Game Description: Colosseum: Road To Freedom takes you to the time after Caesar's death and follows the life of a gladiator in those trying times. Travel back in time to the height of the Roman Empire circa 190 AD, to see the brutal reality of life-and-death fights in the Colosseum. Narcissus the Gladiator saw his village burnt to ashes by Roman soldiers. On his quest for revenge, he is captured and sent to the arena, to entertain the Roman citizens by shedding blood.
Swordfighting simulation is one of those creatures that developers have been trying to master for years, but have yet to satisfactorily tame. Generally these games try to skew towards one of two extremes: the more popular straight fighting games, which translate a few button presses into elaborate blade flourishes; and the rarer pure simulations, which ask players to recreate specific motions of swordfighting with their controllers. Colosseum leans towards the simulation end of the spectrum, and does a spectacular job at offering compelling swordplay.
A third-person swordfighting game set in the last days of the Roman Empire, Colosseum does a fine job of capturing the thrillingly amoral brutality that historians believe characterized the end of a decadent and corrupt society. Essentially a more historically accurate videogame version of the film Gladiator, it tells the story of a generic slave who fights his way to fame and finds himself embroiled in the political struggle that led to the death of a despised and quite insane emperor.
All of this is accomplished with the help of a surprisingly deep swordfighting system. It's a little challenging at first, as there isn't a targeting lock-on to keep players focused and circling around a single foe. Most of the game's encounters involve two or three opponents ganging up on the player, and the game requires the player to constantly strike at all sides to defend themselves. Each of the controller's four main buttons represents a different kind of attack, which can be chained together to form more complicated attacks, or modified with a shoulder button to perform one of fifty special techniques.
This could have been a straight brawler were it not for the level of difficulty in the combat. Even at the very beginning, I found myself losing quite a few matches until I got used to the strategic style of combat. The best equipped gladiators aren't permitted to wear torso armour, and at any point in the fight a few lucky strikes will be the death of anyone. Dodging and parrying are vital elements of fighting, and while the timing takes a while to learn, it eventually becomes second nature. Players can soon become good enough to knock the sword right out of their opponent's hands.
The wide variety of weapons and fighting styles also keeps the gameplay from getting stale. Weapons range from small knives perfect for fast attacks to giant hammers that tear armor off of opposing gladiators. Complicating things further is the fact that there are four distinct fighting styles, (although since one of them is bare-handed fighting, there's really only three).
The design isn't flawless though. Either poor coding or the PS2's limitations create some framerate issues whenever four fighters combat in the larger of the game's two arenas. This also forces the game to remain on a slightly smaller scale that it seems it ought to be. There are 15-on-15 team battles that are fought by only six people at a time, with three on each side, and the grand historical battles really seem like they should involve more than five combatants.
Perhaps the game's most attractive feature is just how well Colosseum uses its setting. Rather than just setting a regular videogame story in the swords and sandals age, Colosseum actually captures the spirit of the period.
This is best exemplified by the fact that none of the characters in the game ever questions the slavery-based social structure. There's no superior, heavy-handed moralizing to be found here. Gamers play the role of a slave with a million sestertius debt to repay. If, over the course of the game, players manage to accumulate that much money, they can buy their freedom and have the option of retiring and ending the game (or continuing with the plot, now fighting as a free man). After being freed, the player can even go on to buy slaves of his own, which provide permanent bonuses to statistics without training.
The game also goes all-out in its depiction of just how bizarre and wonderfully excessive Roman bloodsports were. The centerpiece event of each day at the Roman Colosseum of the title is a recreation of a historical battle, where the player finds themselves battling an elephant, or a horde of Germans, or even a man pretending to be Marc Anthony. These stylized setpieces, as well as a few in which the player battles tigers and bulls, demonstrate just how versatile and effective the game's fighting engine is, and it made me wish there had been a few more of them to experience.
Colosseum is an almost completely successful swordfighting simulation. It does a better job with its setting than any game I've seen, and even though it's a little limited in scope, it's satisfying and effective at what it tries to accomplish. It left me wanting more. It's been a while since I've been able to say that about a game, and I look forward to whatever the developers come up with next.
Nearly eight years after its launch, the PlayStation 2 continues to amaze me with the strength of its library. Thanks to the incredible size of its installed base, there was an unprecedented amount of opportunity during its heyday for developers to experiment, try new things, and fill niches that people weren't even sure existed. Even now, I'm still investigating overlooked titles of value for people willing to spend some time away from the cutting edge. The latest subject? Colosseum: Road to Freedom
As Dan noted in his Main Review, finding compelling examples of swordplay is difficult since most games tend to skew towards the overly-simplified dial-a-combo method of battle. Press A, A, B and watch a magnificently animated attack come exploding out of your chosen character. Not so here—in Colosseum, every strike and its delivery is determined by the player. This alone makes it a unique title, and one with considerable appeal for players interested in the subject matter.
With such an unorthodox approach to combat, it's not surprising that the controls feel unwieldy and difficult at first, but once the methodology of the game becomes clear, there's much to admire in the implementation. Being able to strike in practically any direction at variable heights and from either side is a degree of sword control that I haven't seen anyone attempt, let alone perfect. While Colosseum doesn't quite nail it either, it comes much closer than anything else I can name offhand.
Enriching the experience, the addition of stat-upping RPG elements was a wise choice. By training via a series of minigames, points are earned that go towards improving the player's gladiator in a number of aspects like strength, speed, and so on. As a long-time Monster Rancher fan, having control of my fighter's development and preferred style let me feel quite invested in what otherwise might have been a very repetitive and simplistic brawler.
Although I would say that the developer, Ertain, was more successful than not, I'm quite sad to report that there is one crucially flawed aspect which undercuts the entire experience—the duels. In order to advance the story, the player will need to defeat at least four of Colosseum's seven top-ranked gladiators, and the methods necessary to survive these matches are absolutely different than those needed to win everywhere else in the game.
With stats and abilities boosted to superhuman levels, these "boss" characters hit harder and faster than the player ever could, and death comes in seconds. Shockingly, the swordfighting system's targeted strikes, blocks, and parries which are so lethal to the generic opponents are near-worthless against these foes. Although the superior power of bosses is something to be expected in videogames, it's so extreme in this case that it simply feels unbalanced and out of place—instead of supporting and reinforcing the game's strongest asset by rewarding the player for mastering the blade, the only reliable way to get through these matches is to circle-strafe and hope for the best. Thanks to the lopsided difficulty, what could have been showcases for the richness of Colosseum's combat are reduced to frustrating try-and-die sessions that abandon the concepts the game is built on.
Colosseum is obviously not a blockbuster title, and although I can't say for sure, my gut feeling is that Ertain simply lacked the experience or the budget on such a small project to properly balance these duels. (They released a significantly expanded "remix" version later after the title met with some success, but only in Japan.) Though the duel issue is a serious (but surmountable) error, in fairness I must say that it's just a small part of the experience. Overall, Colosseum: Road to Freedom remains one of those rare titles where it's clear to see the developers were absolutely sincere in their efforts, and there's really something to be learned from what they accomplished. It may not be a perfect title, but the seeds for something great are present, and for that alone, I can appreciate it.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood, Violence
Parents should keep their children away. It's a very violent game about people fighting to the death for the entertainment of the masses--and it takes no kind of a moral stance on the subject, so it can't even act as a teaching tool.
History buffs might be interested to discover that this game offers a surprisingly accurate depiction of the late Roman Empire. There are still no gladiators hocking name-brand chariots, but maybe they had to save something for the sequel.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers should have no real trouble with the game. All dialogue is subtitled, and there are no important audio cues.