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.