There are a few things someone needs to know about me to get my interest: If it involves Rome, or is a Roguelike, I will pay attention to you, like a cat hearing a can opener. So when Rob approached me with “would you like to review this Roman Roguelike–” he didn’t really get to finish typing before I was demanding the steam code. Of course, this also means that my expectations were remarkably high, as two things I love so much are often going to face some big barriers, because if we can be honest with one another, dear reader, there are a LOT of really bad video games out there.
I am happy to tell you, then, that We Who Are About to Die is not a bad video game. It may not be the video game for you, though, so it is probably best that we talk about it a bit more before you rush off to Steam and plunk down your hard earned denarius, because this is not a game for everyone, especially those looking more for a historical experience, but also because we need to really grapple with what the game means by “Roguelite” in this instance.
A review copy of the game was provided to us by the publisher, Jordy Lakiere. The game is currently available on Steam via early access.
Let’s Get Physics-al
The biggest thing that needs to be put on the table for this game is that above any other element it mentions (Roman setting, “Roguelite” elements, career management) is that this is a physics-based combat simulator. While the other parts are important and make up a lot of the downtime of the game, 95% of your time with WWAATD is going to be spent in the arena (literally) of physical combat, controlling your gladiator as they try to fight their way to glory, or at the very least, to tomorrow. Control of your gladiator uses the usually WASD settings on keyboard, but utilizes the mouse to help control certain directional aspects of your attack arcs and aim.
If you aren’t familiar with physics-based combat games, they put a lot of emphasis on the direction, speed, and tactics of combat. This isn’t to say that they are realistic, but they do try to mimic certain realistic elements of combat: if you swing slow and without a lot of force, your attack may not do much damage, or if you attack from a direciton where your opponent can deflect, your attack will likely bounce off. Similarly, you need to be aware of your own physical body, as leaving yourself open to attacks when you extend your body in a certain direction is a great way to find yourself rerolling your character.
The game is very transparent about the fact that simply flailing your way through the combat will get you dead and frustrated, and urges you to try the tutorial, and above that, to take your time and really learn to practice the combat. I will be honest: I am not a patient person, and I tend to just blow through these sorts of things with the air of “I’ve played games for my entire life, I don’t need to read,” but boy was I wrong. You need to read and practice. I spent my first hour with the game becoming frustrated and at first debating if I just did not like the game at all, until a match where the combat clicked, I planned my strikes and strategy, and was rewarded with a satisfying win.
My gladiator died in the next match 3v1, but hey.
Once the system is understood and you get a few matches under your belt, WWAATD becomes a lot of fun to play in short bursts. I found myself rotating into the game randomly, not even for the needs of review, when I was looking to get a short burst of dopamine or excitement. It feels great to win fights, it feels interesting to see the various choices you can make and the way your characters can flesh out, and, once your character dies, its quite easy to rotate out of the game into something else. The gameplay loop is what matters in a game like this, and thankfully WWAATD is great at focusing entirely on that loop: dying happens, but restarting is instant, and never feels overly burdensome to have to start over. You also accrue certain currencies that stay over time, so dying isn’t an extreme restart that feels punishing and unfun.
Ars Longa, Vita Brevis
You are going to die a lot in WWAATD, especially early on. This means that you’ll also be spending a lot of time getting oriented with the other systems in the game, most of which are career management style menus. Between bouts of combat, your character can be healed, train, visit a blacksmith, and make other various choices that affect their career. You can even take out bribes and other unsavory mechanics, depending on how you’re planning to roleplay your rolled character. Of course, some characters are better than others in terms of managerial goals, and when you die your character is rerolled at random. The only gripe I had with this is that I would get quite a lot of criminals, but not as many of the other options of characters (which is probably just a Skill Issue with RNG on my end), but if you get really frustrated by what you’re given when you respawn, there is an option to reroll (at the cost of some of your resources, and frankly I never found it worth my time to actually use it).
There are some cute little narrative developments as your character progresses, usually instanced after a victory. These are mostly ‘pick your own adventure’ style dialogue options, and their effects aren’t permanently impactful (as they reset when you die), but it does mean you get to change your choices based on what you’re deciding for your given character at the moment. There is also a patron system, where the 4 patrons who run the gladiatorial combats have a positive/negative percentage scale that goes up or down based upon the types of combats you participate in and the things you do during those combats. As the game is still in early access, I am curious to see if this will ever get scaled up into something a bit more narratively important, but even as is, the patrons offer you goals to achieve based on what you’re shooting for. Need more gold? Then focus on trying appease or work for the patron who cares about money. It doesn’t really affect all that much which like you and which don’t, but they can be very helpful in getting your individual character’s victory conditions met, or even just helping ensure you have what you need to live just that bit longer.
Roguelite, Rogue-bright, First Rogue That I see Tonight,
The perhaps bigger issue I have with the game is that the term ‘Roguelite’s is being used extremely liberally here. For those unaware, Roguelite derives from Roguelike, itself a term used to describe games in the vein of, well, Rogue, a game from 1980 that featured dungeon-crawling through procedurally generated dungeons and had permadeath as one of the big challenge points. When you die in a Roguelike, you don’t die for real, but you do generally have to restart from the beginning of the game. The danger, push-your-luck, and challenge of completing a run generally combines into the trifecta of what makes these types of games so addicting, but the term has become so endlessly diluted that any game with permadeath/restart from scratch mechanics tends to get ‘Roguelike’ attached to it.
Now, to be fair, WWAATD uses ‘Roguelite’, which means that it uses certain elements, but frankly I know that this is mostly because of marketing the game than it is actual adherence to Rogue mechanics. Yes, your characters are randomly generated and permadie, but there are no dungeons to explore. Each character rolled has a unique win condition, but these are still not dungeons or the exploratorary aspects that are common in this genre. Really, the only playable parts of the game involve battles, as all other mechanics are handled via menus. So, while I do get the fact that using the phrase is a way to explain that characters die and you ‘restart’ from scratch, I will say that anyone looking for an actual Rogue experience here is going to be somewhat confused or disappointed.
That’s not exactly a bad thing, and again I feel the developer is using the phrase for the sake of the already confusing Steam / PC marketplace. And, there are some procedural aspects; the events that follow your successful battles are random, your character’s stats are randomized, and your own choices with that character are unlikely to be the same from death to death. But just know that going into this game, there really isn’t much ‘exploration’ going on, nor is there a wealth of narrative or discovery: you are here for the combat, and the death system allows the combat to feel like it has some stakes, rather than just being an endless combat game where nothing matters. Knowing that the character you’ve been playing for hours might die because it is now 4v1 in the arena after your AI partners died adds drama and tension to your game. Is this really going to be the end of the road? Or will you figure out some way to scrape a survival out of this, adding to the legend and story of your character… only to have them die in the next battle, because you couldn’t afford to heal them.
Not speaking from experience or anything.
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
I really enjoyed my time with We Who Are About to Die, and that time continues. I find myself playing it every so often in short bursts, seeing how far I can get, seeing the strategies I can use better, learning tricks to survive and explore more of the game’s many options and menus. The fact that the game is in such great shape this early in development makes me hopeful, too, as some of my main complaints are things that could be easily added to or explored down the line. I’d love to see a stronger narrative or exploratory aspect, something that brings the Roman flavor into the game a bit more, and perhaps even character creation (You can only play as male characters, likely in keeping with the historical setting in some ways, but hey, a girl can dream of being a cool gladiatress right?). I also have to admit that the game has a great line of direct feedback currently, with the developer openly suggesting that players go to the official discord to report bugs or issues so that they can be taken into account for future updates in the game.
As it is now, though, for early access, I feel like there is still quite enough here to satisfy players who like arena combat simulators. If you like the idea of a physics based combat system with Roman era weaponry, where you have to control for swing, momentum, strategy, and fatigue, then We Who Are About to Die is a great little game worth your time. And, eventually, perhaps it will become an even bigger and better game, one worthy of investing more and more time into as it develops further.
We Who Are About to Die is currently available on Steam via early access.
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