Every time I pull the left trigger in Rollerdrome, time slows down, and something magical happens.
I might be in the midst of grinding down a rail, balancing on one rollerskate as I perfectly time a slug shot from my shotgun to take out an assailant.
I may have narrowly jumped off a ledge to dodge a sniper shot from across the map, and wisely spent the falling time charging up a railgun to punish my attacker with pinpoint precision.
I could be upside down, midway through a showy, body-contorting manoeuvre I committed to shortly after launching myself off a vertical ramp. I’d likely be unloading my pistols – one in each hand – in a frantic effort to whittle down the health of a heavily armoured guard as he launches several missiles at me.
Every minute in Rollerdrome is filled with these empowering, death-defying moments of acrobatic action. It’s an adrenaline-infused hybrid of extreme rollerblading and Max Payne-inspired slow-motion gunplay that’s challenging, demanding on your reflexes, and utterly exhausting – but so incredibly satisfying when it all comes together.
In Rollerdrome’s 1970s-inspired retro-futuristic world, the year is 2030. A brutal bloodsport, which mixes extreme rollerskating and one-versus-many gunfights, is the premiere form of entertainment. You are Kara Hassan, a newcomer working your way up the ranks of the Rollerdrome tournament, amidst a backdrop of shady corporate conspiracy and political upheaval.
Brief, first-person vignettes paint a picture of the dystopian world that calls to mind the wildly fantastical, but gravely dire sci-fi films of the 1970s – Mad Max, Logan’s Run, and of course, Rollerball. Rollerdrome commits heavily to this aesthetic with its striking cell-shaded visual style (for that pulp comic book effect), warm orange hues, and the ominous drones of its synth-heavy soundtrack. An era-specific user interface, along with characteristic environmental details and stylish transitions are the cherry on top of a very well-executed theme.
But while the scenario of the game is pulled out of the 1970s, the core gameplay mechanics are a twist on some very recognisable games of the early 2000s. If you’re familiar with the likes of arcade extreme sports games in the vein of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, then the core flow of Rollerdrome will feel familiar. You’re presented with one of many arenas, with the goal of achieving the highest score possible by stringing together a series of tricks, and dispatching enemies in between.
Performing rollerblading stunts and gunning down enemies go hand-in-hand – in a smart design decision, your firearms in Rollerdrome only contain a very small amount of maximum ammunition at a time, which is replenished as you perform more tricks – a mixture of grabs, spins, and flips. Though the arenas are filled with dozens of enemies, with reinforcements coming in waves, you’ll only have enough to take out one, maybe two weak enemies at a time.
And so the flow of Rollerdrome is one of constant movement. Unload on an enemy. Hit a ramp and execute a trick to replenish your ammo. Hold the aim button – which automatically triggers slow-motion – at the apex of your jump to turn around and take out another enemy below you. Perform another quick grab trick on your way down. Speed toward your next target.
Thankfully, there are some very welcome allowances Rollerdrome provides to make the constant juggle of actions a little more manageable. The first is the fact that Kara can never ‘wipe out’, or essentially not land a trick. No matter how strange of an angle you might find yourself on when you hit the ground, Kara will land on her feet, allowing you to continue your combo so long as you keep moving, keep shooting, and not get hit.
The second is an auto-aim function for Kara’s pistols and shotgun, which takes a lot of the mental workload out of dispatching most enemies. There are avenues to reward honed reflexes, however – shotguns can fire a more powerful ‘slug shot’ if you time your blast just right, and manual-aim weapons like the grenade launcher and a high-powered, long-range railgun can be devastating if you aim them in the right places.
Kara’s dodge roll, which has a very generous invincibility window, allows you to avoid most attacks with great ease, also features a bonus for those who want to challenge themselves with split-second timing. Dodging at the last possible moment, and then immediately activating slow motion, will throw Kara in a ‘super reflex mode’ where her shots hit harder and her fire rate increases.
Together, these very generous concessions keep up the flow of action consistently, letting you focus solely on your ammo count, your next trick, your next target, and the best string of actions to get there – allowing you to just revel in the ridiculous, over-the-top nature of the game. And, once you’ve gotten the hang of things, those extra bonuses are there to push your reflexes further.
The action escalates quickly as you follow Kara through the later stages of Rollerdrome, via newly-introduced enemies that can take you out with pinpoint precision from long distances, and large area-of-effect attacks that become the status quo. It’s common to have five or six different enemy types populating the arena at once attacking you relentlessly, which requires you to think quickly and cleverly about which weapon to use, whether to close in or keep away, when to dodge, and how the hell you’re going to fit in some tricks to regain ammo.
You’ll be shooting rockets out of the air while trying to avoid sniper fire, skating around flames while also trying to avoid land mines and being stomped by opponents in exosuits. It can be challenging – even frustrating at times – to meet the almost impossible resistance in a new stage just as you’re finding the groove. But like the developer’s other titles (Roll7 is also responsible for the OlliOlli series of skateboarding games), the experience of being able to walk away, take a breather, and overcome it later with a clear mind and determined resolve can be greatly rewarding, despite the dejection that is a necessary part of the process.
My time with Rollerdrome was likely filled with more failed runs than successful ones, with long periods of exasperation after failing increasingly difficult stages, multiple times. But when everything clicks, and you’re in the zone – pulling off those perfectly timed shots and dodges, racking up enormous combos, performing ridiculous tricks, narrowly avoiding rockets, and nailing enemies straight between the eyes from 50 yards away to find victory – it’s so incredibly invigorating. Rollerdrome deals in style and hard-fought satisfaction, and getting Kara to the top is well worth the effort.
4 Stars: ★★★★
The PC version of Rollerdrome was provided and played for the purposes of this review.