It’s interesting to imagine what might have come of this game if it Koei – the game’s publisher outside of Japan – had actually secured the license to a certain Ridley Scott movie. Colosseum: Road to Freedom was actually released as Gladiator: Road to Freedom in Japan, but with the precedent of the movie and an Acclaim title of the same name, things had to be shuffled a bit. As things played out, Colosseum received next to no attention in the US, likely not in the least due to little advertising by Koei and a miniscule print run. Reviews mostly showed disinterest or bewilderment, while one or two did admit the potential for niche appeal. So, was this game unjustly ignored? If so, what’s compelling about it?
It’s no secret that the game’s developers were huge – and I do mean huge – fans of 2000′s Gladiator. The game is set in the same time period as the movie, with the corrupt and egotistical emperor Commodus exercising his Herculean fantasies in the arena and slaves being fed to an incredibly popular spectator sport. This is a Japanese-developed game, but you’d be hard-pressed to guess that by playing it. Detail upon detail has been lavished on authentic Roman-era buildings, dress, weapons, and armor. The game has a cinematic appeal that’s mostly brought about through clever use of color and lighting (rather than extensive and overblown cutscenes). The premise is perhaps the closest the developers could get to the movie’s storyline while keeping the game’s distinct format: the main character (of origin and occupation chosen by the player) is enslaved and sold to a gladiator trainer in a far-off province of the Roman empire. Success gained here – at the expense of the life of another gladiator that shows kindness to the player – leads a trainer in Rome to purchase the main character, for the hefty sum of a million sestertii. The player’s new owner tells him that his freedom can be regained, but only after the player’s purchase price has been repaid. The game’s progression after that point isn’t defined by a rigid storyline, but events involving the player, Commodus’s mysterious lover Maria, and Commodus himself do occur now and again. Colosseum’s events often do hew closer to history than Gladiator itself, however, with Commodus’ eventual assassin Narcissus playing a role in the game as well.
Structurally, this game is a dungeon crawler. It might not have any actual dungeons, or even more than three different arenas to fight in, but Colosseum is very much in the spirit of the genre. Instead of floors, it has matches, and in place of monsters, it has burly gladiators. The game takes place on a daily schedule: some days are spent training, others spent fighting in a medium-sized regional arena, and others in the Colosseum itself. Training days allow the player to practice fighting, dodging, or throwing weapons, and also have exercises available that build up the endurance.
Each arena-day has a schedule of six bouts in which the player can participate. They can vary between survival matches, battles royale, beast matches (against bulls or tigers), duels, and staged battles. The staged battles are the most structured out of any of the bouts, as they involve specific objectives and some scripted events here and there (oh, and elephants and chariots). As each day progresses, the matches generally become more more difficult, while yielding greater awards (and equipment drops). Of course, you can skip any of the matches you like, but you can’t jump around the schedule: if you skip a bout, you skip it. It’s easy to skip any match that looks like it might be just a little too difficult, but the allure of bigger prizes and better loot always hangs out there, tempting the player to risk it all. And this is indeed the case: there’s no way to save between matches, and a defeat causes the player to lose all his equipment if the gods haven’t granted their favor (via a rematch at the cost of half the player’s earnings). The feeling one gets from tempting fate and building up an effective set of equipment over many days and matches strongly recalls roguelikes of Japanese origin, especially Azure Dreams and the Mysterious Dungeon series.
Your opponents in the arena drop what’s in-hand and on-head – helmets, weapons, shields – when they are defeated, and said equipment can be picked up by the player, used in the same battle, and brought outside to be sold or upgraded. Body armor, which in this game only covers the arms and legs, is tougher to come by, as it can only be procured in the arena by physically knocking it off an opponent. Tougher opponents drop better equipment, naturally, and the game’s sub-bosses and famous gladiators carry some very nice goodies indeed. You can’t pick up anything but what you can hold in your hands during a match, but once one ends and you’re directed to leave the arena, you can stuff whatever you can find into your…belt? loincloth? – I’m not sure where it all goes, exactly – until a short time limit runs out. Of course, you can’t pick up everything that’s dropped: stable boys will run out onto the arena floor to pick up weapons that might otherwise clutter the sandy grounds and lug dead or injured gladiators back out of combat’s way. This lends a bit of balance to the game, and begs an ever-present question: do you go into the arena with little equipment and the intention of picking up better goods as they’re dropped, or do you take your chances with what’s left at the end of a match? Naturally, the question is an easier one – and the rewards more clear-cut – when you’re fighting a duel.
The equipment itself seems to have had a lot of time and thought put into its structure and balance, and it’s well-integrated with the fighting engine. Each weapon and piece of armor has the usual statistics for attack, defense, and value, and each has a certain weight. Overburdening your gladiator will cause him to move and attack more slowly, leaving him something of a sitting duck, so it’s advisable to try to stay below the weight limit. Where things get interesting is in how you decide to prioritize your weight distribution. Do you go for that heavy Francisca axe and sacrifice some weight in your helmet and leg guard, or do you pick a light leaf sword and allow yourself more armor? Do you try to keep both legs well-protected, or do you only protect your left leg, which always leads and is therefore more vulnerable? Are you using the Shield fighting style, which allows your heavy tower shield to protect most of your body at the sacrifice of leg armor? Or are you fighting in Two Hand style, attacking with both swords at a time and defending with one of them, necessitating guards for both arms?
The fighting engine itself doesn’t exactly underperform, either. It boasts parries, counters, sidesteps, attack priorities, special attacks, combos – some of which are ingredients that I haven’t often seen in an engine that generally involves more than two combatants. Balance is important, as are zones of vulnerability. Each body part can take a certain amount of damage, and enough of a wounding can render an arm or leg unusable – or kill a gladiator. Armor naturally steps in to deflect impacts away from vulnerable flesh, and when an opponent is sufficiently armored-up, it can be tough to make a sword- or spear-point connect with meat. So, what’s to be done? Well, there are no breastplates in the game, so at higher levels, piercing and stabbing attacks become some of the most important ones available. Plus, there are special attacks available that can throw an enemy off-balance exposing a vulnerable back or shoulder, and with enough punishment, shields can be knocked from hands.
Side and rear jabs allow the player to fend off enemies on all sides while maintaining the heat on an opponent in front. Unfortunately, one rough spot in the engine can sometimes rear its head when the player’s trying to focus on one opponent in particular: there’s an automatic lock-on present here, and sometimes its sorting algorithm picks an enemy apart from the one the player’s trying to swing at. Compounding the problem somewhat is the camera, which can be unresponsive when the player’s dashing half-maimed around the arena, trying to keep away from a pack of heavies. It can be manipulated with the right stick, but it tends to take more effort than should be necessary to keep it well-behaved.
Each fighting style is well-developed, with different tactics, combos, and special attacks, and favored equipment for each. Even the bare-handed Striker style has weapons that can be used – try picking up the stones that heckling spectators throw and equipping them…and upgrading them! Weapons and shields can be thrown, kicks can be delivered at floored opponents, and large shields are as useful as crowd-controlling devices as they are for defense (just ask any riot cop).
Just like in any good dungeon crawler, there are unique weapons and weapons with special properties that stand out from most of the junk you’ll end up exchanging for cash. There are four grades of weapons available: grey, white, blue, and gold, and the top two categories always involve some kind of statistical bonus, either activated by countering a blow or present at all times. The equipment-shop keeper can upgrade weapons for a fee, and bumping them up to blue and gold ranks assigns effects that are chosen randomly.
Our gladiator can be “upgraded” as well. Using a given fighting style for any amount of time will cause experience with that style to be accumulated, and each style can be upgraded by levels. As mentioned before, body parts can have their hitpoints increased through exercise in the training area between match day. Points accumulate from both of these sorts of levelups, and on training days, they can be spent on the player’s attributes – strength, agility, dexterity, endurance, and so on. These statistics have a concrete effect on performance in battle, even beyond raw attack and defense statistics. Agility affects how quickly the player moves and attacks, stamina regulates how long the player can attack in a short amount of time before becoming fatigued, and dexterity governs how good a hold a player can keep on his equipment under duress. Special attacks are chosen by placing tiles representing the attacks one wants into slots on a wall, and similarly, stat-bonus tiles can be placed in a larger grid.
But with all this detail, the essentials of being a gladiator have not been forgotten. The audience is there to be entertained, after all, and putting on a good show will get audible approval from them. A good way to do this is to show agility in the arena, to dodge and counter blows and play with an opponent for a while, rather than simply hacking him to pieces. It’s thrilling to make counter after counter, working up the crowd, and to hear the audience start to gasp or cheer at every turn of the match. Spectators gather outside the gates of each arena, and waving to them can garner a response. If they don’t like you much, they’ll stone you while crying “You stink” or “Go home!”, but if you’re on their good side, you might receive praise and items.
The repetition inherent in the game’s structure is something that that would likely throw off somebody expecting something other than piles of loot and cheering crowds. There are only two arenas to fight in once the game proper begins, so anybody looking for a constant influx of new scenery should steer clear. One might say that, yes, this is a game about being a gladiator, many of whom probably never saw more than one arena, but it’s bound to be a disappointment for some. Plus, if one’s eyes aren’t set clearly on the prize (and all the smaller prizes along the way), the thought of taking on yet another battle royale match might be hard to swallow. The lack of a guiding storyline, likewise, would throw off those looking for peripheral reasons to succeed in the ring day-in and day-out. As a result, the key to enjoying this game is in getting to know and enjoy all of the systems, inside and out, and being fully sold on the idea of being a gladiator. Because that’s exactly what this game is all about, and it does exactly that with more class, more competence, and more authenticity than any previous game that’s tackled the subject. The system are solid enough, and there’s enough exquisitely-modeled weapons and equipment in here to see, that if you’re looking for the loot, the game will reward the effort you put into it.
Here’s a video of the Japanese Remix version of the game, which has some elements added from the US version and some more new elements on top of those.