Rage of the Gladiator

Ixthid, I’m getting you out of here buddy.

As much as I hate to play the “If you like game x, then game y” game, it’s a pretty sure bet that if you like Punch-Out!! then you’re going to really enjoy Rage of the Gladiator. Especially if you think the best possible improvement to boxing would be the addition of magic.

In Rage of the Gladiator, arcade boxing goes a bit Roman, replete with a number of mythic bosses. There are a whopping total of three control schemes, all using variations on the Wii controllers and ranging from holding the stick horizontally for a more traditional experience or complete WiiMotionPlus enabled arm swinging attack. Your Wiimote controls the right side, nunchuck the left (and no complaints from this lefty). Whichever scheme you choose, you’ll be dishing out damage with a handful of attacks: high left, high right, low left, low right.

You do battle from a first-person view, and like any good fighter you recognize the enemy’s pattern and then time your attack. In Rage of the Gladiator, dodging and then retaliating with a counter is the core of a successful fight – it will certainly get you farther than blocking and attacking alone. Reaction time is key as you dodge left to right, jump over sweeping moves and use your shield to block. Each landed hit adds to your energy bar, accumulating fuel for combos or even spells. I can safely recommend the WiiMotionPlus experience, and because the game requires patience, attention and strategy this isn’t one of those flail-til-you-win games, either.

Watching the bosses carefully, learning their patterns and timing your blocks, dodges and attacks accordingly is no easy feat. There is a learning curve for many opponents that will have you replaying them at least once. There are some truly confounding attacks so that even if you figure out what’s coming, you have yet to figure out how to stop it (though the first time your shield was as effective as a throw pillow, so that’s out). Like an old school fighter, suspend your disbelief and refrain from cries of “this game cheats!”; some moments defy logic but do so consistently. There are – consistently – moves that you cannot, block, dodge or defend against. You will take damage, you will be frustrated, and you will reevaluate how much you want to rule this lousy kingdom.

Between rounds you get to spend points to upgrade your defenses, attacks and even learn spells across three skill trees, but bear in mind points are scarce. These RPG elements were one of my favorite parts of the game, and with only three points to spend each round I recommend focusing on one area and then throwing a point to a second area. As the game goes on and your skills advance, activating combos can get a little crazy as you have to cycle through them – during the action. This isn’t so tricky when pickings are slim, but as you add more combos to your repertoire you’ll bemoan the luxury of choice.

The core of the game is the battle, and each of the ten bosses is distinct both in appearance and fight style. From the Medusa-like Sea Witch to the nefarious ninja Naginata, the colorful enemies have an impressive repertoire of quips and jabs. While the arena view is unchanging, the bosses are pretty detailed and have good animations and each visually exciting attack carries its own audio oomph.

The story is a total throwaway, replete with cheesy dialog. Bland, generic and laughable, in some ways it’s so awkward and goofy that it’s endearing – or at least may remind you of your early gaming days. As the firstborn son of a murdered king you must prove your innocence of the crime by fighting monsters as a gladiator. If you take real issue with the plausibility there, you might be better off reviewing your understanding of the ancient penal system than playing games. Cut scenes advance the plot storybook style, with narrated still images. It’s very ho-hum, but the real weak point is the bland narration.

Each battle kicks off with a feature on the boss, and every couple battles the story advances. I started to wonder if some of the monster details were snuck in there just to see if I was paying attention. The Minotaur was fine living on his own, but then some jerks captured him for the arena. Seems a little harsh. Then there’s Ixthid, who not only has eyes inside each of its seven mouths, but was kidnapped! Kidnapped!! Taken away from its ooky eyes-in-mouth family! All Mr. See Food wants is to escape, and now you, prince of this kingdom of aggressors, are going to beat him up.

If crushing poor Ixthid once wasn’t enough, you can replay opponents to improve your score, but there’s no additional reward beyond personal satisfaction. For the successful fighter, completing the ten battles unlocks Challenge Mode where you rematch against each. Challenge Mode isn’t just a rehash, however, but a continuation of the story and a clever handling of the content.

Punch-Out!! with a fantasy spin, Rage of the Gladiator packs an admirable punch into its 40MB package. Bright colors and diverse tactics keep each fight exciting and challenging. Bosses and battles take center stage, and more than make up for the lackluster storytelling. A $10 value, the title will really appeal to that precious pre-teen demographic.

Review copy provided by publisher.

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