Wot I Think: gladiator roguelite/management sim Domina

A Roman-themed arena combat game that rams home the point that rogueliteish characters are entirely disposable, Domina [official site] is all about feeding meat to the grinder in the name of keeping your precarious bloodsports empire afloat. Even if you somehow keep one of your fragile gladiators alive for long, chances are they’ll be begging for release from their horrific slavery before long anyway. A game of numbers as much as it is a game of death, it might just have a point to make if it weren’t also rubbing its hands together with salacious glee.

A mutant pixel art affair, like the Delphine games of yore and as re-popularised by Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery, the slightly twisted anonymity of its characters suits Domina well. Everyone has a name, everyone has a happiness meter, but no-one actually matters. Blood for the blood god.

Though there’s roguelike DNA in there – keep your characters alive and with gradually improving abilities both by not dying in combat and by meeting basic needs – it’s also very much on the AdVenture Capitalist/Cookie Cruncher, etc. endless numbers side of management games. Which rather fits the Roman empire theme – lives toyed with and destroyed in the name of a few rich bastards’ opulence and entertainment.

Though you can individually manage training and morale, really Domina is set up to have such things be auto-managed by purchasing training ground upgrades to do it for you. You, meanwhile, focus on upgrading gladiator gear (itself a matter of frantic clicking until you run out cash) and choosing which of them you send out to have an increasingly low chance of surviving arena combat vs AI gladiators and the occasional furious lion or two. I don’t like lions, it turns out. Nasty habit of killing my men instantly, it turns out. Don’t bring a knife to a lion fight, say I.

You can, if you wish, control your gladiators directly for a spot of high-speed clicky-stabby with a side-order of basic dodging, though as a campaign wears on (presuming it doesn’t end in ignominy early on, which is often the case) this can become even more lethal than allowing the AI to handle them.

What I really like is that there’s a choice – you can even specify a fighter’s training focus on their aptitude when under AI control, instead of, say, agility, strength, defence or weapon capability. The smart way to play is to create specialists, picking who best to send out against an enemy with a weakness in one discipline or another, but equally it can all be auto-managed if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Most of the time, you’re spending your winnings on buying new gear, picking team-wide new skills or building upgrades while Domina unstoppably ticks through in-game days until the next fight. Everyone needs to be kept fed and watered too, so running out of cash is potentially lethal – even you, as the gladiators’ silent, cash-strapped owner, can starve or thirst to death.

Also in the mix is keeping a couple of opposing officials happy via a combination of wine-based bribery and occasional make-a-choice text pop-ups, in order that they might cover some of your costs or sell you new flesh for the endless sausage-making-machine. A fair few other elements too, like recruiting NPCs to auto-heal or selecting which ‘blessings’ to apply to your fighters, but really the meat of the game is training up guys then praying they don’t die, leaving you with a handful of rookies. It’s a bit like XCOM in that regard, but with more leather jockstraps.

As the game escalates from one-on-one battles to e.g. teams of eight vs. eight and semi-optional boss fights against ultra-gladiators, near-total wipe-outs are eminently possible, and indeed occur with brutal speed. Between that and cash/food/water/morale, it’s one of those games you should expect to completely fail most times you play – and often you won’t see it coming.

This is the design. In fact, so determined is Domina that it’s a done-in-a-session affair that it currently lacks any kind of save feature, including the now-traditional ‘save and exit.’ Quit and you’ll lose all progress – because the idea is that you’ll never make more than an hour or two of progress anyway. This is about doing the same thing time and again to see how far you can get via a mix of chance and decision-making. It has Twitch interaction built-in – it’s one of those sorts of games.

I appreciate the intent, and admittedly it doesn’t take long to get back up to speed in a new campaign, but sadly it conflicts with the reality that none of us can guarantee a certain amount of time, and knowing that you’ll lose everything if you’re called away unexpectedly or your damn cat stands on your PC’s power button yet again rankles. The Binding of Isaac has save and quit, y’know (other than in daily runs)? So I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t end up being patched in here too.

The other fly in an otherwise enjoyable if rather transitory enjoyment is that Domina is swaddled in extremely sweary voiceover. It’s trying to be comic, but most of its gags don’t go further than ‘man says a naughty word.’ It’s clearly playing to the gallery, and there’s again a certain thematic appropriateness here given that gladiatorial events weren’t exactly renowned for their decorum, but it’s neither edgy or offensive – just repetitive and tiresome.

Fortunately, Domina as a game isn’t. It has quite a few moving parts, but each part is very simple. It really is oddly similar to one of those keep-clicking-the-numbers games, but pinned with a more meaningful structure and shallow but engagingly frantic combat. Throughout, I was conscious that I was playing something that was almost aggressively designed to be disposable, and for that reason I can’t say it feels close to my heart – but at the same time, I might just keep it hanging around my hard drive to fill idle half-hours now and again.

In other words: Caesar holds a thumb aloft for Domina with only slight hesitation. Be a good Spartacus and patch in save’n’quit though, eh?

Domina is available now for Windows, via Steam, and costs £6.99/$9.99.

38 Comments

  1. cpt_freakout says:

    Saw this on my Steam feed and it looked quite interesting, I’m glad to hear it’s good, though I might wait for that saves patch. One thing they could do (non-programmer ignorant speaking here) is to offer two boot-ups of the game: Classic and Ironman mode, so you could conceivably start up a game with no saves to see how far you go, as was originally intended, or go for the ultra-casual one-save mode.

  2. Gothnak says:

    Like:
    Gladiator Management,
    Bloody Pixel Style (Amiga Moonstone anyone?),
    AI Fighting.

    Don’t Like:
    Realtime between fight gameplay,
    No save system,
    Lack of depth in managing actual fighting (just watched a let’s play) and lack of character personalities and choices,
    No real inventory management, you just ‘upgrade everything’ if you can afford it.

    Overall:
    Bah.

    • Aetylus says:

      I think you should take a look at Crown Champion: Legends of the Arena.

      Its a gladiatorial management sim… with the emphasis on management not on speed clicking. And you can pick it up for less than the price of a cheap cup of coffee on Steam atm.

      • gi_ty says:

        Awesome! Thanks for the info on that. I really enjoy Domina but its frantic and short lived. I love the soundtrack but I really wanted something that felt more like X-com or rpg-esque. For <$2 I will be trying it out tonight! I wish they had stuck with the actual roman theme though.

      • gabrielonuris says:

        This. This is exactly why I love the RPS community, always pointing me in the right direction for the games I need.

        And now you look at that, it’s on sale too! Thank you very much!

      • Gothnak says:

        For a £1 i’ll give it a go :).

  3. Solidstate89 says:

    All this talk of Gladiatorial combat just makes me wish for a Gladius HD remake that much more.

  4. gabrielonuris says:

    I saw it on my Steam Queue and got interested. But I think this is those kind of games which the “game” part is secondary, what I really want is that soundtrack.

  5. Doug Exeter says:

    This sounds like it belongs more on Kongregate than Steam.

  6. Sam250 says:

    What does this have to do with roguelikes? Has anyone that uses the ugly term “roguelite” ever actually PLAYED a roguelike? Have they even heard of Rogue? What a tenuous connection we are making to that game now. It seems like almost any game fits the label. I mean, listen to yourself, Alec:

    “Though there’s roguelike DNA in there – keep your characters alive and with gradually improving abilities both by not dying in combat and by meeting basic needs”

    That’s, like, MOST GAMES.

    Not to mentioned the word “Rogueliteish”. ROGUELITEISH!

    ROGUE, LIKE, LITE, ISH!

    Stop using these dumb words. Just describe the game for what it is, which looks like a 2D hack ‘n’ slash with some party management.

    • ribby says:

      Not really a hack-and-slash, instead full on management with simulated battles, since you don’t control your gladiators unless you research mind control

    • ButteringSundays says:

      And yet most people are fine with the term, and understand what it means when used as a sub-genre, what kind of gameplay can be expected.

      Sometimes you have to wonder if the problem is you.

      • Sam250 says:

        Actually, especially now ribby has clarified what the game actually is, it seems obvious that the term has just caused confusion. Roguelikes are turned based dungeon crawling games with permadeath. It seems that this game is none of the above.

        As for what “most people” think when they hear “roguelite” (ugh), they are probably thinking about randomized action games with permadeath, like Isaac and Spelunky (which are really just arcade games with random levels, but whatever). Again, not really close.

        I mean, do you really “know what to expect” when the term refers to games as different from one another as FTL, Spelunky, Dwarf Fortress, Enter the Gungeon etc.

        I guess if any game that resets when you die is a “roguelite”, then every time I die Bulletstorm or whatever and have to restart the section then I’m playing a “rogueliteish level”.

        If that is the definition, then almost every arcade game ever is a “roguelite”, and a great deal of mobile games too. It refers to almost everything — what a useful word!

        • April March says:

          And yet, no one outside of people trying to make your exact point will ever refer to a Bulletstorm level as ‘rogueliteish’ or nothing like that. In fact, people who use the term ‘roguelike’ or its variations know what it means and what to expect even when it refers to games as different as Dwarf Fortress and Enter the Gungeon.

          (Except for Dark Souls, which was described as a roguelike even though it can be argued its main features are that it’s nothing like a roguelike. But that’s just because every word that can be used to describe a videogame in a positive way eventually gets used to describe Dark Souls.)

          Yes, I suppose you could refer to Spelunky or Binding of Isaac as ‘arcade games with procedurally generated levels’. You could also say ‘large diesel-powered automobile designed for the hauling of heavy cargo’ instead of ‘truck’, but that helps no one and now you’re the weirdo who doesn’t know what a truck is.

          • Hephaestus says:

            Nope. He’s not the only one. The word is now just marketing spiel that is meaningless. When Diablo was described as a roguelite, it meant something. But when Renowned Explorers is described as a roguelike, the term is meaningless. Your basic premise that the term has definite inferences, that people immediately know what is meant, is false whenever talking to anyone that has actually played Rogue and actual roguelikes like Brogue or Nethack.

            I would never even consider calling this game a roguelike, roguelite, or even a rogue-esque. It’s just an indie game.

            That’s really what roguelike/lite/esque has come to mean, but we already had a word for that: indie. Admittedly, it’s not a great word, but it’s better than using another word that already had a definite meaning and confusing and conflating the issue.

            The problem is that you, and those like you, never knew the real meaning. You have a completely different meaning for the word than those of us that played Rogue and games that actually tried to emulate or extend it.

            This is just a management sim with poor management tools, relentless realtime passing, and no way to save-scum. It also has a kickass soundtrack and fun brutal pixel fights to watch so it’s easy to like and get defensive about when someone points out it’s being mis-categorized.

            Pointing out something is being mislabeled is not the same thing as calling it a turd.

            This is not a rogue-anything. But it is pretty entertaining.

    • golochuk says:

      I agree, without the rancor.

      The claim is that the game “rams home the point that rogueliteish characters are entirely disposable,” but that’s nonsense. In roguelikes, you lose if you die! Your one character is the exact opposite of disposable.

      I wonder if the confusion results from game journos playing games unenthusiastically in pursuit of a novel x-hundred words to publish. An enthusiastic player would make some effort to improve, and notice that dying, in a roguelike, is very bad.

    • syndrome says:

      that’s exactly what I thought about the three-letter acronyms back in the 90’s, everything had to be FPS, RTS, RPG, or XYZ, and then some bitches invented MMO and F2P, so that we all can enjoy some F2PMMORPGFPS’s

      FFS

  7. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    “In other words: Caesar holds a thumb aloft for Domina with only slight hesitation.” Wait, so the game should be killed? I’m confused.

    • Robert The Rebuilder says:

      Thumb aloft = live
      Thumb down = die

      • Stellar Duck says:

        As always, with Rome, it’s much more complicated than that, but boils down to: we don’t really know. Could be the reverse, or it could some a third thing. Fuck knows.

  8. vahnn says:

    No comparison to Punch Club or even Qvadriga? Sounds like a nice blend of those two lovely games. Qvadriga in particular has managed to consume over 70 hours of my life. If only it (and Punch Club) and now this had adversarial multiplayer modes!

  9. kynetarse says:

    Looks interesting, but lost me at no save feature. That’s some arrogant bullshit. I have a six-month-old, I can’t play games in one sitting.

  10. JimDiGritz says:

    Wait, dozens of comments and not one mention of the awesome Age of Gladiators???

    link to store.steampowered.com

    It’s also only £1!!!!!!!!!

    • Hephaestus says:

      I know what you mean.

      In the first hour of playing Domina, I thought it would replace Age of Gladiators, as it fixes one of the bigger weaknesses of that game. It’s a tragedy how boring it is to let AoG fights play out. But after two hours, I know I’m more likely to still be playing AoG a year from now than Domina.

      Both suffer from poor management tools, but at least with AoG, I can spend time considering my options at the ludus. The gladiators there whine less too.

      Though for some reason… no one ever accuses it of being a roguelike/lite/esque, even though it shares more gameplay with Domina than Domina does Rogue. We’re talking 95% match versus a vague handwave.

  11. Wowbagger says:

    I’d love a HD version of Shadow of Rome from PS2, I guess I could emulate it now I think about it…

    But apart from that! I’d like something that added the management side to the arcadey ‘beat a man with his own arm’ coolness of SoR.

    • edwardoka says:

      Shadow of Rome was a flawed masterpiece. Terrible plot (how could they possibly get the story of Augustus so badly wrong?), obnoxious stealth sections, but magnificent, incredibly satisfying combat.

      I considered making a Ludus management game after watching Spartacus. It seems I wasn’t alone…

  12. jeremyalexander says:

    I was interested in this game, but to not have a save feature is the dumbest concept in game design I have ever seen and that isn’t an exaggeration. No matter how short the game is, assuming people have time to see it through is just plain stupid. I can’t support a game developer that simple minded, period.

    • Hephaestus says:

      You would not have done well in the days of NES.

      • welverin says:

        Hey, we had passwords back then! Occasionally even battery backup!

        • Hephaestus says:

          Two words: Ninja Gaiden.

          The real save of the NES day was the pause button.

  13. SAM-site says:

    No mention of the music? For shame!

    The music elevates the game beyond its pixelated nature. The way it’s designed to match the beat with the start of a fight, the juxtaposition of setting and musical style. There’s one tune that, every time its played, I know is going to be a great fight.

    The lack of saving isn’t a big deal. Even your greatest gladiator will be cut down in an instant, and a full season can be completed in 2 hours.

    Want to see it in action? Here’s some shameless self-promotion

    • gi_ty says:

      Colonel! I should have known I see you in the comments here at some point! Huge fan of yours. Are you going to return to Domina soon?

      • ColonelFailure says:

        (Using the account I meant to use in the first place)

        You are most kind :)

        I am intending a full season stream soon… watch for the overblown advert on my channel.

  14. April March says:

    It’s too bad that joining in on the action is, from the article, a minor feature. It’d be interesting to have a game where a character that does poorly dies and a character that does well starts to request to be released and leaves your control. You’d be forced back to a low power level continuously no matter how well you did.

    • Hephaestus says:

      That happens even without taking direct control. The weak die, the strong beg to be released and get mopey or attempt to escape if you continue to refuse.

      The game shies away from the next step though, and offers nothing in the way of discipline. All you have is the ability to bribe, or execute, and it doesn’t do either of those well. Executing doesn’t buy you any knock-on effects. By the end of a season every fighter will be knocking down your door to plead for release no matter how you treat them or their peers with the limited tools at your disposal.