Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ah, ancient Rome: What a crappy town. Or at least it looks that way from the gladiator's-eye perspective of Colosseum: Road To Freedom, a hybrid fighting/role-playing game in which you assume the role of a lowly gladiator. A slave forced into mortal combat, you can only hope to escape the drudgery and bloodletting of the arena by plunging in headfirst and destroying anyone who gets in your way. As the game opens, players are saddled with a seemingly insurmountable debt that can be eliminated only by overcoming opponents in the ring. (It's kind of like grad school, only with more swordplay.) Fight well, and your skills improve. You'll also earn respect, better weapons, and a chance to participate in the game's overarching plot. Unsurprisingly, this involves a lot of gladiatorial combat.

It's an intriguing idea, but it loses something in the execution. The combat—and in spite of the RPG elements, it is primarily a combat game—is elaborate and unrewarding. Though it pays to learn the intricacies of fighting, the controls tend to be unresponsive, meaning that your carefully executed coup de grace might land on a friend's shoulders, or end up whiffing air. Mere button-mashing, however, will leave you winded and vulnerable. The good news is that the game gets better as you do. More experienced gladiators move more gracefully. The bad news: It doesn't get that much better.

Beyond the gameplay: The designers have a nice sense of period detail, even if it's seen mostly from the dirt floors of the games' arenas.


Worth playing for: Fights with painted bulls liven up the game, and there's a sick satisfaction in getting rewarded for backstabbing. (Another grad-school touch.)

Frustration sets in when: You jab left-thrust forward-duck-guard when you should have jabbed right-thrust forward-guarded then ducked. Then you die.

Final judgment: Though fun in small portions, Colosseum: Road To Freedom only truly succeeds at conveying the unrelenting misery of a gladiator's existence.

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