Need to know
What is it? A third person shoot ’em up on skates.
Expect to pay $30/£25
Release date August 16, 2022
Publisher Private Division
Reviewed on Nvidia GeForce GTX-970, Intel i7-4790K, 16GB RAM
Link Official site
Rollerdrome is a game about performance. There is combat, but it’s not about winning, as such. It’s about style. The attitude you bring to it. Putting on a show. Efficiency is a by-product of mastering its violent dance—really, you’re here to look good.
It might be my favourite action game since Devil Daggers. A single minded, stylish and evocative beast that pulls you along for a ride it’s hard to let go of. Let’s just say I’ve had more than one after-midnight session of Rollerdrome, chasing those high scores.
The main character, Kara Hassan, finds herself thrown into a gladiatorial contest on roller skates. Think Running Man on wheels and you’re basically there. In essence the game is pretty simple: you skate and shoot. The joy of it is that while it builds so much upon that foundation, it’s still great fun even if you only ever learn the basics. Coming from Roll7, the folks behind the joyous skateboarding series OlliOlli, that’s no surprise. Skating is simple—you simply steer and build momentum—but it feels great. There’s a real sense of speed that adds to all your actions, however many you master.
With Max Payne-esque bullet time, landing shots is a matter of timing more than aim, which makes combat feel part of the game’s overall rhythm instead of an interruption to your flips and tricks. You can get health by killing enemies, but only get ammo back from doing tricks like grinds or perfect dodges. There always has to be a balance between movement and attack. Nailing that combo is the sweet spot where Rollerdrome becomes electrifying, pushing you to go faster and faster. What weapon combinations let you take down a shielded foe in seconds? Can you trick that enemy into launching mines at their allies? I expect to see social media flooded with clips of people’s best runs. It’s a game that’s almost as fun to watch as it is to play.
The visuals certainly don’t hurt on that front. It has a sketchy, vibrant look reminiscent of last year’s Sable with retro future, 70s-inspired design. All of it clearly owing influence to the work of artist Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius. (No, not the double box office bomb vampire.) It’s striking in screenshots or in motion, but moreover, highly readable. Strong colours, high contrasts. Even the big bold text that introduces new levels speaks to the clarity they’re aiming for.
The game can afford to get incredibly chaotic and explosive (especially in its later stages) because it so clearly communicates information to the player. Sniper beams or charging lasers turn white to indicate the perfect dodge, for instance. Even the sounds are great, that harsh roll of wheels on concrete pulling you in before the symphony of explosions, rockets and shotgun blasts is unleashed. The soundtrack itself seems to mimic the increasing tempo of each level, letting you know when the timer has kicked in. All this combines to ensure you know what’s going on in any given moment without ever really having to think about it. It just happens to look and sound damn good doing it.
Rise and grind
As you progress, complexity increases rapidly. Enemy types pile up, each asking for new tactics from the player (check out challenges for hints) as do player abilities. Skating gets complemented by wall running, and your starting pistols are soon kept company by a shotgun, grenade launcher, and rail gun. Each of these offers a new dimension or play style, letting you tackle enemies with specific combinations until you have a routine that will make even your first runs pretty successful. I loved coming into crazy new spaces with heaps of confidence. In fact, the difficulty curve of the game feels perfectly pitched all the way through. Things definitely get tougher towards the end but I never felt out of my depth. New enemies never felt like setbacks, just exciting new puzzles to solve.
No matter how much it stacks on top, the core of the game is always on performance. It’s not about taking out your enemies, it’s about doing it with style. Rushing past an enemy so you can spin and shoot him the back looks cool—and the game is quick to acknowledge that. Doing a flip right before launching a grenade down on a walking mech is what gets the audience excited at this ludicrous death-sport. There’s a heap of tricks to master too (with a handy “tricktionary” listing them all) and fitting them into your runs is essential if you want those high scores, or to complete the game’s challenges.
Progress through the game’s campaign (about a dozen levels, plus an unlockable mode after completion) is tied to those challenges, which encourage players to try out daring moves or chase impossible score multipliers. You don’t have to work those into a serious run—even if you hit a challenge before defeat it still counts, so you can just tackle each challenge on its own if you want. Again, if you wanna just take it easy, the game allows that. In fact, there are a host of modifiers to make the game easier, including invincibility, ensuring the experience is as accessible as possible. Using them takes you off the leaderboards, but you get to enjoy the game on your terms.
If you’re anything like me though, you’ll want those high scores. Chaining some challenges and a high multiplier together? Let’s get to work. Having a few practice runs before pulling off some wild feat is a thrill only the best of action games can offer, but I don’t know that I’ve played any such score focused games that left me feeling so… relaxed. I seldom got frustrated over a failure or a messed up stunt. There’s a sense that it’s all just practice, putting in the work to get it right next time rather than a loss. Which only adds to the joy as you start not only doing well but throwing in little flourishes. A spin before a shotgun blast here, a somersault before taking out a sniper from above.
This bravado forms part of Kara Hassan’s identity too. She’s practically a silent protagonist, but there’s a sense of who she is through the game’s encouragement of stunts, and in its small sprinkling of narrative sections. At the outset of each new tier of the championship, you get a little breather, a small slice of life in the shoes of the champ as she explores behind the scenes spaces to flesh out the world. The way she’ll comment on some of her aloof rivals, or play with an action figure, sketches out someone competitive but just humble enough to understand stakes beyond this sport she’s in.
You will too as you play, finding hints of protests and revolution outside the arena but on some level knowing that… you like this terrible thing. You’re good at it. At what point do you go from reluctant combatant to complicit champion in this world? It’s a slippery slope, especially when you’ve got skates on.
All that’s a complementary story, applied with a light touch. Just enough to get you to take a breath and wonder about where this is all going. As badly as Kara, I wanted to see the end. Partly because of the sights, with each new level raising the spectacle from stadium battles to all out battlefields. There’s a truly spectacular spider tank fight later that slots into the game’s over the top sensibilities effortlessly. If you could see what you’re up against at the game’s end from the beginning, you’d think it impossible, but by the time you get there, the overwhelming odds will just put a smile on your face. Bring it on.
Skate outta ten
Keeping on top of the rising chaos is a key survival skill, but you can’t keep things too calm or it’ll become impossible to chain together those score multipliers. Enemies almost become dance partners, and you have to plan out some careful choreography to reach those high scores rather than just killing everything in sight. You might hit an enemy once to keep a multiplier going and leave them for the next go around the map instead of killing them. Once you start to think about Rollerdrome in those terms, you’ll be amazed at the ludicrous heights you can reach.
Not that speed isn’t important. You get a bonus to your score for how much you beat it under the time limit, and a penalty for any time over. Just don’t lose sight of what’s important. The game certainly doesn’t.
Because Rollerdome is a game that squints its eyes, takes aim, and lasers in on the bullseye. Its focus is squarely on delivering that loop of blisteringly paced action, the kind of thing you can play again and again because each individual beat hits so hard and flows into the next effortlessly.
No skill trees, no unlockable abilities or experience points to grind. No obstacles between you and the exhilaration on offer. It’s a game that knows exactly what it wants to be and lets nothing get in its way. Kara Hassan certainly isn’t gonna stop until she’s conquered this sport. After over dozens of hours in the Rollerdome, I’m starting to think I won’t either.