Anybody up for another action-based puzzle-strategy beat-em-up? It’s not exactly a crowded genre, with only the Punch-Out games filling the gap. Enter Rage of the Gladiator. The best way to describe Rage of the Gladiator is this: Punch-Out with mythical creatures and a skill tree. There are lots of ways that this could have gone wrong, but fortunately, it turned out really well. How so?
First of all, you’re playing from a first-person perspective and facing off in an arena. Just like Punch-Out, you can dodge left, right, or use your shield to block head-on attacks while attacking. Unlike Punch-Out, you can also jump, kick to the left or the right, and call down special attacks that rain destruction from the heavens.
A few notes: The controls are very tight. Your character does exactly what you want him to do, when you want him to do it. That’s a necessity for any Punch-Out clone, and they nail it. Your opponents look great, with lots of detail and great animation, like the crazy snake tamer who gives you weird facial expressions. Also, the sounds are excellent. Just like Punch-Out, your opponents will tip their punches with subtle (and not-so-subtle) tics, and the sound carries a big part of that, with their various yelps announcing their moves or attacks.
Having a skill tree is really neat idea, and I hope Nintendo is taking notes. Here’s how it works: After every victory, you get to allocate skill points toward different disciplines: Offense, Defense or Magic. Offensive skills will increase your power incrementally or reward you with more powerful special attacks. Defensive skills will improve your ability to withstand a beating and give you defensive skills that can negate enemy damage. Magic skills will allow you to build up your special meter faster and will open up other skills that can, for instance, transform you into a giant. Figuring out which ones you want is great, and since they’re all pretty useful, you can’t really go wrong when selecting them.
However, there’s one part I would really like to single out in particular as worthy of praise: The difficulty curve. This is a clinic in difficulty curves. Most games these days throw a big tutorial at you and then throw you in the deep end. While you do get a tutorial at the beginning, Rage of the Gladiator doesn’t expect you to remember all of your moves right off the bat. You first only need to remember how to dodge, but the next opponent might require that you jump to win. Then the next opponent may require that you block, and then it may hand you another opponent that requires that you kick. After a while, you’re using all of these moves in tandem without noticing. That takes serious planning and skill on the part of the developers, and it’s worth mentioning.
There are a few negatives to Rage of the Gladiator. First, if you’ve played Punch-Out, you mostly know what you’re getting. Aside from the skill tree, there’s not a lot of new ground broken here. Considering the paucity of Punch-Out clones it’s not a huge issue. Just be warned, if you don’t like Punch-Out, you won’t like Rage of the Gladiator.
Second, there’s really only one arena, and you only see the part directly in front of you. I know they did this to limit the size of the game so that they could fit it on WiiWare while still giving the opponents the detail they deserve, but it’s still a little irritating.
Third, the whole story is wrapped in an overly-serious narrative. It’s obvious that someone spent a whole lot of time on this story, but it just doesn’t fit. You’re playing a fighting game where one of the special moves allows you to repeatedly kick an Archdevil in the crotch. I don’t want the fun interrupted every few minutes for another tale of death and revenge from a narrator who sounds like he just drank two jack-and-Cokes. Rage of the Gladiator didn’t need a story, but oh well. It’s there.
Finally, some of your special moves take a while. Some of them take about ten to twenty seconds for the whole animation to play. In the midst of a pitched battle, that’s immersion-breaking stuff. Don’t get me wrong, the animations look great the first time. The third, fourth, fifth and sixth times? Eh.