So you remember the movie Gladiator, right? The one with Russell Crowe? Where he had all those cool fights in the Colosseum, and even had one where a tiger suddenly burst from a pit in the arena floor?
Or maybe you remember the battles from that old Spartacus movie with Kurt Douglas?
Pretty cool, right?
Well, it seems that we're not the only ones who found it fascinating, as Brain Seal Entertainment apparently thought so too. They've taken that basic idea of a lone Gladiator, battling to entertain the crowd at the Colosseum and expanded on it, creating a single player beat 'em up based on the concept. It is called "Story of a Gladiator", and it's the recent Switch release that I'll be taking a look at in this review.
Like many other small indie titles of this level, we're shown a hand drawn slide show, that's actually voiced this time around, to set the scene and it tells the story of how our character found himself becoming a fighter in the Roman arena. You see, our protagonist didn't start his existence in the city of Rome, instead he actually lived in one of it's surrounding provinces. He spent his time farming, growing enough crops to support a wife and a family.
Until the legions of Rome appeared that is.
The common people like him had no idea why they attacked but, by the end of the day, his friends and family were dead, killed by the almighty power of the Empire. Despite such misfortune though, he managed to escape and avoided slavery, or even worse, death at their hands. He fell into a deep and dark depression and, for most of the next few years, tried to find meaning in his life, wondering why the Gods decided to spare him, but not his family. He started to drink heavily. He got into fights. He got beaten up. He sought the company of ladies of loose virtue, anything to try and dull the pain of his loss.
Then one day, while stumbling around in a drunken stupor, the fates revealed his purpose when he happened upon some warriors taking part in combat for coin. The fighters were men of great strength and physique, and he was filled with wonder as he approached the organizer.
"How can I become a champion?" He asked, feeling that perhaps his fate lay in the sands of the arena.
"Ha!" replied the manager, "That's easy! There's only one way to become a champion my friend and that's to NEVER LOSE!"
The words of the man echoed in his mind like a thunderstorm, and it felt as if his fate had finally been revealed to him. So from that moment on, there was only one thing on his mind: To enter the gladiatorial games, fight his way through the ranks, and finally become the champion of the arena.
When you begin a new game, you can choose which of the three available provinces that your character originated from and each not only has a different look depending on their race, but also has an innate bonus too. Greek characters do 8% more damage than the other two, those from Carthage have a 5% bonus to health, while Egyptians begin with an extra skill point they can use to upgrade their abilities.
Regardless of race though, the basic game plays out the same with your Gladiator having to make his way through 3 campaigns before being declared the ultimate champion of the arena. You begin with only the Greek campaign open at first but, as you complete the levels of each one, you'll move through the Afrikan and then Roman campaigns as well. Each campaign is made up of 12 "days", (which are, in practice, actually levels) with each of these days consisting of a certain number of opponents, arriving in the arena in a certain number of waves. The enemies start off easy, wielding simple wooden clubs and having low health, but still provide a challenge as you also start off weak and with shoddy equipment. As you progress your opponents increase in health, weapons and abilities, with many specialty types beginning to appear. Some have small shields to block your attacks, some have polearms allowing a longer reach, others have huge shields that bash you into submission, while some have throwing spears to punish you from far away. You'll even face fear casting voodoo shamans, whose attacks will fill you with fear causing your Gladiator to run off in a random direction. There's even wildlife introduced as lions and tigers appear too. Fighting your way to Day 12 will then feature a boss battle, a particularly difficult fight against the arenas current champion and his henchmen. Victory in this fight opens up the next campaign, where the whole cycle begins again with a whole new set of baddies to overcome. The wide range of enemies and opponents, most of which I haven't even mentioned, will keep you on your toes. They get slowly added as you advance through the levels, and help keep things fresh and challenging as each has their own skills, and they require different tactics to overcome.
But, obviously, to overcome them you must utilize your own skillset in order to do so. The action takes the form of a side scrolling beat-em-up set within the enclosed walls of a colosseum style arena. As mentioned earlier, the enemies will appear in differing amounts and types, across a number of different waves, entering from the left and right sides of the arena. You start with a very simple moveset with which to deal with them, mostly revolving around your melee attacks and shield. Your main weapon, assigned to A, can be swung multiple times and will dispatch the lower end enemies in a few hits. Timing is crucial though as the enemies will hit back hard and can kill you just as quick but, by pressing and holding B, you can raise your shield in defence. This protection only blocks a percentage of the damage though so it certainly isn't perfect. Using it also takes effort and each time you raise it in defence your stamina bar will raise slightly. If the bar increases completely your character will be stunned, unable to move or react, and you'll be left open to attacks for a few seconds while you recover. Your beginning moveset is rounded out by the ability to run, assigned to the R trigger, allowing you to quickly move across the arena but this too requires effort, raising the stamina bar each time it's used.
This initially basic set of moves quickly starts to expand though. As you earn experience you'll be granted a skill point each time you level up and you can use these to activate and upgrade a host of abilities. These are both active and passive in nature and bring a variety of new options to the fight. The first of these is a simple but very effective dodge roll (assigned to Y) that will allow you to dodge enemies, and also to easily get behind them too. There's abilities like a leap attack that allows you to jump forward with a punishing blow and quickly close the gap between you and your opponent. You can acquire a shield bash that pushes back and stuns everyone in front of you, or a kick ability that knocks your opponent down, stunning them in the process and doing damage too. All these active abilities are easy to pull off, all triggered by holding the L trigger and pressing the relevant face button and they flow quite well in combat. They do all add to your stamina bar though, meaning you can't spam them in quick succession and must think about the best time for you to use them. Passive abilities include things like increased stamina, faster attack speeds, more damaging back attacks and so on. They don't require activation or drain stamina and can be more useful than the combat moves in certain situations. Overall the 12 skills are all grounded in reality, there's no fireballs or teleporting here, and each can be upgraded through various levels that will increase their effectiveness. There's also one other factor to consider when fighting: the audience appreciation bar.
As you kill enemies, avoid damage or use the decapitation skill as a showy finishing move, this bar will slowly fill increasing the aid the crowd will provide. Every so often they'll throw a coin purse into the arena, and picking this up will increase your victory purse at the end of the match. They'll throw in food items to replace lost health and, probably equally as effective, they'll lob in rocks too stunning opponents and making them easy targets to finish off. The higher the audience approval, the more common these boons will be but your approval bar also has another function. Get it high enough and you'll be able to pray to one of the Roman Gods, sacrificing the bar for aid that can turn the tide of battle. Depending on which God you align yourself with, you'll get a different effect. Jupiter for instance stuns all opponents on the field, while Mars will make them all attack one another for a few seconds instead.
I mentioned earlier that new enemy types, with new skills and weapons, are drip fed in as you progress and this actually applies to the arena as well. In the earlier levels it will be empty, a bare floor covered in sand, but as you progress through the days new damage and death dealing traps and features will be added. Sometimes these will take the form of a huge bonfire in the middle of the play area, others times it may be pressure plates that when stepped on will cause spears to erupt from the arena floor. There's even times when bottomless pits are featured, which will cause an instant death to anyone who falls, or is kicked, into them. These traps effect both you and the enemies though so can provide an advantage, as well as cause you difficulty.
Combat wise the game is entertaining. The first few battles can be initially challenging as the combination of low health and low stamina can make death come quite quickly. Grind your way through the first few levels a couple of times though, and the extra skill points and cash will make life a little easier. Although initially being a simple Golden Axe style game, it isn't long till things get a little more complex. The various enemies have their own strengths and weaknesses, and working out the most effective way to deal with them is a major part of the fun. When the shield bearers appear, you might find having high back stab ability useful, especially in combination with the roll dodge to get behind them. Up against a boss that can take a lot of punishment? Level up that kick ability to knock him down and keep him stunned. The wide range of enemies, the addition of arena traps and the gradual opening of new stores keep things fresh, and helps it rise above the level of many of the other side scrolling beat em ups out there. It does have a few minor problems though. I had a few times when moves wouldn't trigger exactly when I wanted, particularly with the kick or jump attack but it happened infrequently enough to not be a major problem. I found the combination of rolling behind the opponent, added to a powerful back stab ability, to be a little too effective. Working on most opponents it quickly became a go to move that sometimes made things a little repetitive but that's kinda on me. One more common thing that happened though, became a little irritating when lions and tigers were introduced as opponents. Sometimes they'd have the exact same look as my own pet and I'd find myself frantically dodging a pursuing cat, only to discover that it was my own feline trying to return to my side. When everything is considered though, the combat was enjoyable and challenging with each of the "days" providing a short, individual fight that feels satisfying to win.
Victory for your efforts are judged out of three stars and getting the best score relies on how much damage you receive. Keep your health above 60% and you'll get 3 stars, win with 40% health left and you'll get 2 stars. The more stars you receive, the higher the bonus to the experience and cash you'll be rewarded for victory. At the end of the battle, you can choose to replay the same match, perhaps getting a better score, or more likely to earn yourself more EXP and gold to spend in the city centre.
This area has a few different merchants you can visit, although most are initially closed and will only open up as you progress through the days of the campaign. One of the most important, and the first to open, is the Training Grounds. Here you can allocate your skill points to gain new abilities, or upgrade the ones you already have. You can also add and remove points as you see fit, allowing you to try new builds freely, or create a specific skillset to deal with a particularly tricky level. The second most popular store, also available almost instantly, is the blacksmith where you can buy new armour, weapons and shields. New armour upgrades your maximum health, allowing you to take more damage, and can also be customised a little giving minor cosmetic choices to how you'll appear in battle. New shields also increase your maximum health, and just as importantly block a higher percentage of attack damage, as well as looking cosmetically different. Buying better weapons, as you'd expect, will increase the amount of damage you'll do with each swing of your weapon but, unfortunately, that's all it does. The different weapons don't, in any way, function differently at all with clubs, swords, axes, scythes or whatever all having identical attack patterns and swings making the only difference between them, apart from the stats, being entirely cosmetic. Having them handle differently would have added something to the gameplay and would have given each weapon its own identity, but as it stands they all behave the same with your basic attacks becoming repetitive feeling as you advance through the stages.
Alongside the more important Training Grounds and Blacksmith there are some minor stores that sell items and provide services of their own. There's a food merchant where you can buy various meals and food items that will provide a temporary stats boost, depending on what you buy, but only last as long as your next fight. Next door is an item shop that sells consumable items that you can use in battle. Various levels of healing bandages and damage dealing throwing spears/axes can be bought here, but you can only have one type of item at a time and can only hold 4 of each type, so although useful you must use them wisely. The amulet vendor will allow you to pick from various items of jewelry you can wear, each of which will provide some sort of bonus like making the crowd love you more, making stamina drain slower, or adding additional gold for victory. You can visit the temple and change your allegiance between the available Gods, allowing you to change the effect you'll get when asking for their aid in battle. The final store to open takes the form of an exotic pet store and here you can purchase a lion or tiger, which will aid you in combat in different ways. There are also various citizens of Rome that wander around the area and although they can't be interacted with, they do help add some flavour to the city giving it the more bustling feel you'd expect from the Roman capital. It might have been nice to have them greet you, maybe even getting more starstruck and fawning as you become famous, but I suppose you can't have everything.
Graphically, Story of a Gladiator does a good job too. The whole game uses an animated oil painting style with its characters and backgrounds and it really works well, especially considering this is a budget title. The sprites are all large and well detailed and, as each enemy has a specific design, they're easy to tell apart at a quick glance. The different enemy types, and the group they belong to are all themed and fit into the Gladiator setting beautifully. The backgrounds too are just as detailed with crowd members and atmospheric elements that make the arena feel alive and interesting, but don't steal focus from the battles either. The town centre is particularly nice with the shop vendors and townsfolk giving a "bustling metropolis" feel to the proceedings.
All in all, this is a title that I'd definitely recommend to fans of the beat 'em up genre. The amount and variety of enemies, with each having their own skillset, helps to make each battle feel unique and interesting. There's also a wide range of upgrades, skills and items to unlock which gives a good feeling of progress and makes victory feel rewarding. I would have liked new weapons to feel different, with each having different attack patterns, instead of just being a stat boost and cosmetic change. It might have helped the basic attacks feel a little less repetitive, however the fact that you can buy and upgrade skills, as well as freely change them to fit the situation, really helps make up for this. Basically, it's a fun little brawler and it's quick matches, replayability to collect money and, most of all, it's budget price certainly makes it a title that should totally be considered. Hack and slash players take note, it's probably worth a purchase!
*Note: A copy of the title was provided for the purposes of the review.
Final Score: 8/10
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