The developers behind this 2D arena brawler presumably didn’t intend for it to resemble a 16-bit beat’em up. To be more specific, its pleasingly brief battles have a similar flow to the boss fights found in the likes of Final Fight and Streets of Rage. A large, or new, enemy makes themselves known while several weaker enemies surround them, bumbling around and casually swapping places with one another. All while, they wait for the perfect time to take a quick jab before cowardly scurrying.
Enemies hit the ground after just a few hits, leading to some effortless victories early on. Over time it becomes more essential to block and roll, with the difficulty level swiftly rising around the halfway mark. Later enemies can unleash some damaging blows, and during the final chapter, it isn’t uncommon to face a dozen enemies at once. By this point, though, you’re both armed to the teeth with pointy things as well as coated in fine armour.
Its also within the last chapter that fellow gladiators fight alongside you. With roman soldiers attacking in formation, their help is appreciated.
Between battles, you’re prompted to return to town. Or rather, you’re forced to return – there’s no option to continue battling. It’s here new weapons, shields and armour can be purchased, along with with stat-boosting foodstuffs, and consumable items such as axes and spears. The ability to take a beast (a lion, tiger, or panther) into battle unlocks around halfway through, as do single-use ‘God Powers’ such the ability to temporarily turn foes against one another.
The decision to drip-feed new content helps to keep things interesting, with only a few shops open for business initially. Adding to all this, new moves and skills unlock via levelling up, such as extended stamina bars and the ability to decapitate enemies – a real crowd-pleaser.
Keeping the crowd entertained plays a key part. They’ll not will they throw rocks at your enemies, stunning them in the process, but also bags of coins and the occasional food item too. When you’re on death’s door, a shiny red apple being thrown your way can help turn things around.
Considering the game’s name, the plot is surprisingly thin. A nameless warrior turns to heavy drinking after the Roman army takes everything away from him. While drowning his sorrows one night, he stumbles upon a gladiator celebrating a recent win. Inspired, our hero gives up the booze and sets out to become a legendary warrior, starting with a wooden sword and a busted shield.
His journey takes him to Greece, Afrika, and eventually Rome, with a grisly cut-scene at the end of each chapter. The three chapters take roughly an hour to beat, ending with a boss battle against that region’s champion. While these bosses do have supersized health bars, we had no trouble beating them on the second or third attempt.
You may need to replay past stages to grind for more stars and cash to unlock the best equipment, however. In the absence of additional modes, this is the only reason to return.
In addition to new enemy types, variety also comes from the occasional environmental hazard, including pits and spikes; the latter of which the dim-witted enemies are fond of walking into.
Indeed, the odds are curiously stacked in your favour, with the single-use consumables dealing a lot of damage, and your trained beast happy to do your dirty work. There are a lot of enemy types to become acquainted with, though, which is where most of the challenge lies. Learning when to block, and when to roll and backstab, will prevent a messy death.
Not that Story of a Gladiator is vastly gory – even when decapitating foes, there’s only a small spurt of blood.
If you’re expecting mighty clashes of steel, then you’re also in for a disappointment. It uses Flash-style animation, which gives characters limp and stilted movement. Whether swiping with the starter sword or using a spear, the impact is the same – only the reach and the amount of damage dealt changes. Striking and killing numerous enemies at once isn’t uncommon at all either. There’s even an achievement for it. Line ’em up, knock ‘em down.
While this may not sound like a bad thing, it does illustrate how ‘loose’ Story of a Gladiator feels. It’s all a bit floaty, as attacks lack heft and weight. Because lots of ways to swing a battle around (turning enemies onto one another almost always results in an easy victory), the stakes never feel particularly high.
But it’s not all bad – it’s possible to kick enemies into bottomless pits. We’d be disappointed if the developers overlooked that opportunity.