The premise is simple to a fault: You hop in a box with Roman slaves and then stab 'em until they're dead. That's it. For some, non-stop brawling makes for the best kind of action game; the beat-'em-up genre's survived on this kind of repetition. Gladiator even takes advantage of a handful of elements inspired by role-playing, which keeps things from getting stale too quickly.
These minor triumphs aside, I have to imagine that Gladiator Begins is an attempt to accurately represent the historical life of the gladiator, in the sense that you're forced into an endless series of battles you don't want to be a part of. If this was the intent, mission accomplished: Gladiating kind of sucks.
Boredom by way of repetition isn't even Gladiator Begins' problem – that would be its painfully parabolic difficulty. Opponents are smart enough to make the fights challenging and rewarding, but these battles sometimes spin out of control. For the most part I carved through the game's poorly equipped enemies like a hot scimitar through butter, but some matches were so brutal, I wanted to call my mom and pretend my dog had died, just to hear those sympathetic, comforting words.
These absurd difficulty spikes pop up early on, and I ended up in more infinite, inescapable combo loops than I care to remember. Things become especially aggravating when groups of three gang up on you in free-for-all fights. Oh, and enemies eviscerate your idiotic AI allies before turning to you, making team-based bouts another unlikable addition to the short list of match types.
The ebb and flow of disarming and, uh, disarmoring adds a great dynamic to Gladiator's already exciting and well-rounded combat.
If it weren't for this crippling difficulty, Gladiator Begins would be a fairly solid Ancient Era Murder Simulator. One of the few saving graces is the game's progression structure. As you make your way through the story -- don't bother with the boring dialogue and inconsequential narrative -- you earn shinier weapons and more effective attacks at a quick, rewarding rate.
It's easy to get a handle on the combat, and it presents enough depth and unlockable options to disguise its monotony. There's something invigorating about leaping into the air and stabbing an enemy so viciously that his helmet flies off, leaving his face wide open for your chopping. Disarming foes and stealing their weapons is a flexible, novel addition to the fights as well. The ebb and flow of disarming and, uh, disarmoring adds a great dynamic to Gladiator's already exciting and well-rounded combat.
Gladiator Begins' smaller successes still can't compensate for its significant problems, and the game as a whole never quite gels in an effective way. Brutality, splashes of blood and gigantic swords might look and feel great, but I feel like Caesar wouldn't have mercy for this fighter's incompetence and missed marks.
This review is based on the PSP review code of Gladiator Begins provided by Aksys. The reviewer played for 12 hours, but not to completion.
About the author: Mitch Dyer is a Canadian freelance writer. He loves games, sandwiches, and cartoons. He often writes about them. His work has appeared in GamePro, Official Xbox Magazine and The Escapist among others.