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Wot I Think: gladiator roguelite/management sim Domina

Gladiator but if Russell Crowe died immediately

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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.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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