Story of a Gladiator is a story about a man who loses everything, deciding to become a gladiator after hitting rock bottom. Coming from Brain Seal games, after losing your home, your family and your very purpose in life in the war against the Roman Empire, a chance encounter with a champion gladiator leads you to the arena, where you find your destiny. The story is a little overblown, to be honest, but does the rest of the game bear playing?
Story of a Gladiator is an arena based brawler, where your lone character faces waves of enemies in tougher and tougher battles. The graphics are retro in style, harking back almost to the Super Nintendo days with large, colourful sprites moving around the screen, all amid a peculiar stilted animation style. It’s not a bad style of animation, and the various moves that you can use look effective enough, but it does seem like there are a few frames missing.
In terms of style and the different types of enemies are all distinct, ranging from basic foes armed with a small sword and some bad language, all the way up to bosses who can move like greased lightning and hand out an ass-kicking faster than you know it. It’s good to also see animals featuring too, either as enemies or as a very useful ally that can be acquired, and going into battle with a tiger at your side is actually pretty cool. Soundwise there’s a very nice trumpet flourish when you start a bout, but after that it’s just the noise of combat and the roar of the crowd; it is very fitting, matching the action nicely.
Winning your battles awards you with gold and experience, and as your gladiator gets more famous and wins bigger fights, shops become available to help him in his quest of becoming the ultimate fighting machine. There’s an equipment shop where new weapons, shields and armour sets can be purchased, and of these it’s a toss up between armour and weapons that are the most important. Throughout my time with Story of a Gladiator I’ve not felt the need to bother blocking, preferring to get out of the way of enemy attacks, but armour gives you more base health to start with, and a new weapon increases your damage output. The more damage you do, the less hits it takes to kill a foe and the less time they have to counter attack, so it’s your call really. Luckily, you can go back to earlier battles with upgraded gear if you need to grind for more cash, and with even a modestly upgraded character the early fights become routine. Each bout is scored out of three stars, and with 12 levels per arena, and three arenas to go at, you can bet you’re going to be struggling to get all the available stars, particularly against the boss characters.
Fighting has a hint of Dark Souls about it, with various actions costing an amount of stamina to perform, and if the stamina bar is completely filled your gladiator is stunned and can’t move for two seconds. This doesn’t sound too bad, but in practice two seconds stationary in the middle of a scrum of enemy gladiators pretty much spells death. Managing your stamina, avoiding (or blocking) attacks and trying to land your own swipes is a lot harder than it sounds. It’s not helped by some dodgy hit box moments, and a leaping attack you want to utilise often carries you through the target, leaving you vulnerable to a backstab and having to restart the level. Largely, you know when you’re pushing your luck, however, and moving around the arena and lining up attacks will see you pulling off double or even triple kills within a short period of time.
Luckily, as your gladiator levels up you’ll unlock skill points that can be used to purchase skills. A dodge roll should be your first purchase, but after that there are leaping attacks, decapitating attacks, skills that reduce your stamina use and so on. The best part is that you can respec your gladiator at any point; if you are struggling with a battle, then maybe you need to stop trying to decapitate everything and put the points into attack speed for instance. A few button presses will allow you to do this and eventually you’ll find a build that fits your fighting style, seeing you become an unstoppable force.
Story of a Gladiator on Xbox One is a fun little game with a surprising amount of depth. Getting the right gear and a decent skill loadout, then trying to pick up three stars on all the levels, will take a goodly amount of time. But thankfully for the most part it’s great fun trying to do so. The battles get increasingly hard, requiring you think on your feet and adapt your tactics on the fly, and with Gods to pray to who can assist when the going gets tough, to food to eat prior to a fight and even amulets to wear, the permutations are almost endless. Putting some annoyances with the hit detection to one side, Story of a Gladiator is a game that will keep you playing until you beat it, before seeing you coming back for more to chase those stars.