Et tu, Capcom?
Back in the days when people wore pelts and lived in caves, history was a much more practical matter than it is now. A Cro Magnon history lesson might have gone like this: “Trogg ate green and purple berries, now Trogg dead.” Simple! Things didn’t go well for poor Trogg, but because Gark witnessed Trogg’s demise and told his story, their clan and all their descendants were spared from a similar fate.
Here at GR we play a comparable, if less dire, role. We play games and tell you how they are so you can avoid the stinkers. We’re also good at describing the warning signs so that you can predict for yourself whether or not a game will be worth your money. For example, games based on historical episodes are best left alone. The problem is that history is a province of What Really Happened and games dwell in the domain of What Could Never Happen.
When these worlds collide, the result is usually A Game That Shouldn’t Have Happened, like Capcom’s new Shadow of Rome, which presents the wimpy tale of Agrippa and Octavianus, an unlikely pair of heroes who must work together to unravel the mystery of Caesar’s murder and save Vipsanius, Agrippa’s father, from an undeserved execution. Octavianus takes to the streets to learn what he can from sneaking and spying, while Agrippa assumes the life of a gladiator based on the unsound advice of a fellow gladiator, Claudia.
The plot isn’t nearly as complicated s it sounds. Agrippa is a humongous, angry idiot. Octavianus is a naive kid with a big heart, the Senators are all evil, and Claudia is your typical woman-bent-on-revenge who winds up getting seduced by her nemesis and losing all her self-respect (happens all the time in Japanese plots). Shadow of Rome’s story is a cookie-cutter, Japanese drama that takes place on a Roman stage before the backdrop of Caesar’s death.
The gameplay is just as incongruous as the plot. Octavianus is exclusively a stealth character, while Agrippa only fights. Most games include stealth and action mechanics so that the player can choose how to approach a situation, but in Shadow of Rome, Octavianus cannot fight at all and Agrippa is about as stealthy as a hippo on PCP. If you had a choice, you would always choose to play as Agrippa, because the game has a visceral combat system that makes hewing limbs and smashing heads fun, if a bit unpredictable.
On the other hand, Octavianus is worthless. His sequences are the definition of trial and error, and the solutions to many problems are retarded. In one instance, some bees are swarming over a doorway you need to pass through. About five feet from that doorway is a man pacing back and forth with a jar of honey. You drop a banana peel in his path, he slips on it, the jar breaks and the bees flock to the honey. In another episode, three bandits are standing in a corridor and will kill you on sight, so you have to lay down three banana peels in an adjacent corridor, let the guards see you and then run around the corner. They’ll follow, slip on the banana peels one after the other and die.
Yes, you drop banana peels. In ancient Rome. During the heyday of insane warriors and dictatorial conquest. At its best, this is a horrible idea. Warning sign #2: ancient Roman dramas and cliched slapstick humor don’t mix.
Octavianus can crouch, walk, strangle and press himself up against walls, but the rest of his abilities are context sensitive. Climbing involves walking up to a climbable object and pressing Circle when prompted. Instead of building climbing and jumping into the engine, Capcom basically scripted everything out. The result feels extremely limited and linear.
But things get brighter as the brute. Agrippa’s levels usually begin in the gladiator stables, where he can walk around and talk to the other gladiators, who make out-of-context, asinine comments like, “The food in this joint is terrible.” These bits have a distinctly Final Fantasy feel, serve no purpose, and are at odds with what you would expect to hear gladiators say.
For every stealth mission you play as Octavianus, you’ll participate in two or three events as Agrippa. Each event is unique from the others in some way, although they can be divided into Battle Royals, where it’s every man for himself, Team Capture the Flag, where Agrippa and company must destroy the other team’s statues before theirs are destroyed, Everyone Wants to Kill You, where everyone wants to kill you, Boss fights and Chariot Races.
The chariot races, like everything else in Shadow of Rome, are a combination of two distinct schemes: fighting and racing. Your chariot behaves like a car: you press X to accelerate and Square to brake, and if you run into stuff eventually it will break down. If you get too close to another racer you’ll enter battle mode and get to whack at each other with your respective weapons. Unfortunately, the racing aspect is slow and unwieldy, the battle bits simply involve striking and blocking, and the whole thing is a waste of time.
Regular combat, though, is a different story. Kicking ass as Agrippa can be thrilling. Square and X are mapped to his left and right hands, R1 locks, L1 blocks, and Triangle throws equipped weapons. Agrippa is capable of basic combos, a charge attack, and one lunging attack, which he can use to steal enemy weapons.
It’s not a very sophisticated combat scheme, but when you swing a giant pole-arm and connect, your controller rumbles happily, the enemy shrieks, his arm goes flying, blood flies everywhere and you feel like you did something tight, even though all you really did was press the X button. The same goes for thrown weapons. I ended a fight against five guys by throwing a humongous sword at the last one standing while he was gasping for breath. The sword caught him in the chest and buried itself there with a sick crunch. He rocked back, screamed and died. And the crowd loved it.
Which was important, because that’s how you earn the “Salvo Points” required to pass any given level. Every time you cut off a head, smash somebody with a rock, dodge then counter-attack or slit an enemy’s throat you get Salvo, and if you appeal to the crowd afterwards you can get more. Somebody might even throw some meat or a weapon into the ring to help you out.
While this sounds great, Agrippa’s gameplay still heavily relies on the X button. There are all sorts of special names for the crazy stuff he can do, but most of it requires one button press or only seems to happen accidentally. The gladiatorial violence can be deliciously brutal, but the shallow combat system won’t hold your interest for long.
Shadow of Rome is uneven in its delivery, too. The textures tend to be flat and uninspired, although the lighting is decent and the character animations are excellent. The liberal doses of blood and gore make the game look much more exciting than it is, which is probably why the stealth sequences seem to look so much worse than the action sequences.
The voice acting is atrocious, although to the actors’ credit, they had nothing to work with and the music is irritating, grandiose Japanese action fare. The sound effects are sweet, though, especially the ones that accompany mortal wounds.
Aside from the main Story mode, you can also play through any of the gladiatorial events you’ve completed at any time. If the gameplay were deeper, this would be an enticing option as it allows you to completely avoid the stealth segments. But chances are, you will have had your fill of the gladiatorial action by the time you finish the regular game.
Despite its grandiose subject matter, Shadow of Rome is merely a bad stealth game chained to a limited action game. While mauling people as Agrippa is fun when you get the chance to do it, the combat system isn’t revolutionary or deep enough to warrant the effort of dealing with the crummy Octavianus bits. History would do best to forget this one.