What is it? A narrative and sports management game
Developer: Open Lab Games
Publisher: Open Lab Games
Release date: January 26, 2023
Reviewed on: 64-Bit Windows 10, Nvidia GeForce GTX-970, Intel i7-4790K, 16GB RAM
Link: Official site (opens in new tab)
Anyone who knows me would be surprised to discover I've actually never played roller derby. Violence on wheels? Seems like my thing. Thankfully, Roller Drama has come along to not only offer me a tantalising taste of the sport itself but the drama and camaraderie that surrounds it. When it's not getting tackled by its own UI shortcomings or inscrutable puzzles, Roller Drama skates on its charming characters, art style and the near unbearable responsibility of being a team coach.
You take on the role of Joan 'Jeanne D'Arc' Galliano, a coach for a women's roller derby team who have moved into the same house together. The game is split between the hijinks of keeping your team, plus their personal lives, in order and winning matches. It's part management game, part visual novel; though one that doesn't seem to have any branching paths. The linearity isn't a problem, but it means the writing and small dialogue choices have to do the bulk of the work in convincing you that your particular style of coaching is working. It doesn't always manage. When it does, however, you'll be drawn into the role of Joan, feeling responsible for the women under your care and stressing out over how to speak to them.
Relationships in games are usually defined by simply wanting characters to like you, but in Roller Drama, as a coach, you're also worried about being respected and trusted. This role gives the narrative an interesting angle that made me think about choices beyond trying to get on everyone's good side. Sometimes I would be too strict and lose a player's trust or spend too much time flattering them, failing to gain their respect.
Matches are where you get to flex your head for strategy. From a vantage above you watch the game play out in real time, giving direct inputs to your jammer (the player who runs the track and scores) while giving instructions to the rest of your team who have to balance breaking up the enemy defence, protecting their jammer and slowing down the opposition jammer. It seems simple at a glance, but timing and tactics really are difficult to get right—plus you have to manage your team's energy levels so they don't get exhausted before the match is over. There's a separate practice mode, but through the story you'll learn to get to grips with your team, slowly finding your synergy so you can win big at the grand finale.
None of which would work at all if your team wasn't compelling, but thankfully they're a colourful, diverse bunch. All terribly flawed though. Accommodating them requires a lot of working delicately around their issues, as direct confrontation is seldom the answer to problems here. Upsetting anyone too much means they'll leave the team, which is game over. Rather than a subtle rumination on the team's idiosyncrasies, however, Roller Drama is an absurdist, almost sitcom-esque series of comedies as you resolve conflict in truly strange ways. Like getting one player, Anne, to hand over a pair of skates she stole from a teammate, Portia, by making her hold a magical disco ball that gives her euphoria. Classic coach conflict resolution. The game is never less than imaginative in coming up with these unlikely scenarios.
Unfortunately, this does have a downside: making the game's puzzles sometimes inscrutable. With such bizarre solutions, the logic can be hard to divine even when the game is practically spelling it out with the helpful advice of Joan's supernatural therapist, a Shakespearian ghost who hangs around to provide feedback on your performance. Like I said, the game is odd. Almost every time I was given a new problem to solve, I was immediately lost, failing to grasp the specific order of actions that had to be taken for things to be resolved. The aforementioned disco ball might be that puzzle's solution, but reaching that point can be a bit of a slog with lots of steps and chances to fail, kicking you back to the start of the section if you make a mistake. That means a lot of repeated conversations and trial and error.
Given how arbitrary some of the solutions are, it feels like a more forgiving fail state should have been implemented, rather than a punishing restart of the entire task. Where success results in these odd, humorous scenes, failure gives you nothing other than another chance to make the right choices. The rigidity of the game undermines the role of being a coach, since you can only deviate ever so slightly from the game's intended path. While the rewards are entertaining, getting there can be a chore.
Roller Drama is at least always nice to look at, even when you're struggling. The character designs are fun, but it's the big cross section of their house that I especially love, like when I'm watching all the characters battle for use of the elevator. Despite the charming visuals, however, the UI is often unreadable, if not outright broken. Too frequently I thought I was selecting one option on a menu only to be picking one above or below it. This wasn't game-breaking, until a bug forced me to restart a chapter and instead of selecting my current chapter I ended up selecting the very first one, erasing all of my progress. As you might imagine, I was not thrilled..
Issues like this are a shame because when Roller Drama got out of its own way I became really invested in looking after my little team of misfits. Like them, Roller Drama has a lot of flaws but its heart and raw enthusiasm shines through.