Japan, 1974. It’s early spring, and the cherry blossom explodes with colour. At the golden hour, the evening sun bathes the tarmac of a road in golden light. Halfway up majestic Mount Akagi, a Lancia Stratos rally car powers up the mountain road. At the critical moment of entering a hairpin, the driver applies the brakes with perfect timing and the car - a wedge-shaped masterpiece of Italian engineering - drifts around the corner with angelic grace. As the route straightens out, the precise application of power sends the Stratos further down the ancient mountain, while a torii gate at the roadside marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred. It is poetry in motion; a momentary religious experience; an automotive encounter with God.
There is a grand tradition of rally video games, stretching back into the 1980s. Released for a host of platforms, they have varied in their approach to realism and their relationship to official championships. Art of Rally is a genuinely unique take on this venerable sub-genre of racing games. Developed by Canadian outfit Funselektor Labs, it recognises the things that make rally unique and special - the mastery of its delicate technical skills, the sense of being alone against the elements and the clock, and the euphoric experience of getting a corner just right.
At its best, there’s something almost mystical about rally videogames and Art of Rally reflects and augments this with its distinctive aesthetic. The game doesn’t aspire to the mud-drenched hyper-realism of the big, triple-A rally sims. Instead it has a low-poly, highly-stylised, and beautifully colourful look. The many and various stages in Japan, Italy, Norway, Germany and Finland don’t precisely replicate real places but have an almost dreamlike quality, allied to an excellent electronic soundtrack. The near-spiritual euphoria that can come from mastering a challenging corner is not lost on Funselektor - one of the first things seen upon starting the game is a car encountering a monolithic statue of the Buddha.
Art of Rally takes place in the “golden era” of the sport, from the 1960s to the 1990s. Its dreamlike feel is enhanced by its departure into a kind of alternate history. In real life, the fabled Group B era from 1982 to 1986 is revered by rally fans. However, the enormously powerful cars were felt to have contributed to a number of fatal incidents. Manufacturers pulled out, the authorities scrapped Group B altogether, and its proposed successor Group S never came to be. In Art of Rally, Group B and Group S live on, together with their lightweight and extremely fast cars.
By its nature, rally is a solitary form of racing - just one car, competing with the challenges of the road itself and the merciless pressure of the clock. In Art of Rally, driving is even more pure and unencumbered due to the minimalist aesthetic. There is no co-driver providing pace notes, no real-world sponsors, no licensed cars, no team boss demanding better results over the radio. The game’s user interface and menus are refreshingly minimalist, with only the essential elements provided. Given this absence of distractions, it’s no wonder playing the game can induce a kind of Zen state.
All too often, racing games can feel weighed down by their association with real-world motorsport authorities, sponsors, and manufacturers. The emphasis is as much on the pixel-perfect recreation of the logo for a corporate sponsor as it is on the driving model. Released from these concerns, Funselektor have been able to focus on creating a unique feel for their game. It isn’t a perfect recreation of a particular season, but a kind of meditative fever-dream that takes in the spirit of rally driving, summoned up from an imagined version of the sport’s glory days.
This certainly doesn’t mean that Art of Rally lacks a challenging experience behind the wheel. Its graphics may be simple, but its vehicle physics are anything but. It’s no full-blooded simulation, but success - not to mention enlightenment - can demand a monk-like level of concentration. Even a comparatively small mistake can send a plucky off-brand Peugeot crashing into a Finnish spruce or sailing not-so-gracefully off a Japanese bridge.
Even while trying to shave another few seconds off a previous best time, it’s difficult to ignore the sheer beauty of those graphics. The colourful, low-poly style is certainly not unique to Art of Rally and indeed, it’s increasingly common in today’s indie games. However, it is rarely employed as effectively as it is here. In part, this is because while individual objects in the world are simple, the overall scenes the player drives through are complex and lovingly crafted.
Each of the five countries in which stages are set are distinctive and different in their appearance and conditions. In a clever and pleasing move, Funselektor has depicted each country in a particular season. In Norway, it’s winter and the roads and trees are cloaked with snow; helicopters park by the sides of frozen lakes. In Italy, it’s high summer and the grass is dry and yellow, while Germany basks in the red, yellow and brown colours of autumn. Of course in Japan, it’s spring - better to show off the pink blossoms of the cherry trees against the green mountain sides.
There’s a large amount of incidental detail in the game’s stages. A variety of vehicles like lorries, seaplanes and even tanks are scattered around by the sides of the gravel roads. Sometimes, the track veers through small towns, where spectators are multicoloured cuboids, which scatter off the path of the player’s car. In Finland, massive rock formations loom over the course, punctuating the sprawling forests of evergreen trees. All of this scenery is more visible in Art of Rally than in most racing games, as the camera angles are pulled back further than you might expect - all the better to see the effort Funselektor have put into crafting their environments.
There are two other ways in which the developer’s visual craft is shown off. The first is via a free drive mode, which allows players to explore large areas of each of the five countries. As with custom rallies and time trials, there are a variety of options that can be set with regard to time of day and weather conditions. In free drive, a number of collectibles can be found, from letters that spell the word “rally” to the elusive Funselektor team van. Freed from the tyranny of the clock or even of a formal course, this mode is Art of Rally at its most relaxing.
The second showcase for the game’s visuals is its superb photo mode. Accessible from the pause menu in any game mode, this provides a wealth of options to help take beautiful screenshots. Not only can the camera be positioned to precisely capture the majesty of a knock-off Subaru Impreza cresting a hill, but there are also numerous filter options like grain, saturation, and contrast. It’s fair to say that with this tool, new desktop backgrounds are not hard to come by. It also reinforces the multiple meanings of the game’s title - there’s an art to mastering rally skills, but the game is also a toolbox for making your own visual art, in the form of some fantastic and unique screenshots.
Like sports games more broadly, racing games can often settle into an almost monotonous pattern. Today, many racing games are the latest instalments of series that have been running for decades. The graphics may improve, and the livery of this year’s championship teams may have been added, but often the experience remains familiar. A true labour of love, Art of Rally is something different. It sidesteps the treadmill of big-budget racing games in familiar series, to blaze its own trail. With its mix of deep, rewarding mechanics and beautiful visuals and sound, it provides a balance of challenging driving with a relaxing feel. Art of Rally won’t get annual updates, but it has a spirit of its own so unique that it will be worth returning to year on year, just the way it is.
I write about books, film, videogames, boardgames and music. I'm a contributor to Entertainium.