Review by Baladium

"As epic as Ancient Rome itself"

Shadow of Rome, released in 2005, is a game based off of the ancient Roman practice of gladiatorial fighting. The game uses a combination of action, gore, adrenaline, and stealth to create an enjoyable experience for whoever happens to pick it up. What's that? Stealth? Yes, yes stealth. Arguably the weakest element in this game, but yes, stealth is there.

Our story starts off with the Roman Centurion Agrippa (a gorilla disguised as a human) leading a band of his men to quash a foreign rebellion. It's dark, and uneventful for the most part, but you immediately recognise that the combat feels solid. You chuckle to yourself as the scimitar cleanly slices off an enemy arm, or you shove that short sword into a poor fool begging for mercy. Yet there's far more, to be discovered later in the game. You will be laughing heartily as a Maul breaks your opponents' arms, as the Halberd chops their head clean off. Such a variety of weapons and such a variety of ways to maim, murder, and utterly destroy whoever is unfortunate enough to face you.

But enough of the combat for now. The story unfolds that Caesar has been murdered. Shock! You realise how accurate this game is to history...well, it isn't, but accuracy being sacrificed for a good story is what this game's plot is all about. Caesar's nephew Octavianus then finds out that Agrippa's father is guilty of the crime! Shock horror! But of course this is all a cover-up, a conspiracy if you will, and Octavianus' role in the game is to use stealth and detective skills to uncover the truth behind the assassination. Agrippa meanwhile resolves to become a gladiator - whoever is the champion of the upcoming and so-overused phrase of 'gladiatorial games' will get to be the executor of Caesar's supposed murderer. It's far-fetched but makes sense in the end as you uncover why such an unorthodox way of honoring Caesar and determining an executioner has been chosen.

This is part of the problem with the plot. It is thrilling, yes, definitely towards the end, but leading up to that, too much of the plot seems stretched or unlikely just for the excuse to create drama. And unlike the aforementioned example, many are never really resolved by the end. What you do have to give the story credit for is the result of this slight stretching, which will certainly distract you from wondering 'Why would he/she do that?' on your first playthrough, as you eagerly uncover the next slice of gameplay or plot twist. As Agrippa fights in various arenas, Octavianus works to find the truth, and thus the plot moves along at a nice pace, the revelations balanced out by the brutal fighting that this game promises and succeeds in delivering.

So more on the fighting. You discover that you can appeal to the crowds and they will throw you roses, magnificent weapons, and cheese, all as a reward for your gruesome destruction of your opponents. You feel the adrenaline despite the fairly slow running pace and the game's insistence on charge attacks to perform disembowelment - the minor nags are far outweighed by the sheer satisfaction of a good Halberd swing. Forgive me if I sound like a crazed maniac who almost enjoys this sort of thing, but it's very hard not to.

Capcom even took the time to include various modes of fighting. From the Battle Royale, which really does feel like a war of attrition towards the end as you stumble about for weapons against weakened opponents, to the Elimination, an 'all-on-one' sort of thing that gives you the opportunity to really reap havoc upon your enemies. The weakest game mode is arguably the Team Battle, an exciting premise from the name but one where you and your allies (whose AI always seems to be worse than the enemies') have to smash statues. It's a bit boring to be honest. And the game insists on making you trudge through four of these under a time limit. Such slow and obviously weak games should have been left out. It's nice for variety but not for fun, which fortunately is in great abundance elsewhere. Arenas may contain traps, such as the spiked press or fire trap for really setting things alight. While shocking sometimes, it's all in good humour and the game's sense of humour really shines through in the Salvos. Salvos are special things you must do with a weapon or enemy, such as 'Juicy Tomato' - smashing an opponents head, or 'Urine Troubles' - executing an enemy who has lost control of their bladder. Such genius inventions give you a laugh and send the crowd wild, resulting in you pushing the limits to see what you can do to get a frenzy going and gaining a rare weapon or two. Or food, which you will beg for when your health is low.

Now imagine disemboweling an enemy in a game like Vib-Ribbon. Fun game, bad graphics, and the ensuing gore wouldn't be nearly as satisfying. It should please one who wants to buy the game to see that the graphics are meaty, rich in colour, and an excellent asset to the game, both in cutscenes and in the arena. When it comes to cutscenes, characters eyes and facial expressions, and not only their words, play a big part in portraying their emotions. The environments (including the arena) are basic yet never dull. Roman architecture and grandiose locations are depicted wonderfully, populated by various detailed citizens going about their business. And then the gladiators. Big ones, small ones, wearing the latest in highly detailed armour, their limbs ready and fresh to be cut. If one part of the game is a let down in graphics it is perhaps some of the weapons, particularly the larger ones. The basic spear and halberd, while having some nicely detailed upgradable versions, are fairly bland, but this is a very minor nag. Who cares what a weapon looks like when you're using it to hack up your bloodthirsty opponents? It may have also been nice to see blood stains on the weapons as they apparently remain squeaky clean even after chopping your opponent in half, but again, that would only be a nice touch. Overall the graphics are a great asset to a game that already plays brilliantly.

Surely there's going to be a bad point soon? Well, not in the sound. With music composed by the Austrian Orchestra the game's soundtrack is epic, suiting the locations and the story for which it has been made. Tense tunes in the stealth sections and the thunder of battle is well represented with some of the more dangerous melodies. The sound effects? Very nice. Enemies scream in pain as their arms are broken, the crowd roars in approval, weapons clash heavily in the heat of battle. All works to create an immersive and realistic experience. Even the voice acting is above-par. Perhaps some of the lines are less to shout about - some bordering on silly while some are outright lame. However the actors more than make up for this, particularly Octavianus, Claudia, Antonius and some of the other supporting characters. That is not to say Agrippa is not portrayed well, but your acting is hard to stand out when your character could easily pass for a gorilla and has the lines to match.

Okay, now we're due a bad point. We've seen the gameplay of Agrippa's gladiatorial exploits is very good, but what about Octavianus' stealth sections. Alright...they're not terrible, and the plot you gain from them is enough to keep you playing, but some of these parts just move so damn slow. Octavianus is not already a world-class sprinter but add to that a lot of the stealth requires you to walk, and you need to have a lot of patience and nerve on your hand to get through these sections without being just a little frustrated. It doesn't help that he can't fight back in the slightest - his combat capabilities limited to throwing apples and the like and hitting your enemies with a jug to the back of the head (something you have to WALK to do). Some parts can be tense, to their advantage, others are boring. Perhaps the only real attempt to brighten up these sections - people asking you questions when you are in disguise - is only used occasionally, perhaps for fear that our social intelligence is too low to deal with the correct answers to these questions. Oh well. It doesn't help either when some of the later sections are way too hard and require not stealth, but rather bravado on your part in hitting an enemy and making a run for it past the door. And then you slip up on the honey. Octavianus' pathetic death screams provide little consolation to the prospect of having to walk all the way through that section again. These sections don't slow the pace of the game as such but are slow themselves and can be a trial to get through. Thank goodness we have GameFAQs huh?

With GameFAQs, one can complete the game quite comfortably so long as his game playing skills are at least average. But will one want to play the game again? The game already has a Battles section in the main menu where you can play any of the normal gladiatorial, and boss, battles again at will. Save for the epic ending this eliminates nearly all the point of playing through the game again unless you have a fetish for cutscenes or worse, stealth scenes. Three difficulties, one of them unlockable, will only draw back the truly dedicated. Other perfectionists may want to lavish Octavianus' house with its various purchasable items (including a tiger and a maid), and the completed home is something to be proud of, but again, only for the truly dedicated. For myself, Shadow of Rome is not a game I can complete twice in a row without at least a month in between the playthroughs. For others it may be, but I find the fair length and exhausting ending too much to go through again after I have already done so once. Shadow of Rome however is not a game you will play through once and then take it back. It is far too likeable for that.

So, as you can see, I have a lot of praise for the game. A sometimes lame story is made up for with an impressive ending, great sound and graphics make up for the sometimes frustrating combat, which still is the game's strongest point by far, mostly immensely satisfying and decidedly meaty. Which leaves the stealth sections. A taint on Shadow of Rome's otherwise glorious portrayal of Ancient Rome and its gladiatorial games, and the trail of deceit and mystery lurking in its deepest, darkest depths.


Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 07/25/07

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