Gladiators are back in early access roguelite We Who Are About To Die
It’s a month away from an early access release, and development, mostly handled by one guy, is still a work in progress. But if I’m going to name a most inspired Labor of Love game for 2022, this would have to be it We who are about to dieby Jordy Lakiere.
What Lakiere calls a “criminally underused” setting and theme – ancient Rome! gladiator fight! — finds a perfect footing in a very popular genre, roguelike or roguelite, which has really caught on with independent developers. What really makes it go here is the Belgian developer’s tight focus on game systems, with the game’s nature and other aesthetics serving those systems, not the other way around. This required Lakiere, who is trained primarily as an artist and animator, to expand and grow as a game developer over the seven years that We who are about to die has been in the making.
“Roguelikes are known for their difficulty,” Lakiere said in an email interview. “I think an ‘unforgiving gladiatorial game’ sounds like a good hook too. The title sums up the feeling perfectly – mortuary, we who are about to die. When you’re sent into the pits, you can try your best, but you’re basically already dead.”
Steam User Reviews launched in Early Access on November 14th, for good reason. Instead of a linear narrative of a single hero scurrying through lush countryside, We who are about to die plays on stakes from the first match.
Actual gladiators played with permadeath turned on, of course, and that’s what you face in We who are about to diealso. The players must think tactically, break down the opponent’s positions, keep moving and keep the defense up. Lose a match and you lose your character, no matter how long your run may have been. It is a roguelite after all.
“There’s also just something absolutely magical about permadeath,” Lakiere said. “It transforms gameplay; suddenly there are real stakes. You become emotionally invested in this character, this story that has only been experienced by you, and you can lose it forever.”
Disclosure: I love gladiatorial combat as a video game genre. Yes, I had LucasArts’ universally acclaimed Gladius for Xbox back in the day; I had that too Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance and Circus Maximus (gladiators and Racing?! I fan myself). Lakiere cut his game development teeth at the age of 14 creating mods for Mount & Blade, a series known for its melee fidelity. He counts that as an inspiration, plus the gladiator games I liked, plus others ranging from Spartan: Total Warrior to Spelunky and its sequel.
But, importantly, Lakiere didn’t set out to recreate games he already liked. His modding resume led him to enroll in university to pursue development, mainly through an art and animation track. He had six years as a freelance artist paying his bills, but grew creatively restless at not developing his own game.
“I asked myself, what’s the simplest shell around an interesting combat system that reduces the scope so I can do it alone?” he said. “I remember lying on the couch brainstorming and actually having one of those cliché eureka moments,” he said. “The core loop is combat, the arenas are limited in scope, turn-based combat. At the time, roguelikes and roguelites were very hot, and I realized – gladiator roguelite!”
Compounding this inspiration is the fact that the gladiator genre has largely been AWOL since 2013 Ryse: Son of Rome. “It’s a universally beloved setting among gamers (at least I thought),” said Lakiere, “and criminally underutilized, as many fans of WWAATD have mentioned.”
We who are about to die has some rough edges, to be sure. The animations and reactions are noticeably repetitive and not always smooth. It is also a difficult game; players really need to focus on adding momentum to their strikes, and those experienced in Mount & Blade will be quicker to pick up the flow than others who might expect a button-mashing hack-and-slash. All that said, We who are about to die is admittedly a work in progress, with an ambitious content roadmap.
It’s also had a strong enough launch to make Lakiere serious about staffing a development studio for the game. He hasn’t soloed the entire seven-year project so far — some contractors have helped with the game’s components — but WWAATDIn the first month, he beat his expectations “by 20 times,” Lakiere said. “And the decline in sales is much lower than expected – a very healthy tail so far.”
“So it makes a lot of sense to take the plunge and finally move away from solo development,” continued Lakiere. “The immediate goals, besides behind-the-scenes company stuff, are debugging, adding content and some peripheral features. […] More randomness, more items, levels, backstories [for the cast of Aspirants, as the gladiators are called].” Controller support is a big goal, as is optimizing the game for the Steam Deck. Lakiere hopes to get both of those done by early 2023.
But We who are about to die, at least seems to have the basics in place. The matchmaking has a rock-paper-scissors aspect: shield-and-spear fighters are good all-rounders, while two-handed ax fighters are slower but break defenses faster. “They’re kind of like glass cannons,” Lakiere said, “and smart players can make sure they have a spear equipped to get through [them].”
We who are about to die saw its first major title update on December 7th, and it’s currently 20% off until January 5th. It is available from Steam for Windows PC.