Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: July 19, 2005
Okay, not the most inventive moniker in the world, but what works works.
What we've got here is basically the Gran Turismo of gladiator games. You start out with a nice fresh human being with a basic set of moves. As you go through the game, trying to free him from slavery (hence the game's name), you get to build him up, have him train, eat the right foods, get his sleep, equip him with just about any weapon you could desire, and, most importantly, make him fight. Fight hard. Push him as much as you can, and then push him harder. Through these actions, and through the rewards gained by these actions, you can make him into an even better, more effective and fun fighter to use, and even gain a hefty amount of pocket change on the side.
Sound fun? Don't worry, I wasn't so sure either until I booted it up. But odds are it'll snatch more playtime from you than you expect.
When you first turn on the game, you're given a generic person to attach a name to. There isn't much in the way of setting aesthetic attributes like in all of those sports games. You just pick a name, (former) occupation, alliance with a god, and go. What makes you so attached to the character, however, is how the storyline to the game constantly revolves around you, so much as to always refer to your character as if it were talking to you. It doesn't sound too original on paper, but many an RPG attempts the "silent first-person protagonist" approach with horrific results; trust me when I say that this one is actually convincing about it.
From the get-go, the game actually takes its time setting up a storyline for yourself, and it's not one of the happiest ones, either. You start out as a prisoner/gladiator hopeful (I honestly have no other idea how to phrase it), made to fight, and nothing else. As the days wear on, you're told that salvation lies in being purchased by a Roman slaveholder. Fortunately, it doesn't take long for one to snatch you up. This is all well and good, and your master even says that you can buy your freedom provided you raise enough to pay back the debt you owe him for being bought and "rescued" from a life of monotony and jail cells.
Of course, this is when you find out that said debt is a million in silver, and suddenly, you really wish that Snickers bars existed in Roman times.
There's a way out, though. If you want your money, you can do what you were bought to do, and that's fight. Fight as if your life and freedom and way of life all depend on it… because they do.
Once you know all of this, control of the majority of the game is turned over to you.
A typical day consists of a few things. First you wake up. If you feel like it, you can customize your fighter's statistics, give him some new moves, or mess with existing ones. You do all of this by way of a special screen that keeps track of fighting moves currently assigned to face buttons, and special items which can be recovered in battle and applied to those moves. It's a little daunting for the first five minutes or so, but it's easy to get the hang of, and none of it is there for show. If you're going into a free-for-all melee, the last thing you want is to be loaded down with a bunch of powerful but incredibly slow and vulnerable moves that will put you at a disadvantage. The right abilities need to be equipped for the right job.
Some days, you're free to train your fighter at the camp you live in. You can do this with a selection of minigames which range from pattern recognition to simple timing and dexterity activities. Do well enough and you'll level up parts of your fighter, like his arms and legs, which will make him more nimble in battle, or give him more stamina.
Other days, you'll actually be fighting in arenas around Rome. There are several match types, like free-for-all melee, a faction battle where one team charges another while trying to defeat their leader, or battles where it's you against a whole bunch of other warriors gunning for you. In those, it's you or them, take no prisoners.
All of these great settings would fall flat on their faces if the combat weren't up to snuff, but what's actually here is pretty solid, and dynamic as well. It could use a bit of tweaking in places, but still manages to be fun in its present state.
In fighting game terms, the system is actually a distant cousin to the Tekken series — each face button is mapped to a limb or an attack direction, and one manipulates what types of strikes they use based on those buttons. Also, weapons are equippable at any time during a match — if an opponent drops one, or, for that matter, a shield, or a helmet, you can claim it as your own, and go up against the rest of the opponents with your newfound power.
There's single- and dual-weapon wielding, and sword-and-shield fighting to be had, but you can also see how well you do with your bare hands. The fighting is freeform and you can roam around the arena, but it's recommended to either go toe-to-toe with opponents to build up your charisma, do some moderate hit-and-run, or to stay in one place to recover your stamina when not in battle. If your stamina drops too low, you'll slump over in desperation and be open to attack while you recover your strength.
Show enough common sense in the ring (not to mention live), or impress the crowd, and you'll be graded on your performance, which translates into money for your victories, and a chance to keep whatever loot you picked up in the ring. When the day's over, you get to do all of this all over again.
(No, really, it's more fun than it sounds.)
The graphics, at the moment, walk a fine line between model population and detail—they look slightly above average, but the game clearly has to use some visual tricks to make it look as if you're interacting with more present models than you truly are. It's easy to lose track of who is where on the battlefield, for example, but it actually helps in turn to give a sense of urgency and of being surrounded. It's a curious thing.
The sound, as well, is also shaping up. The voice acting is quite nice, authentic when not overacted, and the grunts, groans, battle cries, death cries and roar of the crowd are all present when in a gladiator match, as are the impacts of weapons materials against various surfaces. It really brings you in.
Colosseum: Road to Freedom is one of those games that go for substance just a little more than style. It's got no frills, but it's got adequate presentation, and for a game that aims to immerse you in the life and details of a gladiator, this title's doing a bang-up job. Here's hoping that they can smooth out the fighting system before release, but the formula that Koei's working off of right now looks like a sleeper hit if I ever saw one. The best part is that the end product will contain action for two players. Look for it next month.