You struggle to your feet and the full weight of your exhaustion hits you. It feels like you’ve been fighting for hours. The floor of the arena has become a mixture of compact dirt and fresh blood; a lot of it yours. You barely managed to deflect that last blow. You were careless; you didn’t keep your guard up, took too many chances and your opponent used those openings to his full advantage. Most of your armor has been reduced to useless scrap and you can barely hold on to your sword. You’re bloodied, broken and all but dead on your feet. As you wipe the rust-colored sweat from your eyes you can see your opponent gathering his strength for the final blow.
Then you hear it. A small murmur that builds into a thunderous roar. The crowd is cheering for you, their champion. Win. Win. WIN.
Without thinking you latch on to that energy, that sudden swelling wave of power, and unleash everything you’ve got. Pulling from reserves you thought drained long ago, you effortlessly brush your enemy’s attack aside and unleash a flurry of sharp metal. One blow is blocked, then another, but soon your opponent is helpless under your merciless onslaught. And just when you’ve hit your breaking point, just as that wave of primal energy dissipates, your opponent falls.
You stare at his unmoving form for a moment, not entirely sure of what just happened. In that brief moment, all is silent. You can hear the blood, a mixture of your enemy’s and your own, as it drips onto the dirt. Then the roaring begins anew. Louder this time.
You raise your sword to the sky, victorious.
Gladiator Begins is, at its core, a fighting game. However, it’s unlike most fighting games you might be familiar with: It has a slow, deliberate pace that rewards careful strategy and punishes random attacks. Your character’s fighting style is determined by the weapons they wield, and can be changed on-the-fly during a match by grabbing or dropping weapons with either hand. Each fight yields experience that can be used to increase your character’s health, stamina, overall strength, and so on.
Right from the start, the very deliberate nature of the combat might very well put off some veteran fighters. There are no specific combos to speak of, individual characters may appear different but tend to adhere to the rules of their weapon of choice (i.e. all sword and shield fighters are basically the same), overuse of special attacks can lead to exhaustion and your gladiator can (and will) trip over various pieces of equipment left strewn about the arena. But while some would find such mechanics irksome or even stupid, others will see them all as just another factor to consider, another weakness to exploit. If you come to grips with the flow of each fight, soon you’ll be dancing circles around your stumbling victims and returning lesser gladiators to the earth before they can lay a finger on you. Sometimes even when it’s three-on-one.
But it’s not enough to merely win. Oh sure, winning means you get money, the occasional special items, and all that, but you get more money and the opportunity to grab more special items if you impress the crowd. And how do you do that? By playing with your food opponents. It’s not enough to merely grind them into dust in under a minute, you need to draw the match out. Show the folks out there some signature moves. Let your enemy think they might have a shot before deflecting their lunge and counter-attacking. What’s even better about impressing the crowd is that once they’ve been won over you’ll be able to trigger a temporary adrenaline rush, granting faster movement and stamina that regenerates at an absurd rate. And that means you’ll start hitting buttons and seeing nothing but whirling steel and spraying blood. It’s not essential to your success, but it makes everything easier and it feels cool.
Whether it’s the desire to become the number one gladiator, earning enough money to buy your freedom or finding special items in order to upgrade your meticulously pieced together equipment set, something is always dragging you forward. Becoming number one will require you to face off in one-on-one battles against Rome’s most celebrated fighters, which is no easy task, even in a New Game+ with massively tweaked gear. Eventually paying off your owner (gladiators were often slaves, after all) will take some time, but even then you’re given the choice to end your game as a free man/woman or to keep fighting for more money and acclaim. And upgrading your gear? Well that can take practically forever (really), as there doesn’t seem to be any sort of stat cap and you can always find more stuff to refine. So if you really like that one helmet, even if something better comes along, you can just keep pouring money and refinements into it until it’s even better than what you’ll find come the endgame.
There is a story present in Gladiator Begins, but where it goes and how much of it you see depends largely on your admittedly binary choices. Early on you’re introduced to several… let’s call them patricians… who each have their own side stories you can take part in. Completing one of these characters’ scenarios will also give you access to special shops that will sell items you could normally only acquire through lucky post-fight drops. Completing one such story will lock you out of the others, so if you want to see them all you’ll have to play through at least four times or so. It’s not necessary in the slightest, as these side stories have little to do with the “main” one (which doesn’t even actually start until the last quarter of the game anyway), but it gives completionists plenty of incentive to milk this game for all it’s worth.
The story is definitely the weakest element, however. While it might be interesting from a quasi-historical perspective to see Markus Aurelius’ son Commodus (you know the basic story, it was in that Russel Crowe movie) take the title of Caesar, it’s not all that compelling here. Dialogue is delivered by highly detailed puppet people (think Civilization) who speak something akin to Simlish. It’s just about as interesting as you’d expect a plot driven by Civ leaders to be, but like most entertaining action games, the plot merely exists as an excuse to fight things. And fight things you shall.
So what happens if you start a New Game+ to see some of those other side stories, but don’t want to use the same fighting style? Well then just equip your character with something else and start earning levels with that style. Each one (sword and shield, hand-to-hand/cestus, polearms and dual swords) levels up the more you use it, with more upgradable special attacks available when you gain ranks. Your favored style will keep its current level, and you can switch back to it at any time.
Sure you could argue that fighting some jerks in a circular arena gets repetitive after a while, but isn’t that what all fighting games are about? Besides there’s a ton of character customization to enjoy, lots of self-appointed goals if you find the main story dull and plenty of new techniques to discover. Especially if you switch up your fighting style. If you’re looking for the next big fighting game you’ll probably come away disappointed, but if you appreciate The Grind and like the idea of a slower-paced tactical fighter then you’d probably enjoy Gladiator Begins quite thoroughly.
Things We Liked: Very strategy-focused combat — maxing out your character or wearing high-end gear helps, but won’t make up for sloppy fighting. For a video game, everything looks surprisingly authentic. Dual swords + Rob = your ass is ground beef.
Things We Disliked: Disappointingly simple story with very little personal involvement. Certain moves feel cheap, but then again you can use those same moves, so it’s a trade-off. Getting a good “score” in two-on-two fights is irritating. A few more variations of “Kill this guy. Now kill these guys. Now kill this other guy” would have been nice.
Target Audience: Fighting game fans who are looking for something a little different. Brawler fans who are also looking for something a little different. Anyone who wants to play the part of a Roman gladiator without all the mess. Oddly enough, probably Monster Hunter fans, too.
(Gladiator Begins – Developer: GOSHOW. Publisher: Aksys Games. Available for PlayStation Portable. Unfamiliar with CFD!’s review system? Read our newly revised explanation here.)