Aksys Games’ Gladiator Begins is a strange animal. One part straightforward (yet varied) arena combat, one part Persona’s Social Links, and one part choose-your-own-adventure; it’s a challenge to get a handle on. To be frank, even after I’d beaten the game the first time, I wasn’t really sure what to make of it.
Gladiator Begins starts out very simply, you create your gladiator (either male or female), are informed of the fact that you are a slave and cost your owner a lot of money, which he expects to have reimbursed in blood. With that, you’re given basic gladiator training and thrown into battle. Over the course of four in-game days, you learn elements of gladiator combat and participate in events sponsored by the four patrons in the game. At this point you’re given free rein to go participate in whatever gladiator events are available that day. Generally there are three, but you can only choose one a day.
Back to the combat itself, the game assigns attacking different parts of an opponent’s body to the face buttons. Using triangle will attack the opponent’s head, X will attack their legs, and circle and square will attack their left and right arms, respectively. A large part of a battle in Gladiator Begins is simply removing some of the opponent’s equipment. Removing a shield will make the opponent easier to hit, whereas knocking off a helmet allows easier access to the debilitating head strikes. Removing armor is done with repeated blows to a particular area. The piece of equipment will flash either white, yellow, or red. Each successive color implies that the armor or weapon is closer to being lost. However, when a piece of equipment is separated from its owner, it remains on the ground in the arena either to be tripped on during an unlucky dodge or (if it’s a helmet or weapon) reequipped by one of the combatants.
Reequipping dropped items on the fly is actually a pretty interesting mechanic. Not only does it allow you to experiment with items that you may not have seen before, there are times when it becomes an absolute necessity. For instance, there were a number of times when I would have an enemy cornered and be removing their armor, when they would suddenly strike back and remove my (totally awesome) skull helmet. They would promptly put my helmet onto their head and I would have to run around the arena looking for something to protect my beautiful (and very sword-susceptible) face. Another instance of the mechanic being helpful comes in the story-related ambush battles, in which a number of fighters would corner my defenseless gladiator and I’d have to pick up whatever weapons I could find (or loot from my opponents) to defend myself.
That brings me to my next topic. There are four basic fighting styles in the game: pugilist (essentially a boxer who occasionally uses sharp objects), giant shield, single sword, and dual sword (See our interview with Bo deWindt and Ben Bateman for a more in-depth look at the different styles!). All of these can be modified with both active and passive skills. Active skills are assigned to the L button plus a face button, and can be worked into combos with regular attacks. These do, however, use some of your stamina gauge. If you’re not careful and attempt a skill with too little stamina, you’ll do a fatigue attack, which moves slowly, leaves you open, and makes you take more damage than usual. The passive skills are learned by fighting other gladiators on Rome’s "leaderboard" and each modifies a certain fighting style’s normal attacks and stance to be similar to one of the gladiators you’ve defeated. Combining both active and passive skills can lead to a comfortably customized fighting style.
During a match, your goal is not only to meet the criteria of the battle (which can be anything from reenacting wars complete with elephants and tigers, to duels, to simply attempting to survive an onslaught of foes for a minute), but also to make the audience happy. This part of the game absolutely baffled me, because even after becoming one of the most famous gladiators in Rome and beating the game, I still didn’t know what would make an audience happy. The audience response bar at the top of the screen almost seemed to be mocking me. Even when I thought that I understood what the people wanted, it would turn out that attempting to do so got no rise out of them. This led to diminished spoils after battle, since, despite my best efforts, I was often ranked as "nothing special."
At the end of each battle you’re given some money and are allowed to chose two to five pieces of the opponents’ equipment (depending on how well the audience ranks you). Although each battle promises a certain amount of money, a lot of it is taken by your owner. This isn’t a totally terrible thing because the money that they take contributes to making you a free man, as well as increases your class level. However, I have no idea what the end result of doing these things is, since I was actually spirited away by a patron before I became a free man.
Speaking of patrons, the game allows you to interact with them in limited, but very interesting ways. By repeatedly attending a certain patron’s show, you will eventually catch their eye. Their interaction will begin simply as an occasional pep-talk or pocket-lining, but will eventually grow into the patron requesting your services as a gladiator for some reason. One patron might want you to act as a bodyguard, whereas another wants you to be their personal assassin. Now, these relationships can change. Fail to assassinate a person that your employer wants dead and you’ll lose your connection with her for the rest of the game. Having such a permanent end to a relationship was a shock, but also pretty gutsy for a modern game. It was about at this point that I realized that the non combat portions of the game essentially transform it into a visual novel.
Now, although I’m definitely new to the VN genre (started a couple of them, but never finished any), I have to applaud Gladiator Begins for essentially putting the storyline in control of the player. I can’t speak for all of the permutations in the game, but the storyline I followed was surprisingly engaging, steeped in Roman politics, feigned death, and assassination.
At every major plot point, I was offered a choice.
Sometimes the choice involved choosing between the people who supported me, whereas other times it was simply a matter of protecting people I cared about. Some of the choices actually had me putting the PSP in sleep mode to think about what I wanted to do. While the story is a bit melodramatic at times, Aksys deserves props for how well they’ve localized the game. Even with the somewhat-silly Roman dialect, the game stays compelling. In fact, despite the rather enjoyable combat, the story is what drew me in. It’s pretty unique that a game gives you total control over your character’s appearance, combat, story, and even nickname, but that’s part of what gives Gladiator Begins its charm.
Gladiator Begins is unlike any other game I’ve ever played. The combination of relatively singular gameplay with a surprisingly open player-driven story gives the game a unique flavor. However, the game is also baffling, leaving me confused about basic and vital mechanics even after I’d beaten it. Even with its quirks, Gladiator Begins is surprisingly compelling. It tries to balance action with character building, and gives the player control over their own story. That in and of itself is commendable.