Review: Roller Drama (Nintendo Switch)
Part visual novel, part sports management game, Roller Drama has a lot of fun and interesting ideas at its foundation. Unfortunately, very few of the concepts are executed to their full potential.
Visually, the game begins brilliantly. It has a distinct art style that suits the topic of the game. The character designs all have a lot of personality to them, offering a variation of body shapes, backgrounds and aesthetic styles across the team. Each character looks equally powerful in their triumphant poses, and convincingly dejected when they lose a match. The settings around the character have a fun cartoony style, complimented by funky music.
Roller Drama begins with a light-hearted warning that you’re likely to come across some dark humour in this game. This prepares you only a little bit for the kind of story that awaits you.
The gameplay mostly takes the form of a visual novel. You play as the coach of the roller derby team, living in a big shared house with the girls on the team. You begin by exploring the house and checking in on each of them, getting to know a little bit about them, and building the beginnings of your relationship. Every interaction you have contributes to your connection to the team as a whole and to each girl individually. You can also generate connections between the girls by effectively facilitating their bonds as friends.
The story is punctuated by roller derby matches against other local teams. You begin at the bottom of the leaderboard and work your way up with each match you win.
These minigames require you to strategise, but don’t feel fully realised. There are options for you to tell the girls how much energy to use, instruct them in specific moves and to use boosts that you accumulate throughout the narrative. But the actual gameplay doesn’t have the speed and aggression you’d expect for a game designed to emulate roller derby. Instead, the movement feels slow and clunky. The birds-eye view of the match removes you from the action, and not in a way that necessarily puts you in the shoes of the coach.
Between each round, you choose words of encouragement to motivate the girls. This is about the extent of the sports management element of the game, and the options for what you might say are the same every time. You can mix and match different approaches, but unless you’re playing a wildly inconsistent character, you’ll likely use the same ones a lot.
Similarly, after the matches, you host a debrief back at the house. Here, your dialogue options are the same every time. Some dynamic options here that are generated by the choices you’ve made before in the story would make this element more effective. Particularly as other features of sports management games (such as managing your team’s training, diet, travel, etc.) don’t factor in much at all.
The chapters between each match make for another aspect of the game that is built on great ideas under the surface but feels incomplete. The chapters seem distant from each other, and introduce elements of the world that don’t quite fit together.
They tease a much more interesting story than you’re involved in, including supernatural elements in a mysterious dystopian world that takes a back seat to the roller derby minigames. A lot of the most exciting action – including stealing from police officers and conducting a jailbreak – happens off-screen. You navigate the dialogue required to plan the heist and then the next conversation after a match is about how it went off without a hitch. It feels like you’re missing out on the best bits.
The real shame is that I really like this concept. The idea that there are exciting, terrifying, exhilarating things happening in the world around you, but that your priority is your sports game, feels like it could be really fun and could even offer penetrating social commentary. The story is pieced together out of clues you pick up on your own while you’re busy training for a match. But for that to be truly effective, it would require the narrative and the sports element to gel a lot more smoothly than they do in Roller Drama.
A lot of imagination, humour and creativity has gone into the concept behind this game. Sadly, I don’t think the final product lives up to that potential. I love the diverse characters named after Shakespearean heroines, but I want to feel so much more involved in their story than this game allows.