[Preview] Roman Sands RE:Build

Roman Sands RE:Build is one of the strangest games I’ve played in a while, and that’s saying something, because I’ve played a lot of weird games lately. On a surface level, this first-person adventure appears to be an eccentric experience about performing menial tasks for the entitled guests of a strange luxury resort. It quickly becomes apparent that there’s much more going on behind the scenes: time seems to be looping, and also, the apocalypse might be nigh – or did it already happen? Despite having demoed this game twice now, I’m still not entirely sure what it’s about, but I can confidently say I’ve never played anything quite like it.

My demo of Roman Sands RE:Build was split into two acts. At the beginning of Act 1, I awakened on the shore of a beach; looking up, a giant resort stood in the distance, heatwaves radiating from it. Only moments after stumbling into the lobby, I’m “greeted” by a group of demanding boomers who all seem convinced that I’m actually an employee here. They’re all clearly unhappy; the elevator is broken (which seems to be everyone’s main concern) but on top of that, the A/C is off, a drunk man is wasted on the pool deck, and Sylvia needs a damn margarita pronto. They’re mostly total jerks, and it seems my job is to fix all their problems. How fun!

Of course, this being a video game, nothing is simple. Roman Sands RE:Build doesn’t just want the player to complete everyone’s requests, it wants them to do so as quickly and efficiently as possible. Every time the player leaves one room of the hotel and enters another, time advances; eventually, the day will end, and if the player hasn’t fixed the elevator by that point, the day repeats. In other words, this part of Roman Sands RE:Build is run-based, with the driving idea being that the more you play, the better you’ll get at optimizing your path through the hotel. For example, my first run through, I had no idea that one of the guest’s pills were located in a suitcase outside. Once I knew that, I could pick them up for her on my next run before she even had the chance to ask.

Not everything is normal in this place, of course. In fact, as I roamed into the basement of the hotel – or as one of the guests put it, “where they put things I don’t think about” – I find a Cthulhu-esque tentacle monster locked behind a door. There’s also some sort of strange biomass seemingly growing on/in the elevator, which I reason probably isn’t good! Then there’s the fact that everyone is talking about the sun all the time, and how it’s seemingly getting bigger; maybe the apocalypse is about to happen, and maybe all these people are living out their final days at this strange place. I didn’t get any firm answers during my demo, but regardless of the strange scenario, the game informed me to “keep your head down and make sure everyone gets what they want.” 

It’s a very weird premise. It’s also somewhat played for comedy, because Roman Sands RE:Build gamifies every action to a hilarious degree. If you pick something up, there’s a good chance the game will congratulate you for it. Even picking up an apple is an event worthy of a text popup that dominates the entire screen for a few seconds. If you interact with a door or talk with someone, your score will go up. Do it all quickly and you can keep a combo going, with numbers popping up on-screen to remind you of your performance. A guiding arrow points you to your objective, and if you follow it, you get a speed boost, which I found quite funny. 

The more tasks you complete in a day, and the faster you complete them, the more XP you get. Then, you can purchase persistent upgrades at in-universe “gacha machines” that will maybe help you make more progress in your next run, like a Janitor’s Kit that you can use to clean up a man named Bunk after he vomits all over himself.  Doesn’t that sound fun?! If not, that might just be the point. The premise of you, playing a customer service-focused employee who is trying to find ways to optimize their job performance in an arbitrarily gamified system, feels intentionally on-the-nose to me. Maybe you’re supposed to feel a little trapped in this place. “The Sun approaches,” the game informed me after failing to complete a day successfully. “Work harder.”

While I’m personally not the biggest fan of what I’ve seen of this game’s art direction – it feels a bit all over the place for me and just isn’t to my tastes – it’s certainly creative and varied. The hotel guests look like paper cutouts, standing around aimlessly in a sparsely lit, minimally designed 3D space. When you chat with a character, they have a flashy animation of them dramatically turning towards the camera, and then a visual novel-style scene plays out. The world is eerie and empty, shaded in a strange purple light. It all feels artificial and unsettling to exist in.

After the elevator was fixed, things managed to get even stranger (I feel I should mention this game is made by the same team who developed the equally strange horror title Paratopic). The demo includes a brief glimpse into Act 2 of Roman Sands RE:Build, which picks up oce the first set of tasks in the hotel have been completed. Still in first-person, I awaken in a futuristic-looking facility that’s even more empty than the resort. According to some info from the publisher, it’s meant to be a “decrepit zoological research facility.” A voice speaks at me over the radio: “Wake up. Your cow died. Suffocated overnight.”

I look over and, sure enough, there’s a dead cow in the room with me. I’m tasked with rewiring some electronics to divert oxygen away from the cow’s holding tank, or something along those lines. The vibe of this section is much less energetic than that of Act 1 – no big flashy numbers popping up on screen, no funky music underscoring your customer service speedrun. Something has definitely gone wrong here. What is my role in this mystery, I wondered? Maybe the apocalypse has already happened, and its too late. Meck, maybe everything happening at the hotel isn’t even real!

Frankly, I have no idea how all the pieces fit together yet – if there’s one thing that Roman Sands RE:Build does exceptionally well from what I’ve seen so far, it’s that it will certainly keep you guessing. It’s too early to say if this strange game will actually be fun to play in the long run, because I do feel its premise risks buckling under the weight of its own ambitions, that its narrative might be a little too far out there to hook some players. But it’s interesting and different, and that’s worth something in my book. Roman Sands RE:Build is planned to launch on Switch sometime in 2024.

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