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As a fan of the setting, it pains me that gladiatorial combat is rarely explored in video games. Every time a challenger steps foot on the sand, I find my hard earned denari wasted on yet another abysmal attempt at this untapped market. Now, it is time for DolphinBarn’s Domina to enter the gauntlet. Will it stand a champion, or face doom to the Pollice Verso?
In Domina, you take control of your father’s Ludus, where you’ll aim to breed champions and make serious coin while doing it. The Roman Empire is crumbling fast, and the Emperor has decreed that there shall be one more year of the gladiatorial games. So, as the days tick away, you’ll be furiously clicking your way through Domina, purchasing slaves, training them up and doing your best to keep them strong, healthy, and ultimately, on your side.
The depth of management goes as far as making sure you have enough gold, food, water and wine while equipping your gladiators with weapons and armour. You can also hire up to three employees, each with their own abilities. This is where you’ll get to tailor your playthrough, as there are plenty of employees to choose from. There are of course the staples such as the Medicus for healing, the Architect for Ludus upgrades, and the Faber for better equipment. But there are the more obscure such as the Agent for dirty work, Haruspex for sacrifices, and the Bard to boost overall morale. You can certainly get some interesting results by mixing and matching, but it’s hard to judge their true effectiveness with how unpredictable and brutal the game can be.
There are also two political figures that you can build relationships with, the Legate and the Magistrate. They offer various benefits if you get them on your side. This can be done through the random story prompts that appear on an occasion, or by bribing these scumbags with wine. More often than not, helping one negatively affects your relationship with the other, so you’ll generally have to side with whoever suits your needs best. Be aware: these two fellows also dictate your upcoming fights, so play nice.
I found that the in-game days are very unapologetic and move too quickly. They last no more than five seconds, and you usually have just over ten days before your next fight. This can feel frustrating at times, being forced into contest mid-upgrade. The only time the clock actually stops is in the roster menu (thank the gods). Here you can view each gladiator’s attributes, skills and training priorities, as well as their fighting style and gear. The amount of armour and weapons available is very impressive, allowing you to make your pixelated fighting machines look the part.
And, one of the most interesting parts of Domina are the fights themselves. While other games of this ilk have made this part downright boring, this is where Domina continues to shine. And of course it should, this is what the gladiatorial games are all about!
In Domina: Everyone is meat for the grinder, even your champions
Every aspect of a match is decided completely at random. The opponents, the obstacles, the rewards. Everything. It will be up to you to select the right gladiator for the job, making sure that you counter your opponent’s stats and weaponry. A lot of factors play into a fight, even luck, so picking your champion isn’t always the best idea. Building a lopsided roster can really screw you over later on down the line, so it’s important to take risks and give as many of your men experience in the arena as possible.
Watching fights is both thrilling and nerve-wracking, especially when the odds are against you. The sprites are well animated and at times the combat looks so good they almost feel scripted. While amateur fighters will simply hack at one another, the highly skilled will block, dodge, and pull off some awesome moves. When there are many combatants at once things get a little messy, though, for better or worse. Many will mob together and fights become a mass of pixels with numbers and blood flying everywhere. The fewer men, the more entertaining the fight. I’d encourage DolphinBarn to spread out the fighters and tweak AI so that bigger fights maintain that high level of quality. Nevertheless, coming out on top is incredibly satisfying, and I couldn’t help but shower my victors with gold and wine.
If you’re the less passive type, you can unlock a perk that allows you to control one of your gladiators. The controls are pretty simple and a bit button-mashy but it’s fun nonetheless. You may find that it increases your chances for success, especially when your fighters are brain-dead amateurs early on. It’s a nice option and I found myself unlocking it the first few times, but I actually prefer playing Domina without it. Just personal preference.
Ultimately, there is one thing you come to learn when playing Domina: no one is safe and everyone is meat for the grinder, even your champions. As much as you rely on your gladiators for success, you can never get too attached. One fight can be super easy and over in seconds, the next may send the majority of your roster to the slaughter against heavily armoured, highly skilled warriors. This certainly feels unfair at times, especially as you do everything in your power to win and maximise your time. This is just the nature of the game, though. Domina is somewhat of a rogue-like so it may take a few runs before you succeed at the end of the year.
It’s good news, then, that Domina is highly replayable. From training your men at the Ludus, to insane fights in the arena, I found everything incredibly satisfying. It also has Twitch integration for all of those streamers out there. Viewers are able to vote on a number of things and it’ll activate brutal mode for longer, gorier fights (this setting can also be turned on in singleplayer). The only time that the game feels weak is through the random story prompts. While some of them are quite humorous, they contain a lot of unnecessary swearing and become a nuisance after a while. I even saw repeats during a single playthrough.
That being said, I am thoroughly enjoying Domina, and it has more than quenched my thirst for a gladiatorial game. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to pick up my toga from the dry cleaners.
Note: On release, Domina did not have save functionality, but was added before review. The review and score reflect the game post-update.