A slave to the grind.
Considering the built-in gaming appeal of gladiatorial combat, there have been surprisingly few gladiator games over the years, and surprisingly fewer good ones. Perhaps the best in recent memory, LucasArts' Gladius, was actually a turn-based strategy game set against a gladiator backdrop rather than a full-fledged brawler. Want to be like Russell Crowe? Then hire a crappy backing band and beat up a doorman, because all the gladiator games in the current-gen empire are best served... to big cats.
Apparently Koei caught wind of this transgression, which they attempt to remedy by injecting their typical button-mashing action formula with some Italian syrup in Colosseum: Road to Freedom. At last, virtual gladiators can crush skulls and skewer rib cages under the watchful eye of the Roman senate. But despite this gleefully gory premise, the fantasy is ruined by repetitive gameplay and production values unfit for a slave.
If you've ever seen a gladiator film, you know the story already. You're a somebody from somewhere who has somehow been sold into a life of servitude and must now slog it out by slashing and slicing your way to salvation. Unnecessary alliteration notwithstanding, there's nothing interesting about the story other than the fact that it miraculously rips off Gladiator, Ben-Hur, and Spartacus without actually bothering with plot lines and drama.
Instead, you answer some stupid questions about where you were from, what you did, who you worshipped and whammo – you get one of three gladiator models with which to begin your assault on fair play. I'm not sure what difference these choices make. Whether you claim to be a Macedonian criminal or a Jamaican pirate, you're destined for a short, violent life of button-mashing.
Your ultimate task is to buy your freedom by fighting both man and beast in dusty arenas. Each morning, you awake in a cell, run outside and engage in either practice or the real thing. You do this for fifty in-game days, although more likely you will stop doing this after only a few real-world hours.
Practice is broken into a few different types, from dull rhythm games to full sparring matches. The exercise options actually give boosts to various body attributes (Arm, Legs, etc.) plus points to be spent upgrading your five main abilities (Strength, Dex, Stamina, etc.), while the other training tools only give you points. It's clearly advantageous to keep doing crunches and pushups instead of wasting your time with wimpy wooden sword fights.
If you're not practicing, you're fighting in one of two (!) arenas where you can take on up to six matches before calling it a day. There are a few different match types: Battle Royal is a strict kill-fest, Survival features a timer against endless enemies, Hunting lets you and some idiotic A.I. buddies fight equally stupid bulls or tigers, Duels pit you against one tough fellow gladiator, and Mock Battles feature a few random objectives. Regardless of the type, you just hack and slash through pretty much everything. You can heal between matches, but that costs a pretty penny, and if you skip past any match type it disappears from the day's roster. The smart gladiator takes on every event to earn maximum bread, even if they're obviously too tough.
Winning bouts earns you cash with which to knock down your enormous debt and buy better weapons and armor. You can also collect items dropped from enemies to sell for more cash, which is odd since you are, after all, a slave. The sheer variety of swords, helmets and shields you can buy is pretty nifty and adds much needed depth to a shallow game.
Too bad you can't spend some denari on buying Colosseum a better control scheme, though. The action is needlessly obtuse and endlessly frustrating. Swinging swords with the face buttons is easy enough, but to pick up a weapon, you have to press L1 and the face button that corresponds to its use (Triangle for a helmet, Square or Circle to equip in either hand, etc.). That would be fine if throwing an item didn't use the exact same scheme. Half the time you end up throwing perfectly good weapons away because you forgot which hand was holding your shield.
Even so, this pales next to the startling lack of a targeting system. Instead, you run around in circles trying to whack bad guys, more often than not whacking at empty air as they try to whack at empty air, too. Occasionally you'll hold the strafe button to line one of them up, but strafe is also block, counter and parry, adding more confusion to what should be a totally simple third-person action romp.
To its credit, the game gets a little strategic with four fighting 'styles' – small shield, large shield, two swords and unarmed. The more you use one, the better you get with it and the further you can upgrade equippable special moves found in the field. Seriously, you'll find stone tablets that are basically "Idiot's Guides" to things like uppercuts. But instead of reading them, you equip them...
However, none of these are more useful than flanking your enemy and mashing away. An annoying stamina meter keeps you from just frenzying all over the poor saps, but the only challenge is found when you are outnumbered three or four to one…and this is quite often. Rather than filtering the difficulty through any sort of advanced A.I., Colosseum is hard because of unfair odds. That might be true to gladiatorial life, but it sure sucks as a gameplay mechanic.
What also sucks is the lame reward system. Succeeding nets you some bonus cash, but apparently slaughtering everyone in the ring like a maniac isn't good enough. You'll get penalized if you fail to defend, for instance, even if you only get hit once. You're rewarded for a high evasion rate, but not for mercilessly wrecking shop in a short amount of time. You get a bonus for giant, uninterrupted hit strings, but if you break up combos by taking a breather to regain some stamina, forget the bonus. Instead of penalizing people for button-mashing, the developers should have just made a better fighting engine.
The graphical engine could have used some tuning-up as well. Many of the gladiator animations are spiffy, but others, like the gimpy jump, look ridiculous. The steady framerate goes to hell during the larger battles, and by "larger" I only mean five or six guys onscreen at once.
With only two arenas, the game's look is almost as repetitive as its action.
The sound is just as bad, with achingly repetitive tracks and some bizarre, random voice accents. I didn't know there were so many Scots in ancient Rome. At least the lack of a viable story means you're not suffering through extensive amounts of lame dialogue. How merciful.
But such a pleasantry is thwarted by the harsh realities of your 50-day sentence. Should you fail to pay off your debt in that time, you're essentially told that you've lost and get to start over from scratch. Kiss the last ten hours of buffing out your gladiator goodbye and say hello to poorly designed replay value. If you don't engage in most every event and kick significant butt, you'll lose. And don't expect to take your reject up against buddies, because there's no multiplayer or online component at all, just a by-the-books Arena mode. It's solo or bust.
Actually, it's just bust. While the game's heart is in the right place, its head is severed by incredibly repetitive, basic gameplay and a control scheme nastier than Nero. Rome wasn't built in a day, but Colosseum probably was.