RollerDrome (2022)

Roll7 the development team behind to OllieOllie series showcased their new game at E3 this year without much explanation. Just a short trailer showing a new game that features a sport called RollerDrome set in the near future of 2030, where bloodsport TV is all the rage and contestants battle to the death for fabulous prizes (or at least I hope some prizes are given out). Without much else to go on, the game came out a couple months later and no one really covered it or paid much attention to it, but every review seemed glowing. So I decided to try it out for myself, and the -34% off launch day, dropping it to just under $20 made it a bargain.

RollerDrome drops you into the shoes of rookie RollerDrome contestant Kara Hassan. With just a single room to explore and just a few items to look at in first person mode, you can get a bit of contextual information about the game’s world and the very brief underlying storyline of the game. However, once Kara walks through that door, she is thrust into the RollerDrome circuit. Combining a bit of Roller Derby with American Gladiators and Smash TV, the game feels like a mish-mash of two dueling identities. On one hand, it wants to be a shooter, as you roll around a circular course and have to dodge attacks while taking out your attackers at the same time. But the mechanics and playstyle of the game is more in line with the Tony Hawk style of extreme sports. Grabbing in mid-air, grinding along rails and halfpipes, and doing flip tricks all generate a score that will multiply as long as you keep it going.

The trick system seems fairly limited, as there is no menu to flip through to see what combo of buttons does what, and feels more like a “Try it and figure it out yourself” style of learning tricks by just button mashing. Luckily tricks do matter, as it’s the only way to refill your ammo as you skate around the level trying to survive and take out everyone in the arena. Weapons quickly unlock through the very short campaign, and by the second hour you will have all four weapons unlocked. Starting out with Dual Pistols, then you’ll unlock a Shotgun. After that is a Grenade Launcher, and finally a Laser Charge Rifle. Honestly I really mainlined the entire game with the Shotgun once I unlocked it, and only switched to the dual pistols or Grenade Launcher for the single foes that require you to use it on them.

The game seemed extremely easy to me at first, and after barreling through the first half of the campaign in a single sitting, I went back to the level select screen to figure out if the game was really that easy or if I was missing something. Luckily the game provides a bit more challenge with “Bonus Objectives” that seem to be right out of Tony Hawk. Things like collecting 5 combo tokens, or doing a specific trick in a specific area… it felt nice to be able to go back into a level and complete objectives in a checklist manner to feel like I was getting more out of the game.

However, the game’s difficulty after the first half ramps up significantly and the game immediately goes from way too easy, to way too hard in a matter of seconds. Each level starts off with a few enemies to take out, but then quickly throws several enemy types that can pick you off and throw items out from clear across the arena. While your lock-on aim is very limited to about 10 feet in front of your character, again others can pick you off from several hundred feet away with walls and rooms between you. It begins to feel unbalanced and unfair in a very short amount of time. But, to say it’s too much would be a lie. It is manageable, but it requires you to really spend more time spamming the dodge button that features invincibility and running away from everyone instead of feeling like a powerhouse who isn’t afraid of being the best and going for the championship.

There are two boss fights that happen, which provide a bit of extra joy and more gameplay style, but it’s the same boss both times and the final boss just adds more enemies on screen instead of trying to change up the tactics or pattern and weak points. Luckily it also does give you a checkpoint, so if you do die on the boss, which did happen to me, you can choose to restart from the beginning of the level, or just from the boss room. I appreciated that, as I am not one to redo things I already did because the boss was poorly designed and the game didn’t tell me what to do or how to inflict damage.

The story itself is really bare bones and feels like something that was tacked onto the game in the last couple weeks of development. There is several items that you can pickup, or read that sort of reveal that there might be a conspiracy with the umbrella company that owns the  RollerDrome sport and wants to have a police state, or that there might be some fraud with the reigning champion, or even that the overall state of the outside world is in distress… but it’s so shallow and ever actually is explained that it could easily be taken out and the game would feel the exact same. It’s a shame, because I was looking forward to seeing where the story was going to go, and it just abruptly ends without any real finalization.

There is a “New Game Plus” mode, which actually does something I wish more games would do. Instead of just replaying the game with all weapons unlocked, there is just a couple sentences that basically tell you that it’s the next season and you are the new reigning champion of RollerDrome, the network is pushing for more violence, so all the attackers now do 1.5x damage, and you have all the weapons at your disposal from the get go. Then it drops you into the game with a new outfit, signifying you are the best, and let’s you continue on. I’m not sure if there is more story as you unlock the progression of levels, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the story continues on a bit more. Again, it’s a small change, but I appreciated it, and at least I tried the new game plus mode, instead of just closing the game like I normally would.

RollerDrome is a short and small game that’s definitely worth the $20 price I paid for it. With about 4 hours of content, and it taking me 5.5 hours because I repeated levels to check off all the bonus objectives in the first half of the game, I found it a fun and enjoyable experience that seemed fair for what it was trying to do. However I do feel that the games media tried to make this an “indie darling” game, where the praise for it was so positive and featured all the same “Tony Hawk + Shooter” talking points, that it seems a bit underhanded to blindly recommend it to everyone and give it a 90+ point score. I firmly believe it’s a decent game and one that’s made with good intentions, but I also don’t think that it’s a game that is worth the normal $30 asking price for what is basically 4 hours of gameplay. It’s a solid B+ game with some interesting mechanics, but will probably be on the lower end of my Game Of The Year list.