Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: July 19, 2005
Colosseum is a great and startlingly innovative idea for a game, and it should've been a lot of fun. The fact that it's not is sort of heartbreaking; it's not like there's a glut of kick-butt historical games about ancient Rome out there, or games that try to blend the strategic simulation Koei excels at with bouts of intense action. Unfortunately, Colosseum's attempt to hybridize action and strategy just resulted in something that shares all the worst traits of both genres. The strategic elements are repetitive, the combat engine slow and clunky, and the entire experience loaded with arbitrary obstacles and pointless micromanagement. It's not impossible to enjoy Colosseum, but it is improbable.
Whereas Capcom's recent Shadow of Rome was a pure action-stealth title, Colosseum offers a lot more historical accuracy and strategy. The main game, which is the mode you'll end up spending the most time in, begins with your character's capture by the Romans. At this point, you can answer a series of questions to determine certain things about your game, such as your character's appearance, religious affiliation, and what sorts of challenges you'll experience in the game. Unfortunately, the choices offered as answers to these questions are absolutely opaque. There is no way of knowing, unless you're a history buff, why you should be from Dacia instead of Gallia or why you should worship Virtus instead of Mars. The question about what path you'll be following in the game seems to be almost gleefully arbitrary.
Once you've made your character, you'll do some tutorial sequences that are exactly ripped off from historical epic films like Spartacus and Ben-Hur. (One of the cut-scenes is, in fact, just a line-for-line rip-off of a famous Spartacus scene.) During the tutorials they'll explain what the different stats do, how to acquire special moves, and how to win in combat. The combat engine for Colosseum is deceptively, horribly complex, making very counter-intuitive use of every single button, the D-Pad, and the analog sticks. As if this wasn't enough, several important commands are wired to arcane combinations of the trigger buttons, analog stick, and face buttons. Fighting games don't have command systems this complex, for the very good reason that no player is going to be able to remember everything in the heat of battle.
Most players will find that doing a particular move at a particular time is simple in the tutorial, but once you're fighting in the arena you'll find getting your gladiator to do what you want him to do is nearly impossible. Even actions as simple as picking up a weapon are so slow and awkward that you're likely to get killed by trying to do it, especially since you'll be struggling against a very poorly-implemented camera at the same time. Getting attacked by enemies you have no way of seeing is an unpleasantly common occurrence. Even more problematic than this and the awkward controls is that the combat system has no real depth to offer.
As in all mediocre action games, trying to use even half the moves from your arsenal is suicidal and pointless. Even worse, the moves that are hinted to be super-powerful are not in practice any more useful than simply mashing the square or circle button ad nauseam. If you manage to suffer your way through a combat round, then the engine will rub salt in your wounds by having the gall to grade your performance on style. If you don't use a wide enough variety of moves or spend enough time dodging and playing to the crowd, you'll be docked earnings. So, to recap: combat in Colosseum asks you to do things the engine is too clunky and controls too counter-intuitive to make possible, and then penalizes you when you can't do them.
The other half of the gameplay, the strategy portion, is about as poorly implemented. When you're not fighting at a Colosseum, then you're spending your days training for the next battle. Training involves playing simple minigames that develop your gladiator's stats. What is bizarre about the training sequences is that you can only do two training exercises a day, which makes even figuring out what all the training types do difficult. At the end of the day, you'll eat a meal that will further boost your stats, then go to sleep. Then you can do the whole thing over again the next day if you don't have a fight in the arena.
Why the strategy portion of the game was implemented like this is absolutely mystifying to me. Surely, it would've been possible to at least put in tutorials to explain what the different training types do so you could use your time wisely, or even to simply let you do more kinds of training in a day. As it is, you don't have enough time in the strategy portion of the day to do anything that matters, let alone manages to be interesting. It's frustrating, since the premise is ripe for good strategy gameplay and it's simply not exploited. Instead, days fly by until you're slogging your way through the arena again.
Now, it's obvious that most of the game is meant to be spent in the arena; that's the only explanation for how complex the controls are, and exactly how detailed the arena sequences can be. For each trip to the area, you can select from one of six combat types, and ideally, you'll win a round of each combat before departing from the arena. The different sorts of events are all based on historical gladiator challenges, offering things like battle royals, survival battles against a long string of opponents, and duels with other famous gladiators. Once again, this sounds fun but the way it's implemented is simply atrocious. Each type of event awards so much money based on, supposedly, difficulty. However, it's not unusual for certain types of events that are supposed to be easy to actually be far more difficult to complete than supposedly harder events.
Since what events are available generates semi-randomly, it can mean that sometimes making a decent day's earnings is arbitrarily more difficult than other times. The goal of the game is supposedly to raise the immense sum, 1000000 S, which you need to buy your freedom back from your owner Magerius in 50 days, so a few poor event selections early in the game can make actually meeting your goal impossible. It also becomes essentially impossible if you do anything but play a perfect game right from the start, and this is in itself highly unlikely.
In terms of graphics, sound, and general atmosphere, Colosseum is a very mixed bag. The graphics do a nice job of creating backgrounds and textures, but the actual areas and characters you'll be looking at are so historically accurate that they're really quite bland. The gladiators all fight half-naked and their bodies have a dull, weirdly plastic look to the way they move despite some decently realistic body designs.
There's a wide variety of weapons and armors to choose from and they're all authentic enough, but moving them around often betrays some hilariously severe clipping errors. When you pick up a sword, your hand often goes through the table or the ground you're grabbing it off of, since there's only one "pick up" animation. When you take off a helmet, it just magically sticks to your gladiator's hand instead of being held. The lack of interesting visuals really makes the bland and repetitive gameplay hard to deal with. In terms of sound the game acquits itself a bit better; the voice-acting is decent, and the music is inoffensive. Not actually interesting, mind you, but one of the few aspects of the game that isn't actively annoying or hard to put up with.
Ultimately, all Colosseum: the Road to Freedom has going for it is a really cool premise, and this alone will probably garner the game a devoted fanbase. You can have some fun with this game but only if you're willing to forgive a lot of design flaws and put a lot time into memorizing the labyrinthine control scheme. These are probably the same die-hards who keep returning to Koei's other quirky historical games, and they may even be pleased by Colosseum in the long run. However, if you're not one of these Koei die-hards, give this game a wide berth. None of the mainstream appeal of Koei's other action franchise, Dynasty Warriors, is present in Colosseum. Most players will probably be very tired of this game within the first few hours of playing it, and wander away from Road to Freedom so they can play more interesting games.