When poachers increase their attacks on the native Raun, it is up to the Caretakers to step in and protect the animals and lands that they call home. This is a compelling world, reflecting real-life conservation issues against an interesting science fiction backdrop. From choosing to reform poachers or secretly make them disappear, there’s also a surprising amount of options for those who want to really dig into managing their ideal squads.
Alongside a pretty fantastic (albeit Early Access) title, Heart Shaped Games is also using it as a vehicle to both raise awareness and donate some of the profit to rhino conservation efforts in Africa. So instead of trying to change your world with some amalgamation of augmented reality, WATC is actually doing the work to make change happen.
STORY – TO PROTECT THE WORLD FROM DEVASTATION
Initially, players take the role of the Conductor, pulling together a fractured tribe who is tasked with protecting the local Raun, a rhino-like animal, from increasing poacher activity. From the very outset of the game, tempers run high due to some other members trying to push the group away from their protection mandates, resulting in exile.
But what appears to be a story about the Conductor quickly shows itself to be more about the group and local ecosystem as a whole. Not even the poachers know why there is a sudden threat increase to the Raun population, and as you progress through the game, more characters will join or be drafted into your resistance.
I honestly found this a bit underwhelming. Most of the characters, while uniquely named, don’t have much depth or substance to them to make any sort of an impact on the story. There is little narrative difference between those that you recruit willingly from villages and poachers who are reformed through defeat.
As the tactical squad genre has evolved, the payoff has increasingly come from the relationships between characters that you tailor through combat. I’d love to see friction grow or disperse between squadmates as the game progresses, based on how they came to the battlefield together. The world has such potential; it’d be made even better to carve out some more personality.
The afro-futuristic design, crafted and molded together by Art Director Anthony Jones (fmr Activision-Blizzard), is stunning and deserves praise. If this term is new to you, “Afrofuturism” describes a genre of fiction that showcases science fiction through the lens of those of the African diaspora. This does not mean only those from Africa but those from all over the world.
This is a genre that’s underrepresented in fiction, especially video games, and it’s exciting to see so lovingly crafted here. The relationship between the characters and the Raun is deep and spiritual, but not stereotypical. Nobody is a witch doctor or voodoo practitioner; they’re simply doing what they can and learning what they cannot.
As with any title in Early Access, there is only room to grow, and I’m confident that the team will be fleshing this world out as time goes on. The development team is actively communicating with players on Discord, and their passion shines through.
Like I mentioned above, Heart Shaped Games is also focusing some real-world resources on supporting rhino conservation. 10% of the net revenue of We Are The Caretakers is being donated to the Wildlife Conservation Network, and the entire premise of the game is designed to emulate the struggles that rangers are dealing with to fight poachers and protect rhinos. Their hope is to bring the stories and experience to more people around the world, spurring interest in aiding the conservation efforts.
A noble cause, to be sure, and one that is hopefully going to be successful. For now, players can enjoy what is a beautiful, intriguing world with a powerful story, albeit with some ways to improve and grow.
GAMEPLAY – SQUADS (ON SQUADS, ON SQUADS)
If you’ve ever played a strategy title such as XCOM, Ogre Battle, or even Fire Emblem, then the basic loop of WATC will feel familiar. Players are given a map, some objectives are thrown in for good measure, and the level begins. Gathering materials, visiting villages, and engaging in combat are usually the main goals to accomplish.
There isn’t much that’s particularly “new” about the traversal portion, but the unique mechanics begin during combat. Instead of simply whittling down a health bar, every unit has two bars to drain: Willpower and Stamina. Only certain attacks will drain each measurement of health, and only one needs to hit zero in order to finish off an enemy.
This means that the makeup of each individual unit decides which strategy you’ll be taking with you into battle and explains why players can have so many squads on a map at once. Jumping between groups makes traversal and exploration a breeze, but sudden poacher attacks might leave you with a weaker squad having to go on the defensive while your star team is off clearing Raun traps.
I initially thought that the combat mechanic, with the multiple bars, was a bit gimmicky. But there’s a whole system here to manage while equipping your teams with effective movesets. You also need to keep your eyes on your Threat Level.
As an example, if your Threat Level drops too low, the poachers won’t be intimidated and will simply flee the battle. That means no loot and no chance to reform (or discipline) the bad guys. This value increases or decreases based on the moves that you select, so you’ll have to keep an eye out to ensure you don’t over (or under) do it.
I’m not too sure how necessary having nine squads is to the actual game, other than being an interestingly large number. It seems like the usefulness tops out at four or five squads, but that’s also based on how I played the game. Future updates might require more squads to adequately complete an area, for all I know. But for right now, it seems a bit much.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – READY FOR REVOLUTION
We Are The Caretakers gets a lot more interesting the further you zoom in on it. While navigating the map and menu screens, the look of the game gives off some pretty generic sci-fi vibes, similar in fact to The Protagonist EX-1, which I previewed recently. But what sets WATC apart here is the exquisite character models and design.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for a sick helmet, but the individuality of each character’s style and uniform continues to make me smile. It’s not only necessary because of the large number of units you command throughout the game, but seeing every different look is just exciting.
The world-design of combat situations is just as great, putting players right into the action among the plains that the Raun call home. Fights take place in the middle of nowhere among bushes and rivers, letting you know exactly where your people are making their stand.
The soundtrack is epic and driven by a steady beat of drums that underscores a lot of the dramatic story moments. More of a movie score than video game background music; it was nice even to just have it in the background while writing this piece, as it made everything seem that much more important.
The general sound design (and the usual sound effects) were fine. There weren’t any moments where something sounded strange or out of place, which is great for a title at this stage of development. But there also wasn’t anything that hooked me in or sounded particularly gratifying. No alert sound or confirmation jingle got me excited when I heard it. The game is, simply, full of expected sounds.
We Are The Caretakers was previewed on Steam. A key was provided by Stride PR.