In the early 2000s, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater single-handedly spawned a genre. The games were a score-chasing joyride through intricately designed levels with an aesthetic and passion to match. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was also a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. Attempts to revitalize the arcade skating genre since have largely failed, especially with regards to sequels in its own series. But every once in a while, a spark of inspiration hits. Rollerdrome proves that rollerskating can be just as cool as skateboarding, especially when you’re welding akimbo Berettas.
Rollerdrome has an eye for aesthetics. It’s a retro-futuristic cyberpunk battle arena caked in shades of suede and orange. There are no detailed textures to speak of — the faces of every object are stark, flat, and lightly outlined. It’s simple and beautiful, especially in motion.
A quick shoutout to the music is also in order. It’s no licensed behemoth, but the original score is effective, punchy, and does a great job at complimenting the action.
You play as Kara Hassan, a contestant in the titular Rollerdrome competing against House Players (the nameless goons hired to kill you). There is exactly as much or as little story as you, the player, would like to digest. In between heats you’ll visit the location’s locker room, where, in first-person, you can explore newspaper clippings, the lockers of other contestants, and more to learn about the universe and game itself. It’s a wonderful way to world build that feels optional but has enough gravity for me to slow down and pay attention between bouts in the ring.
Mechanically, Rollerdrome is perfect. I have nothing but praise for the systems it uses to keep players engaged. It’s like if someone took the DOOM Eternal approach to Tony Hawk: tricks equal ammo, ammo equals kills, kills equal combo multipliers. Doing the same trick over and over diminishes its score, and some enemies are far more susceptible to certain weapons, meaning you’ll constantly be swapping tactics.
There are multi-directional mid-air grabs, grinds, and flips. With the press of a button, Kara will dodge without exception, and avoiding the fire of snipers and melee attacks with the right timing will grant bonus ammo. You can wallride to reposition, as well as drop in and out of vert ramps. This all sounds like a lot, but it’s introduced over the course of the first hour or so to keep things from being too overwhelming. It’s also made a whole lot easier by the focus button, which slows time and allows you to line up shots using the game’s generous auto-aim.
Rounds end when every enemy has been defeated. Doing this faster boosts your score, and going too slowly depletes it. You’re given a letter rank at the end of each stage, and the sure-fire way to get an A-rank or higher is to combo every single kill in one go. This means dodging, flipping, shooting, grinding, everything until the last body drops. It’s easier said than done, as new enemy types are introduced that can seriously disrupt your rhythm. For instance, some enemies teleport away or shield themselves to deny you an easy kill, and shield-bearing riot guards require precise shotgun blasts to stun. Thinking ahead and leaving a few small fries in between these beefier foes is essential for chaining together long combos.
The arenas themselves are small but varied in layout and aesthetic. One is a large shopping mall, another a roller derby rink. Some feature raised elevation and secret rooms, and all of them sport collectibles that boost your combo further, as well as markers that require a specific trick to be pulled off near them to complete. Every level has its own slew of challenges to knock out that’ll keep completionists busy long after they’re satisfied with their score.
But score might be the last thing you’ll worry about, especially your first time though. Rollerdrome is hard. Like, really hard. Like, the Dark Souls of Tony Hawk hard. Thankfully, there’s a slew of accessibility options for those who don’t feel up to mastering its very niche brand of gameplay, but I found it immensely satisfying to do so. In fact, I found that just by playing levels long enough to survive the onslaught of enemies, I was becoming proficient enough to also finish with a pretty great score. There aren’t a crazy amount of levels, but they ramp up enough in complexity that replay value is through the roof.
I also found it gratifying to go back to old levels after unlocking all the weapons and absolutely stomping them, as an act of petty revenge.
The plot I mentioned earlier actually does shape up to something pretty intriguing for those who want to pay attention. Espionage, nepotism, and anti-fascism are all major themes, and it reflects the state many of us are currently living in — wanting to be entertained despite the fact that the world is on fire.
My one real complaint with Rollerdrome comes as a consequence of its brutal difficulty. Sometimes there are simply so many enemy attacks targeting you at once that dodging one will mean getting hit by another besides. There’s something to be said of targeting the most hostile enemies and saving a few weaklings for combo-fodder since they spawn in predictable waves, but it shouldn’t, in my opinion, take so much trial and error to simply stay alive. That said, I adored my time with Rollerdrome, and I’m sure it’ll have a cult following vying for the top spots on the leaderboards. With the accessibility options in mind, it’s an easy recommendation to anyone looking to scratch that arcade score-chaser itch (I sure always am). It’s a breakneck brawl through the ranks of a futuristic bloodsport that we’re probably only about five bad years from making a reality. So sit back, and enjoy the carnage.
This review is based on the PlayStation 5 version of the game. A code was provided for review by Private Division.
Rollerdrome is a beautiful creation. It’s DOOM Eternal meets Tony Hawk with thoughtful political ruminations and an art style to die for. We’re only about ten or fifteen bad years from a sport like this actually existing, so you might as well practice.