Oh Story of a Gladiator, why do you hate me so? All I’ve ever done is devote hours of my finite time on this plane of reality to you. I’ve committed entirely to your delightful arena-based 2D brawler survival mash-up gameplay, yet you only reward me with insta-deaths and the sense of failure that accompanies them. Time and again the visuals of my gladiator avatar being eviscerated before me is seared into my eyes. However, despite the emotional pain, I keep on returning to your embrace. Like an amateur S&M hobbyist, I’m addicted to the pain and pleasure we find together.
That extended metaphor was a little weird, yet that’s the emotional response of playing way too much Story of a Gladiator. Sadly, Story of a Gladiator does not cast you as an unfortunately monikered member of ITV’s ‘Gladiators’. There’s not a single moment where your overly muscled, oiled up and lycra clad titan has to ponder whether it was ethical to beat up Tony, a plumber from Slough, with a big stick. Instead, you’re a denizen of the vast Roman empire, who finds a chance for revenge within the sands of the arena. Despite the title that’s about all the story you’re going to get; Story of a Gladiator is a straight up action-fest from beginning to end and it’s all the better for it.
Divided between 32 individual battles, Story of a Gladiator plonks your fighter in the middle of an enclosed arena and sends waves of enemies to kill you. Your task is simply to survive, with your reward being experience and coin that can be exchanged for new abilities, weapons and armour. It’s striking how incapable your gladiator is to start with, as they can manoeuvre around the 2D environment and thwack at a few foes and that’s about it.
Not that they’ll be able to do either for long, as their stamina meter will quickly deplete and they’ll be stood incapacitated, panting like a dog in a hot car, waiting for someone to run them through with a gladius. Given time though, and you’ll be commanding an elite veteran, clad head to toe in extravagant armour, equipped with an insane looking weapon, whilst leaping, rolling, and head-chopping like a whirling dervish of death.
It’s in the early levels though, that many players will bounce right off the challenging difficulty, never to return. In a style reminiscent of roguelikes and soulslikes, part of the game experience is to fail and die a lot. Doing so often enough will provide you with the resources you need to power up your avatar and stand a chance in the arena. It’s worth the grind though, as the initial Golden Axe like combat soon develops to become incredibly engaging. It also goes far deeper than anything you’d find in a more standard 2D scrolling duff ’em up.
This can be seen in the enemy types, which are not only visually varied but also require a different combat approach to overcome. It leads to some waves of attack becoming almost puzzle like, the game forcing you to stop and think as you keep moving to survive, just how are you going to defeat this seemingly unbeatable combination of foes? The answer nearly always can be found in finding the correct configuration of your abilities. Skill points when applied are not locked, and can instead be redistributed to any ability you need between battles.
Facing some irritating javelin throwers who insist on running away before you can jab them in the delicates? Then you’ll need to focus on skills that increase your agility, like a leaping attack. Up against a big, bad boss who just won’t die? Throw everything you have into a backstabbing skill and delight as his hit points vanish. This tactical element prevents arenas descending into a mindless brawl, more often than not you’ll need to think, rather than just fight, your way out of a predicament.
My initial concern was that over the 32 battles the gameplay might soon become repetitive. Developers Brain Seal Ltd have done a great job of keeping things interesting, adding new and surprising gameplay elements to each battle. There’s traps to dodge, NPC’s to fight alongside and even a pet tiger to command in battle. Quite frankly, it’s a delight. Each new battle is a stand-alone challenge, fresh, exciting and bite-sized.
My criticisms of the game are few and petty. Since you need to visit the trainer and re-start battles a lot, why are you forced to listen to the same trumpet audio cue again and again? I get it, I suck at games, but could you at least play a different tune every once in a while, Roman trumpeters? There’s also the curious omission of any sort of multiplayer, local or otherwise. In a beat-em ‘up that clearly draws its initial inspiration from classics such as Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, and Double Dragon, having no multiplayer option feels like a missed opportunity. Facing down a horde of lions would be even more fun with a friend or two, particularly if you could level-up your characters together. Perhaps for the sequel, Brain Seal Ltd?