Today’s question of the day is do you like violence? Don’t answer that, because I already know; of course you do. It’s a part of you. Some might say… It’s in your nature. But because of social norms, laws and customs, the desire to unleash your, erm, true self has always had to be contained. That is unless you play Shadow of Rome; a game that, when you separate a man’s torso from his legs with a comcially large axe, will throw the words “RED VOLCANO” at the centre of the screen as crowds of onlookers cheer your name with glee, and your victim cries in agony. So strap in for a review of one of the most violent games I’ve ever played…
The story is basically a rip-off of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, but with extra steps; You play as a Roman soldier turned slave who is forced to watch his family die at the hands of the Roman government, before being forced to fight in gladiatorial combat until you can fight the man who initially wronged you. But, if I’m being entirely honest, I don’t really care about that and neither should you. What I do care about, and what you should too, is that this is the only game I know of wherein you can violently dismember people and proceed to beat others to death with their severed limbs.
So, yes, the combat is the real reason to play this game mostly because of how well it takes advantage of the gladiatorial environment. Most of the time you will spawn in without a weapon and will have to scavenge for one or, failing that, use your bare hands to beat an armed opponent to death and take theirs from them. You don’t regenerate health in this game and so any damage you take is permanent unless you can get your hands on food which, upon consumption, artificially heals your wounds. The best way to get food is to appease the crowds watching you fight. By performing combos, special moves or simply killing enough people, you will be able to cheer to the crowd. If you have adequately entertained the bloodthirsty masses, they will reward you. Sometimes they’ll give you food to heal with, but what you really want from them is a weapon. Preferably a big one.
Large weapons consist of halberdiers, mauls, spears and this really weird, out of place anime sword that makes you flip around at the speed of sound. All will often provide you with enough damage output that you can become self sustaining with how much the crowd loves you and is willing to gift to you, which is important because all weapons can and will break. But once you bypass the initial grind of the early stages of any fight, you can snowball into using big weapins to get big combos that appeases the crowd, who then give you more weapons to do more combos to appease them more.
But if it’s too risky for you to entertain the crowd by fighting, then you could always try throwing roses at the onlookers to gain their love. Or, controversially, throw weapons into them. They will like this display of personality and may reward you for it. I’d also like to stress you can throw body parts at them too. All of these are good ways of earning their good graces if your health it too low to risk another engagement.
Hack-and-slash as the gameplay is, what seperates this from other violent murder games of it’s time, like God of War, is that this isn’t a particuarly fast paced game. Yes you’ll be in combat with multiple foes in giant free-for-alls, but there’s a grind to any engagement. All foes are resilient to attacks and determined, grounding the combat more so than a lot of other hack-and-slahsers and lending a slower paced, more methodical approach to killing most enemies. There also isn’t too much anti-player bias; many NPC’S can and will fight eachother instead of you if it benefits them or they haven’t seen you. And because any foe can use any weapon you can, to the same skill level and will not stop fighting unless they are torn limb from limb, it adds a real layer of “it’s me or them” to the game, which is a strange but welcome bit of immersion to this bonkers, gladiatorial gore-fest.
As the game progresses you will take part in different types of matches; battle royales, team battles, rescue missions and even boss fights. The bosses in this game range from insanely difficult – like the pack of tigers the game forces you to fight pretty early on – to insanely easy once you figure it out. Some bosses seem to be overtly supernatural, like this one who attacks you with a bird, and this one elephant that is the size of those from the end of the third Lord of the Rings film, and others are much more grounded. So, all things considered, the combat is pretty diverse as well as excessively fun because, while there is some immersion to it, you’re never expected to take it 100% seriously. That said, admittedly the new objectives of the special matches rarely spice up the gameplay loop and often fail to differentiate themselves because of that. There are some exceptions depending on how late in the game you get, but most battles play out more or less the same until you unlock the ability to spawn with weapons and armour at the start of combat. That is with the exception of team matches that feel very different from the rest of the game because of how difficult they are. With that in mind, the true diversity comes from fighting in various arenas accross the Roman empire so that the environments remain ever changing even when the objectives get samey.
But perhaps the most unique part of the game, that fails to fit in anywhere to my mind, are the chariot racing segments. It’s a cool idea, and one that might have been better saved for a more advanced game in a more advanced age. Chariot racing here more or less consists of moving left and right to ram people and turn, and then spamming a button if you get locked with another chariot. Compared to basic combat, it gets repetitive all too quickly and is thusly a lot less engaging after you get past the initial impressive spectacle. You can win the two-three chariot races in the game (so few, I have no doubt, because of how half-baked they are), but it’s extremely easier to kill the other racers before you’ve done all the laps and win that way. Visually it’s very impressive for the time, but mechanically it’s boring.
But that’s not all there is to this game. It’s actually an action/stealth hybrid game. When you’re not fighting in the arena, you are sneaking around the Roman Senate trying to uncover a plot. What kind of plot? I… I don’t know. As I said, the story isn’t really important. What is important is that you, a lowly peasant, must frequently knock people unconscious, steal their uniforms and pass speech checks in order to fake your way through secure areas. All of this is pretty great. But you must also occasionally crawl around on the floor, navigate narrow environments and sightlines, as well as learn guard patrol routes. All of these other, more precise things can be tedious and boring because the game (sadly) suffers from the same poor camera controls many others of it’s time did. It’s not outright bad, it’s just tiresome to deal with. The gameplay loop of the stealth sections, while initially engaging, wears thin much more quickly than those of the combat sections and I always sigh that I have to engage in the stealth sections at all, particularly because I don’t know or care about the story to which they are closely tied. Well… That and because I found a number of stealth sections can be cheesed by getting discovered, allowing guards to chase you in circles until such a time as the exit to the area is open and then walking through it without any consequence.
Alas, despite taking up almost half the game, I wouldn’t say these sections are so bad that they bring the game down entirely. What good I can credit to them is their change of pace because as much as I love the hyper-violent combat in the game, it does need breaking up to remain entertaining and worthy of appreciation. And although I can’t speak of how well the stealth mechanics stood up against the game’s contemporaries, I do like the mechanic that allows guards to see through your disguise. Sure, you might be dressed as a senator but if you stand too close to guards for too long then they will notice you’re not a famous politician, and promply force you to run away. Stuff like this is neat and feels like early examples of good stealth mechanics that would be perfected by more modern titles. It just goes to show a lot of work went into both sides of this game, and that developers didn’t give more attention to one than the other, although I believe combat is clearly the game’s strength.
The last thing worth mentioning is that this game looks… bad. Okay, in reality it wasn’t that bad on release, but by modern standards and (as I discovered) on modern televisions, it can be hard to look at. The game simply wasn’t designed, I think, for resolutions as high as what I was playing on. Most of the menus were incredibly blurry and led to me resetting the game multiple times to reselect what the hell I needed the game to look like in order for it to be remotely playable. It’s actually quite sad because of how much I adored playing this game as a child, and how my biggest complaint about it today it is how outdated it is.
If you are someone capable and willing to look past the technical drawbacks and datedness of the game’s presentation, I could not recommend this game higher for you. As someone who doesn’t typically enjoy either stealth or this type of action game, I sure had a blast as a kid and did so again when playing for this review. But given that this game is only available for the PlayStation 2, I highly doubt anyone swayed by this review will be playing it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is perhaps the biggest tragedy of Shadow of Rome; it is, by long and far, an ambitious game that seems to have been forgotten to time.