Roller Drama by Open Lab Games
Roller derby is a sport that should absolutely have more of a presence in video games. Think about it. It’s effectively rugby on roller skates, mixed with the showmanship of professional wrestling. How is this such an untapped market? Give me something like Jet Set Radio with full contact between players, and I am THERE.
Roller Drama from Italian studio Open Lab Games is one of the few games to make an attempt at the sport, melding visual novel storytelling and sports gameplay. But does it actually work?
Keep Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’
I should begin by saying that Roller Drama’s premise is solid. As the new manager of a roller derby team, your goal is to make sure your team makes it to the top. This is done via a combination of team management and dialogue that plays out like a visual novel, and actual derby match coaching that plays out like an action strategy game.
The management side is easily Roller Drama’s biggest strength. The girls on your team have distinct and interesting personalities, and the story sees them go through all sorts of emotional peaks and valleys. Themes like gender identity, heartbreak, and poverty are explored in-depth, often very effectively. There are even multiple endings to unlock, giving you an incentive to replay the game and make different decisions.
This is helped in no small part by the game’s art direction. A roller derby game needs to be stylish, and Roller Drama understands this. The artwork and visual design of the game are gorgeous and give it a distinct visual identity.
They See Me Rollin’, They Hatin’
So far so good, right? Well, remember that other aspect of the gameplay that I mentioned? The actual roller derby matches themselves? Unfortunately, they drag the experience down.
Matches are relatively simple, in theory. One player speeds forward with the ball while controlled by the player, while the rest of the team defends them from the other team via different formations. The skating player is controlled via the left stick, while you use multiple buttons to command your team. In theory.
Unfortunately the gameplay in these sections frankly doesn’t work. Commanding your team barely has any noticeable reaction on the screen itself, as they’ll usually just end up in a massive pileup. The enemy AI is also incredibly single-minded, meaning they’ll almost never do anything other than try to dogpile you. The result is a slog of an experience.
It would be easy to ignore the derby sections if they weren’t a core part of the game, but that’s not the case. The game’s opening scene drops you into one alongside a massive information dump of a tutorial that feels simultaneously overblown and pointless. It’s a terrible first impression, and it never really improves.
I really wanted to like Roller Drama more than I did. The story is compelling and I found myself caring about the characters, but every time I started getting invested, there was more gameplay to endure. It almost feels like Open Lab Games aren’t confident enough in their storytelling abilities to focus on the game’s strengths. I hope they find this confidence for their next project.
Roller Drama is available via the Nintendo Game Store, Sony PlayStation Store, Micorsoft Xbox Live, Apple Store, Google Play Store, and Steam.
Watch the trailer for Roller Drama below: