Some titles don’t live up to their taglines. Domina: A Spectacle of Violence and Greed however certainly lives up to it’s billing. Gold and blood cover the pixelated sands and I found myself to be no better than a dirty pleb, caught up in the savage chaos.
I don’t pretend to be a man of the people
In actuality, you play as a domina, a female owner of a gladiator training school. You don’t have much to start with: some gold, two randomly generated bums to fight for you and a couple of idiotic old men in charge of arranging your fights and selling you new prospects. You’re expected to fight every so often and the difficulty depends on how much the oldies like you.
The meat and bones of the game is the fights. You can either watch your fighters do their thing or control them yourself. I tried the controls and they work admirably enough, but I actually preferred watching the computer duke it out. The fights are quick, brutal and fun to spectate. Watching your best man trade blows in a close fight is intoxicating and nerve-wracking, like betting on horses.
My name is Gladiator
Gladiators come in 3 different flavors which determines your potential gear and basic fighting style. However, each fighter has a unique set of attributes that dictate how they like to fight. So you can have a net wielding Retiarius that likes to defend and roll around or one that likes to rush in trident blazing. Additionally, you can also train specific attributes, so if you want your scrappy fighter to beef up his hit points, you can tweak things there as well. Special equippable cards can also be gained after fights, which can really alter a fighter’s identity.
Death smiles on us all
This all creates a natural and effective way to make stories out of the roguelike process. Gladiators really feel like they each have a unique personality. One of my premiere champions, Catullus the Naked, started out as cannon fodder for one of my better fighters. The magical moment happened during an exhibition match. There was nothing notable about his stats so I figured this was business as usual.
To my amazement, he picked up a sword that was thrown in from the crowd and managed to win. Catullus never looked back and quickly became the strongest fighter I’ve ever seen. Each new game has its own set of challenges and solutions. The hard part is making you feel immersed each time you play by having memorable moments like my Catullus upset.
All a man can do is smile back
At the heart of Domina’s success is the ability to turn the sterile numbers churned out by the random roguelike gods and give them life. It accomplishes this in numerous ways. There are plenty of flavorful and silly events to punctuate proceedings. The magistrate and legate set up your fights and the inclusion of lions, chains and groups all spice up the formula. But most importantly, Domina eschews the typical management game experience, namely being flooded by numbers which the player can find hard to translate into exciting and definitive end products. Titles like Football Manager can feel bloated by tables and charts of numbers, all of which seems to only loosely relate to what actually happens. Gladiators in Domina have a few stats, but they all seem to translate well into action.
I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next
New gladiators are bulky and cumbersome and early fights are rock’em sock’em robot type affairs. Once your fighter gains experience and trains certain attributes, the differences between them become evident. I had the idea of ditching the shield for the standard sword/shield fighter. By selecting agile and aggressive fighters, with a few techs, I found myself with an entirely different class of warrior. These guys were ultra fast without a cumbersome shield, but since I trained them in weapon damage, I found that many fights could be over with one or two graceful attack rolls. High level fights are brutal, lightning quick but technical, with a definite feeling that each combatant is trying to impose their skills on the other.
Within this dance is room for RNG, but not in a way that feels frustrating or unfair. Computer fights can be extremely difficult, or downright unwinnable, particularly if your favor with the organizers drops. It’s a game within itself to dissect the fight mentally and do the arithmetic to see if it’s worth the life of your men. Despite your best calculations, things can go terribly awry.
Do not be careless with your lives
I’ve had great tanks of men cut down by the blinding speed of unarmored scrubs. I’ve had a trio of agile fighters cut down by one hulking beast. The pit fights, where you have no stat preview of your opponents, can be particularly wild. However, the option to turn a fight down and the chaotic nature of proceedings doesn’t make me feel cheated or frustrated if my best guy gets blown away.
The rising pressure is appreciated, as the stakes get higher and higher the more prized your fighter gets. Losing a few padawans is no big deal but the first few seconds of a fight with your ludus champion are extremely tense. Your champion tends to be the guy who has always been there for you and I’ve been pretty distraught when one of my bell cows gets taken to pasture. Not only do you get significantly less money for a loss, but your future income tends to be hampered as well. All is not lost however, as recently, the game has been patched to scale a little more appropriately if you lose a big hitter. Still, I think I little bit more variance to allow for lesser fighters to taste the real deal would be nice.
Are you not entertained?
There are some other minor quibbles I can scratch on. The item system is completely linear so every class of fighter has the same gear progression. The gear improvements though are far from linear, so I found that there are effective stopgaps for each equipment slot which all my fighters tended to follow, leading to some repetitive loadouts. Some kind of unique items or paths would have helped further differentiate fighters. Technology and hirelings can make a big difference in how your career progresses, but are heavily imbalanced. The ending is amazing, but it’s a one off. That is to say, after the cat’s out of the bag, it becomes something you have to plan for. There’s also still some minor bugs and AI behavior glitches. As this game is constantly evolving, I’m not overly worried about any of these issues.
What we do in life echoes in eternity
To me, Domina is one of the shining beacons of PC indie gaming. It very much feels like a labor of love for one guy, which it in fact is. Bignic, the developer took a basic concept but had a unique vision which translates beautifully on the screen. Between the idiosyncratic events and names, the amazing soundtrack which he composed himself, to the amazingly tuned spectacle fighting simulator he managed to create, it is an inspiration and a triumph for those who just want to go and make a weird game of their own.
Domina is available from Steam.