Enter.
In the end, I found the easiest way to control the game was to use the directional buttons and the space bar, but there was still a fair bit of mental gymnastics involved in remembering what was what as you’re very often driving AND choosing dialogue options at the same time. As well, how well you drive also has an effect on what dialogue options are available, so if you press the wrong key and swerve into traffic one too many times, you could find yourself in for a very awkward ride to the next checkpoint as your options are reduced to silence, coughing or humming a tune.
And, since this is a narrative game, after all, driving well and choosing different dialogue options are crucial to unveiling all of the different story arcs in Wheels of Aurelia. There are 10 different endings available, and dozens of different ways to get to them, depending on how you drive, which routes you take, and how you reply to different bits of conversation. Most of the endings I saw seemed to be accessible with 15 to 20 minutes of play time, but the final version does promise to expand on these significantly.
Aside from the fact that the game is basically two games in one, Wheels of Aurelia really stands out for me because of the frank way it deals with a range of difficult topics. From abortion to religious belief, no subject is too taboo, and yet the game never devolves into moralizing. The characters and their opinions are presented primarily as a product of their time, which is wonderfully reinforced by the swinging Euro-soul soundtrack and I found myself compelled to play the game over and over so that I could learn more about each of these fascinating characters.
Despite the bugs expected from a game still in development, Wheels of Aurelia is a stunning start of a game I can’t wait to see finished.
Full Disclosure: I paid for this game out of my own pocket. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.