I first heard about the Early Access title We are the Caretakers during the [email protected] show in April, and what caught my eye among the dozens of indies was Heart-Shaped Games' commitment to the Afrofuturist aesthetic and themes. Of course, it's hard to describe the look of the game without comparing it to Black Panther, the most high-profile work in this subgenre in the last few decades, but don't let your idea of Wakanda necessarily inform your view on We are the Caretakers; it is a wholly original world with intriguing art and killer music. However, it's still in extremely early stages and is one of the rougher Early Access games I've demoed.
I'd first like to highlight the best parts of We are the Caretakers - the artwork, audio, and themes. Anthony Jones, who has previously worked as an artist for Activision-Blizzard and Sony Santa Monica, served as the lead artist on the project and has created something truly eye-catching. With thousands of indie games debuting every year, many indies live and die by their art. The designs have to catch the attention of viewers who are being inundated with dozens of games in the space of hour-long showcases, and in that We are the Caretakers mightily succeeded. These original characters, environments, and animals, while not the most polished in-game, are eye-grabbing and play with powerful and vivid colors freely. If not for resolution issues (at 1440p), I'd call it an absolute delight to look at. Unfortunately, blurry textures were pretty common during my playthrough and took away from what I consider some fresh and intriguing design work.
Probably my favorite thing about We are the Caretakers thus far is the excellent soundtrack. I found myself pausing my battles just to vibe with the music, catchy hip-hop beats interwoven with tribal sounds and drum beats that really invoked the feeling of Africa. I believe there are only a handful of tracks at the moment, but I'm hoping more from composer Jon Parra are added in during development.
I also love games that build their gameplay, aesthetic, and world around cohesive themes, and We are the Caretakers has that in spades. This RTS/TBS hybrid will have players fighting poachers to preserve an endangered herbivore species, the Raun, who appear to be similar to rhinos. Fighting poachers, preserving the land, and protecting the ecosystem proves to be more of a motivator to play than anything involving the characters. And that brings me to the end of what I enjoyed about We are the Caretakers.
When you pop open We are the Caretakers, you'll be able to choose between either story or survival mode. As recommended by the developers I began with the story mode in an effort to learn the game's systems. Unfortunately, this proved to be futile - the tutorial does a pretty poor job of teaching the player what they're actually supposed to be doing. It plays out like a mobile game demo "Tap on this"... "tap on that"...."click this to attack." After spending about half an hour in story mode, I still had no idea how We are the Caretakers actually worked. There's constantly an overload of information on the screen, and characters right from the beginning speak almost exclusively in terms of cities, people, and concepts that mean nothing to a newcomer. It's borderline impossible to understand anything you're doing.
The overworld is an RTS map - units, animals, and enemies are constantly moving around between resource points, cities, camps, and beacons. Poachers will constantly try to get a leg up on you by surrounding a herd of Raun to harvest their ivory tusks, while also attempting to take camps and resources. In return, the player deploys up to six units composed of up to six troops, each with different powers. Leaving your troops in a city for a day will let them heal and be ready to fight again. None of this was explained or shown in-game.
After spending a while in story mode just clicking on the prescribed prompts and not really learning anything at all, I finally got into a bona fide battle. Confronting a group of poachers pulls the game into a turn-based strategy mode, where your unit faces off against 1-6 opponents. There are some design choices I quite admire in the combat and others that are utterly baffling. First, the win condition of combat is to reduce either the opponent's mental health bar (Will) or physical health bar (Stamina) to zero.
At first, I was intrigued by this approach, but in practice I just became confused. If I use a Will attack on an opponent, any Stamina attack my troops use at all is just a wasted turn. Stamina and Will attacks didn't seem to work better or worse against any different enemy types, because there were no different enemy types. So why does the system exist at all? Your units need to be 100% Will attackers or 100% Stamina attackers or you're just asking to fail. Again, none of this was explained to me.
After depleting an enemy's Will or Stamina, they'll kneel down and await a finisher. Depending on the situation, different finisher moves will become available. Typically, you can either kill the poacher, bribe them to stop, imprison them, or let them go. I ended up imprisoning them each time to await judgment later. Different moves also cause different status conditions, none of which seem to have an explanation attached to them, and I'm still not sure what most of the icons mean. In addition, attack animations during battle are extremely janky. Nothing feels like it has any weight, and most attacks are clumsily animated and done in half a second. The skill trees help buff your overall abilities during the RTS segments, but I didn't know which ones to pick because I still lacked a fundamental understanding of how the game worked. There's such a thing as too many systems. I found the UI to be totally unhelpful, but perhaps that's the point? I know there are games that intentionally don't tell you how things work in favor of player trial-and-error, but this was just excessive.
To be honest, I am thus far not impressed with what We are the Caretakers has offered as far as gameplay, mostly because I still don't understand it. I didn't even know what the threat meter was for until the poachers ran from me when it maxed out. Attacks feel like they have no weight, and I basically just choose to spam either Stamina or Will attacks from all my units until the enemy is dead. There's not really much strategy to it, and even buffs and healing attacks seem to be a waste of time compared to just hitting the enemy. Survival mode made a little more sense, basically setting your troops to defend the Raun herd from invading poachers for as long as you can last, but it just wasn't very fun. By the time I understood how the combat worked, I was totally burnt out.
There are some great concepts at work here, but the writing of the story, the animation, and especially the tutorial in We are the Caretakers needs a ton of work. The visuals, music, and world really intrigue me, and despite what I've said here I will certainly be keeping an eye out for updates. Plus, the Raun are very cute. There is so many little quality of life changes that would help too, such as a smoother and more navigable UI, slower attack animations, and the ability to right-click and drag the map like in literally any other strategy game. I'm optimistic however since the dev team acknowledges they're in very early access on this and plan to spend the next year working hard on features and improvements.
I don't think We are the Caretakers is worth your time just at the moment, but I wouldn't kick it off your Steam Wishlist just yet. Heart Shaped Games has a roadmap posted on Steam that details a few upcoming features, but they'll also be taking feedback from players during development. We are the Caretakers has a long way to go before I'd recommend it, but with the clear passion behind the project, I feel confident they'll one day get there.
TechRaptor previewed We are the Caretakers on PC using a copy provided by the publisher. The game does not currently have a release date.