Football Drama review: an indie spin on the management sim
Football Drama is a game with heaps of great ideas, but it doesn't quite deliver on all of them...
From the Italian developers at Demigiant and Open Lab Games comes Football Drama, an indie spin on the footy management sim that puts storytelling at the heart of its experience. Den Of Geek first clapped eyes on this intriguing title at Gamescom 2019, where the developers explained that they aren’t huge football fans, but they do love the passion, stories and excitement that surround the sport. Today, the game launches around the world, and we’ve played the whole thing in order to bring you some thoughts.
Taking place over one 18-week season, Football Drama puts you in the role of Rocco Galliano, a pipe-smoking veteran manager that gets lured back into the game by a big new job. An eccentric Frenchman with a dark past who talks to his cat and also seeks advice from a mystical book, Galliano is a really fun character to play. You can always trust him to have a grumpy dialogue option ready for you.
Taking over the fictional club Calchester Assembled, implied to be a massive team like Manchester United, Galliano must navigate a whole world of tricky conversations: there’s the club’s Abramovic-like owner, Boris Aluminovitch, who meets up with you after every match and openly ponders whether to sack you; there’s also the head of the governing body THIEFA to worry about, a man winkingly named Splatter, who pops up and offers a dodgy proposition at one point in the game; there are also chats with the press, with one particular journo seeming like a possible ally; and there are also exchanges with the chairman’s wife, who takes an interest in the new manager that can become romantic depending on how you play.
On paper, this sounds like a great idea, and the game is at its best when it pokes at the topics that traditional licenced management sims simply can’t go near. Will you have an affair with the chairman’s wife? Will you throw a game because Splatter asks you to? Will you leak a taped conversation to the press? When choices like this crop up, there’s certainly a thrill that comes with them, along with a sense that you’re playing through a side of football that rarely gets seen by the public. And considering that variations on the footy management formula have been released yearly for ages now, finding something new to say is no small feat.
However, after the initial excitement of seeing these topics arise, it is somewhat difficult to keep all of these plot strands in the game if you also want to try and win the league. Having tried to walk the line and keep all the plates spinning at once, we ended up reaching a conclusion where none of the scandals were publically revealed and our dodgy chairman was merrily congratulating us on winning the league title.
We were hoping that there would be an option at the end to put all our cards on the table and expose Aluminovitch and Splatter for their dodgy dealings, but no such option arrived in this playthrough. The credits simply rolled, which felt a bit frustrating at the time, but also made us want to go back in and try a different tact. There are various different endings to be found, after all. And there’s also a ‘permadeath’ mechanic, which means you can be sacked at any point and bring the game to an abrupt end.
One thing that is stopping us from jumping straight back in, though, is the fact that this game is quite repetitive. Each week of the 18 in the season follows a formula: you have a couple of conversations, you choose your style of training for the week, then you play a match, then you have a couple more conversations.
A lot of the written dialogue text is repeated and images are recycled regularly, which becomes very noticeable if you have a run of form where you win a few games on the bounce. This is one downside of the indie approach, of course: it seems safe to assume that the budget of Football Drama is minuscule compared to something like Football Manager 2020, so perhaps it is unfair to expect the same amount of unique dialogue and fresh experiences. But still, it is jarring when the exact same member of the press asks you the exact same question three weeks in a row.
On the upside, the game’s art style is really sweet, looking like a cross between a pixel-art painting and an old-school football trading card. There are striking images (like a shot of Galliano smoking his pipe before walking to his pitch) and amusingly cute images (like your cat meowing in the corner of the screen), all of which are very endearing and will last long in the memory. There’s also a great soundtrack, with quirky pulsating beats, that will make you want to don headphones if you’re playing on the go.
As for the matches themselves, Football Drama’s way of visualising fixtures is something of a throwback: like in the old Championship Manager games, you mainly have to read the commentary to understand what’s going on, although key moments are animated with top-down views of the pitch where players are visualised as colourful circles. There’s a certain nostalgic joy to seeing matches play out like this again, but the sheer volume of repeated commentary lines (some of which have been translated a bit oddly) is a bit distracting. There is humour in the commentary, though, which helps.
Throughout each game, you will have an array of decisions to make, with every moment on the pitch presenting you with two options to choose from: should your defenders tackle or mark? Should your midfielders take risks or seek to control the play? Should your attackers go solo and try for a shot or opt for a team-based attack instead? There is always a risky option and safe option, and either one can backfire depending on how the game is playing out.
You can also deploy grander ideas during each match, which are represented by charmingly illustrated cards that you pick up over the course of the season. These ideas can be anything from ‘change to a 4-3-3 formation’ to ‘summon support from fans’, and the success of your suggestions will depend on the attitude of your team and how the flow of the match is going. A successful suggestion can boost your stats and help your team get back into a game, and an unsuccessful one can have the opposite effect. The games go by quickly, and we were able to get through two or three weeks of the season in 30-minute chunks of our commute.
All things considered, Football Drama is a fun exploration of the beautiful game’s ugly underbelly, but it recycles too much of its own content to feel like a fully recommendable experience. The lack of a payoff to certain storylines in our playthrough was also something of a letdown, but the art style and the music kept us interested throughout. If they made a sequel with a bit more refinement and variation, we’d happily jump back in. Galliano, being a very engaging character, definitely deserves another shot.
Football Drama is out now for PC, Mac, iOS and Android.