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.