Salutations And Decapitations

HIGH Crushing shields and severing torsos with a two-handed sword.

LOW 1 vs Many fights are basically impossible.

WTF Sometimes I’m not allowed to know what kind of match I’m about to enter.

Gladiatorial combat is fertile ground to build an action game around, so it’s something of a surprise that so few titles exploit the setting. The only notable entries in recent memory are the strategy Domina and the deeply silly VR brawler GORN, so it’s safe to say that We Who are About to Die has the field almost entirely to itself when it comes to Roman-era swordplay. As such, it could have gotten away with offering a basic experience and been confident of a fanbase ready and waiting for it. To the developer’s credit, We Who are About to Die has much loftier ambitions in mind.

A fighting game set in a pop-fiction version of Rome, WWAD uses a roguelite format to set brutal stakes immediately. Death will come frequently to players as they learn the ins and outs of its innovative systems, forcing them to constantly restart as a new ‘Aspirant’ — the term for those desperate to acquire the fame and status that comes from being remembered for truly exceptional sporting successes.

As a roguelite, WWAD is more forgiving with resets than with its combat — rather than forcing players to start from scratch each time, they can invest in the Gladiator school that trains each new character. Better facilities mean that each subsequent run will allow players to get new characters up to speed at a fraction of the cost – in either time or currency – that it took during the previous run.

In addition to the school investment system, players get a choice between two perks every time they reach a new level of fame, and more often than not, one of the options is a permanent upgrade to hurry the next gladiator along. WWAD’s most important lesson to the player is to always keep looking to the horizon, and never get too attached to any one character.

The disposable nature of each gladiator encourages players to constantly try out new weapons to see what appeals to them. There are swords, axes, cudgels, spears, and more – each offering distinctly different pros and cons when employed using the game’s compellingly strange combat system. Rather than offering canned ‘moves’ to be learned and executed, WWAD endeavors to put players directly in control of their characters’ weapons using the kind of mouse-based melee control that hasn’t been attempted in a major way in a quarter century, specifically since Treyarch’s Die By the Sword.

WWAD’s combat has players holding down one mouse button to trigger ‘attack mode’, then drawing their weapon back by moving the mouse in one of eight basic directions, then releasing the button to execute the attack. It’s intuitive enough, but it’s also awkward as hell to learn, and anyone interested in trying WWAD can look forward to spending a half-dozen hours with it before they feel like they know what they’re doing.

With that in mind, the more I played WWAD, the more I came to appreciate what its combat was doing. While each weapon has a ‘damage’ stat associated with it, that’s only a small part of what goes into determining the effectiveness of any hit. The game also tracks how far back the windup is, as well as the speed and direction of the player and their target – a swing that the enemy moves with might glance off a helmet, but if they make the mistake of stepping into the attack, their head might come clean off. It’s a compelling mechanic, with one major caveat – it only works well in one-on-one fights.

WWAD has a wide variety of fight configurations, from teams to free-for-alls to duels, and in any of them it’s easy enough to lock onto one opponent and battle them to the death. There’s also a mode called ‘1 vs many’, and every attempt was an unmitigated disaster.

The camera simply can’t keep track of that many enemies at once, and the developers’ focus on keeping movement and combat slow and realistic means that any attempt to maneuver around a group of foes will result in quickly running out of stamina and succumbing to the horde. This mode could conceivably work if, ironically enough, it were more realistic. This kind of historical 1-vs-many fight was usually a method of capital punishment, in which a gladiator would show off by killing a bunch of unarmored criminals and slaves wielding dull, rusted weapons. WWAD‘s insistence that players must always fight enemies who are equally as strong (or stronger) keeps this mode from ever working.

While WWAD’s combat is exceptional on a small scale, the elements around it need some work. For example, there’s no clear goal to strive towards, other than ‘be a very successful gladiator’ and the “favor” system in which a gladiator can become beloved by four different patrons, doesn’t have much impact on the gameplay at the moment.

In another example, every now and then a randomized event triggers, and the player has to choose whether to lose stamina, money, or health before their next match, but it all feels mechanical, rather than being a narrative event that might draw the player into the world.

The biggest problem, though, is the match selection screen where the player has to choose which fight they want to take part in. What’s the issue? Key details about the fights are withheld from the player, such as who the patron is, what weapons enemies will be carrying, and even what type of match it will be! It’s a baffling handicap the player has to deal with, and it seems to exist only so the player will have something to spend their ‘fame’ currency on once they’ve unlocked all the major upgrades. The basic idea – that the player can spend ‘fame points’ to get information about the fight – is functional, but the execution is a disaster. Players can’t choose which piece of information they want to unlock, and sometimes they won’t be able to find anything out at all, no matter how much fame they have to spend. It’s a terrible addition that adds nothing but complication for its own sake.

WWAD is still in early access, so there’s plenty of time to work out these issues. Everything around the combat needs to be rethought and redesigned, but wow, does the combat make putting up with the rest of the experience very, very easy. Whether the player is fighting a battle royale brawl in a torch-lit German forest or squaring off in a one-on-one duel against a formidable gladiator in a senator’s sitting room, the melee is satisfyingly bloody — and once I’d figured out the mechanics, I couldn’t get enough of it.

WWAD‘s unconventional approach to combat sets a high bar of entry, but fans of the setting who’ve long hoped for a spiritual successor to Colosseum: Road to Rome – the wait may finally be coming to an end.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by SHADE and published by D3. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: This game was not reviewed by the ESRB, but it contains Blood and Gore and Extreme Violence. It’s a gladiator game. Every swipe of a sword draws spouts of blood. Severed limbs litter the field at the end of every match. It’s brutal, and kids should avoid it.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played most of the game without audio and encountered no difficulties. There is no dialogue. Text cannot be resized. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

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