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Gladiators are back in early access roguelite We Who Are About To Die

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It’s a month into early access release, and its development, largely done by one guy, is still being refined. But if I had to name a most inspired Labor of Love game for 2022, it would have to be We who are about to dieby Jordy Lakiere.

What Lakiere calls the “criminally underused” setting and theme – ancient Rome! gladiator combat! — finds a perfect foothold in a very popular genre, the roguelike or roguelite, which has really caught on with indie developers. What really makes it happen here is the Belgian developer’s focus on game systems, with the game’s setting and other aesthetics serving those systems rather than the other way around. This required Lakiere, who is primarily trained as an artist and animator, to stretch and grow as a game developer over the seven years that We who are about to die has been under construction.

“Roguelikes are known for their difficulty,” Lakiere said in an email interview. “I think a ‘relentless game of gladiators’ sounds like a good hook too. The title sums up the feeling perfectly – morituri, we who are about to to die. When you are sent to the pits you can do your best, but basically you are already dead.”

Released in early access on November 14th, Steam user reviews are overwhelmingly positive, for good reason. Instead of a linear tale of a single swashbuckling hero across lush scenery, We who are about to die plays for stakes since the first match.

Real gladiators played with permadeath turned on, of course, and that’s what you’re up against in We who are about to die, also. Players must think tactically, break down their opponents’ positions, keep moving, and keep their defense high. Lose a match and you lose your character, no matter how long your run may have lasted. This is a roguelite, after all.

“There’s also something absolutely magical about permadeath,” Lakiere said. “It transforms gameplay; suddenly there are real stakes. You get emotionally involved with this character, this story that was only lived by you, and you can lose it forever.”

Disclosure: I love gladiatorial combat as a kind of video game. Yes, I had the universally acclaimed LucasArts books gladius for Xbox back in the day; I also had Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance and Circus Maximus (gladiators and race?! I’m fanning myself). Lakiere started developing games at the age of 14 making mods for Mount & Blade, a series known for its fidelity in its melee combat. He counts this as an inspiration, in addition to the gladiator games I enjoyed, plus others ranging from Spartan: Total Warrior for Spelunky and its continuation.

Menu and screen showing a new character in We Who Are About to Die;  he carries a shield and sword and is wearing a blue hood.  The Coliseum is in the distance.

fighters in We who are about to die they are “applicants”. And their fights are to the death. Lose and start over with another
Image: Jordy Lakiere

But more importantly, Lakiere didn’t set out to replicate games he already enjoyed. His modding resume led him to enroll at university to pursue development, primarily through an art and animation track. He had a six-year career as a freelance artist paying his bills, but grew restless creatively from not developing his own game.

“I asked myself, what is the simplest shell around an interesting combat system that reduces scope so I can do it myself?” he said. “I remember lying on the couch brainstorming and actually having one of those clichéd ‘eureka’ moments,” he said. “The main loop is combat, arenas are limited in scope, round based combat. At the time, roguelikes and roguelites were very popular, and I realized – roguelite gladiator!”

Amplifying that inspiration is the fact that the gladiator genre has been all but absent since the middling 2013 film. Ryse: Son of Rome. “It’s a setting that’s universally loved among gamers (I thought so, anyway),” Lakiere said, “and criminally underused, as many fans of WWAATD mentioned.”

We who are about to die it has some rough edges for sure. Animations and reactions are noticeably repetitive and not always smooth. It’s also a tough game; players really need to focus on adding momentum to their swings, and those with Mount & Blade experience will be quicker to catch the flow than others who might expect button-crushing hack-and-slash. All that said, We who are about to die is admittedly a work in progress, with an ambitious content roadmap.

It also had a strong enough launch to make Lakiere serious about hiring a development studio for the game. He hasn’t soloed the entire seven-year project so far – a few contractors helped with game components – but WWAATDLakiere’s first month exceeded his expectations “by 20 times,” Lakiere said. “And the drop in sales is much smaller than expected – a really 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, beyond the backstage of the company, 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 have both completed by early 2023.

But We who are going to die at least it seems to have the fundamentals in place. There’s a rock-paper-scissors aspect to matchmaking: shield and spear fighters are great all-rounders, while two-handed ax fighters are slower but break through defenses faster. “They’re a bit like glass cannons,” Lakiere said, “and smart players can be sure they have a javelin equipped to get past them. [them].”

We who are about to die saw its first major title update on December 7th and is currently on a 20% discount until January 5th. It is available on Steam for Windows PC.