If you’ve been feeling guilty about making animal-skin wallets in the Far Cry series, then you might want to redeem yourself with We Are the Caretakers. Instead of carving up creatures you’re protecting them, in what might be Xbox’s first anti-poaching game. Buy it, and you’re even contributing 10% of the amount to Save the Rhinos.
We Are the Caretakers has more to offer than a noble message. It’s a two-hander: on one hand it’s an exploration sim, not too far distant from Curious Expedition 2, or the opening moments in Civilisation, where you’re scouting the area for resources and villages. On the other hand, it’s a turn-based RPG. While the Steam page references X-Com, We Are the Caretakers takes its lead from the battle sequences of a JRPG. The positioning of your troops is less important than deciding whether to attack, heal or buff.
What first attracted us to We Are the Caretakers was the visual design, coupled with that weirdo title. The Xbox Store card and screenshots showed off its characters, who look like Mass Effect’s Tali cosplaying as the cast of Stargate, and they immediately grabbed the attention. But that was juxtaposed with a thuddingly dull title. What did Caretakers have to do with anything?
As it turns out, it all makes complete sense. When you first start playing We Are the Caretakers, you join the Caretakers faction: a group dedicated to protecting the Raun – a kind of space-rhino. The Raun are problematic in the sense that they trample over crops and occasionally sit on people, but their importance to the ecosystem cannot be underestimated. They are the lifeblood of the world.
It’s a neat balancing act. The Raun are undoubtedly important, which makes protecting them of vital importance too, but the locals are less convinced. Some understand the plight of the Raun and even worship them, but others consider them a pest. Others still see them as a resource to poach, and that’s where the Caretakers step up. The rhino comparisons are deliberately unsubtle.
It’s completely refreshing to play a game that shoos away blood and death, and instead opts for preservation and conservation. While there’s still violence – the turn-based battles have their fair share of kicks, punches and magic wands – the end result is detaining the enemies in some way, and ultimately letting the Raun wander free.
Better still is the visual design, which is utterly marvellous. We’ve already invoked Stargate and Mass Effect, but there’s some Wakanda Forever in there too, as Afrofuturist stylings are the order of the day. It’s a science-fiction vision that is far from the clinical Star Treks or the dusty Star Wars, carving out an identity that is very much its own. We could have happily toiled in its sandbox for many hours.
We Are the Caretakers doesn’t stop there, as the world is given additional dimension through the story. Should you care to get lost in it, you can: before each mission, there’s a lengthy framing of why you are here, what has happened, and the missions themselves have plenty of villagers and towns through which you can get more information. You begin to understand the role of the Caretakers, what makes them a shades-of-grey force, and why the task is not as simple as shepherding some Raun around a country park. And that’s all before some ‘foreigners’ arrive, and We Are the Caretakers plays its narrative trump cards. Before you know it, you will be hurtling through epochs.
But the meat of the gameplay comes from the exploring and the combat. Exploring is a simple affair, really: you are shown a zoomed out, bird’s eye view of the area, which corresponds to a Risk-like map in the bottom-right-hand corner which shows the areas you have explored, and where the gentle Raun are at. You move your squad (or many squads, as the game develops) into areas of the world that you likely haven’t explored; the troops stop for a moment to scout the area; and the fog of war is lifted, showing what is there.
The region might have some resources that will help you along the way (currency for a multitude of purchases, research for advancing through a skill tree, and items that might help in the scenario) , but there’s a good chance there is mission critical stuff there too. A village might offer some information, or tech needs to be dismantled. And then there are the enemies of course, who wait for you to trespass into their region, or patrol the map looking for Raun.
The exploration is rather enjoyable, if a little challenge-free. Very little throttles the amount you can explore – some levels have a turn-limit, but they are the exception – and the main objectives and sub-objectives encourage you to explore everything anyway. There are no real traps to trip you up, so all you’re doing is sweeping the environment systematically to make sure you catch everything. There’s a joy of discovery that comes from blowing back the fog of war, but it’s otherwise a tad benign.
The combat, though, is where things get more intricate. If you’ve played a JRPG, you will be at home here: your troops line up on the left, the enemies’ on the right. A standard turn-order is displayed, and you take it in turns to perform one action per troop per turn. The actions are relatively standard too: you can attack, defend, heal, buff and debuff to your heart’s content.
But while the main body of combat is familiar, it’s got some alien organs. There are two health bars, in the form of Stamina and Will. Think of them as the physical and mental wellbeing of the character. Get either of them to zero, and the opponent will kneel to the floor, but won’t be removed from the board. Should an enemy get to this position, then your next Caretaker has the option to pull off a character-specific finishing move. You might get the option to Detain, Bribe, Shakedown or perform some other deliverance of justice, which has delicate differences to how the enemy is treated in the hub area.
It’s a neat sidestep away from ‘killing’ characters, and suits We Are the Caretakers to a tee. But it’s also smoke and mirrors, because these nuances – both the twin health bars and the detaining – are really only reskins of traditional mechanics. Ultimately, you are still choosing the move that gets you to a win quickest, selecting it, and then watching it execute. There’s nothing that particularly spices up the gameplay, and we found ourselves wanting to automate battles more than participate in them. They mostly just devolve into attacking the lowest health bar with the corresponding move.
On the positive side, the sheer number of characters, moves and finishing moves are colossal. You can recruit every single baddie you fight (there’s a thick vein of forgiveness running through We Are the Caretakers), and they each have their own ruleset. Better still, you can level them up independently, and pursue career tracks for them. The depth of optimisation is a hallmark of the entire game. There’s so much to tinker with, including a dense skill tree, and there are five worlds of levels to complete.
Give or take the combat depth, We Are the Caretakers has all the ingredients for many lost afternoons. But we hate to be harbingers of doom, as there is a significant problem at the heart of We Are the Caretakers.
Bugs. We Are the Caretakers crashes. A lot. Finish a level and there’s roughly a one-in-three chance that it will crash before you reach your hub. Since the game saves at the hub, this is just about the worst time for a crash to happen. You can finish a level, crash, and restart, only to find that you have to explore the level again. While this is the dominant bug, there are others: ‘dead’ characters will remain in battles; squads will get stuck on the environment; and locations will simply not trigger as you approach them.
You will be replaying the same levels thanks to countless bugs, and that eats away at We Are the Caretakers second monolithic issue. Since combat falls into a pattern, the levels struggle to find ways to differentiate themselves. When you’re replaying levels because of crashes, then that repetition gnaws further into the bone. We found ourselves playing We Are Caretakers at a remove – not really paying attention to what’s going on. Which is a deep shame, as there is so much love and care in the world and dialogue, just waiting to be uncovered.
We Are the Caretakers deserves heaps of praise. You can point to the world design, story, depth of gameplay and themes of conservation and find something to fall in love with. But it needed longer in Early Access. The bugs and crashes keep stampeding through the game, trampling on what was painstakingly constructed. Should the bugs be removed, we’d add at least a half-mark to the score.
The developers have gone on record to say that We Are the Caretakers was planned for Game Pass, but Microsoft withdrew the deal at the last moment. You can see why Microsoft were interested in the first place, but, equally, the bugs make you realise why they might have stepped away at the end.
You can buy We Are the Caretakers from the Xbox Store
- Beautiful and unique visual design
- Conservation themes and money to charity!
- Depth of story and progression
- Combat becomes one-note quickly
- Exploration is fun but challenge-less
- Overwrought with crashes and bugs
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Heart Shaped Games
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S
- Version reviewed - Xbox Series X
- Release date - 6 January 2023
- Launch price from - £14.99