Saturday, July 13, 2024

Roller Drama Review — An ambitious experiment that’s not quite there

Like a kid learning to skate for the first time, Open Lab Games’ latest title Roller Drama starts off shakily.

The pitch is promising: players take on the role of Joan, a woman who has recently been hired to coach a roller derby team and be their den mother. There are five women on this team: Portia, Anne, Lily, Cordelia and Juliet — each of whom have their own personalities and goals when it comes to life on and off the rink. It’s up to Joan, and you by extension, to help them reach these goals while keeping the household in order.

As a fan of both sports stories and management sims, I was sold on this concept from the game’s announcement. But the writing and gameplay in Roller Drama both have a rocky start. As Joan, you start the game at the house you’ll be managing. Instead of getting right into the introductions to your team or getting set up as a coach, you instead meet the Shakespearean therapist who inhabits your dreams and get pulled into a weird set of hijinks involving your aging landlord’s cat, which ultimately ends in the creature dying and becoming a zombie you and the team have to keep a secret.

Image Source: Open Lab Games

This sequence is presumably meant to serve as a fun and funky way to handle introducing you to the characters in this game, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of building a rapport with these characters, they instead become immediately annoying as you have to dodge around them to keep the cat hidden with fairly vague instructions as your only guide. It does create a tone of slightly dark wackiness that permeates the rest of the game, matching the world’s dystopian setting, but there’s not really enough time to flesh this out.

Interludes like the aforementioned one take place between each game, tasking you with “quests” that involve similar loops of moving around the house and avoiding certain people while trying to find various items in people’s rooms. They are varying levels of weird, but maintain the strange tone Roller Drama sets for itself at the outset and eventually builds on it and the world. That said, they do provide an interesting mechanic; each quest section gives you a score based on your decisions. You also get the opportunity to deepen or damage your bonds with the players by interacting with them. If you behave in ways that match their personalities, they’ll like you, but if not, your rating with them will take a hit.

Screenshot of the team in ROLLER DRAMA sitting in their living room. From left to right: Joann, Portia, Lily, Anne, Juliet, Cordelia
Image Source: Open Lab Games

When you actually do get to talk to them, your team members feel somewhat hollow despite their interesting, hand-drawn visuals and exaggerated personality traits — Anne has little-to-no impulse control, Portia is anxious, Lily is a hacker. This feeling wanes as you get further into the game and the story starts to hit its groove, but the initial chapters are shaky. Roller Drama would have benefitted from easing players into its weirdness, rather than throwing them in the deep end right away. This isn’t helped by the fact that transitions between story beats in the game feel sudden and choppy, with little to keep the narrative as a whole feeling cohesive. Joan’s actions can have a big impact on her team’s lives — like entering into romantic relationships with the people they like or not — but with the way the story and choices are presented, with some looping until you get it right and others placing you on a set path, it’s difficult to fully understand or appreciate that fact.

Between these scenes at the house are the actual matches, which are more inspired by roller derby than replicating it exactly. Each match consists of three jams, where your jammer tries to lap the opponents’ guarding players and vice versa. Every time the jammer laps an opponent, they score a point for their team. Gameplay consists of switching between your jammer’s skills and your guarding players’ skills to wrack up points. This is a bit difficult to keep track of at first, despite the relative simplicity of these toolkits. Jammers can jump, accelerate, guard, and hit, while the guards can line up different defensive formations. Additionally, you can deploy bombs which will temporarily stun everyone within their proximity, and play cards that provide different boosts. You gain these cards from playing through story sections, as rewards for different choices you make during the narrative interludes, or as bonuses for performing well in matches.

Screenshot of the roller derby gameplay in ROLLER DRAMA
Image Source: Open Lab Games

You’re supposed to combine all of this utility to score and ultimately win, but this can be a bit challenging. Tracking the other team’s jammer and how you should be defending against them, while also optimizing your own jammer’s strategy is a lot of keep tabs on, and things can become muddy somewhat quickly. If you find this management to be a bit overwhelming, you can choose to have the game auto-play the second and third jams of a match for you. This takes away the visual element of the match, but makes it so you aren’t the one driving if you don’t want to be.

The auto-jams seem to be fairly random in how they determine whether you will win or lose, so those looking to sweep the roller derby championship should probably stick to controlling things themselves. Your performance in conjunction with your actions outside of the coliseum will determine how your story ultimately ends, so there is merit in seeing the path of both winning and losing.

Roller Drama has plenty of interesting and innovative ideas, but it’s clear that the game could have used more time to iterate on them. While there’s potential to be found here. overall the game’s story and mechanics both feel choppy and disjointed in a way that is never fully rectified. The main cast of characters and their connected stories needed more room to breathe, and perhaps a bit of a more grounded introduction. Roller Drama also sadly doesn’t capture the magic of sports stories, of rivalries and the need to compete, leaving a hole in the heart of it that is apparent while playing.

Score: 3/5

Roller Drama was reviewed on PC with code provided by the publisher.

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