If I have learned anything from Domina, it’s that I can lead SO many people to their deaths with one hundred percent confidence.
Swords and sandals movies have always been awesome and have interested me since I was a child. I remember the first time I watched the chariot scene from Ben-Hur and my brother whispering to me that somebody actually died in that scene. It was like a peek into the past, starring Charlton Heston.
Nothing really changed as I grew up, watching Troy, 300, and Gladiator. Okay, maybe some changes like historical accuracy, acting, special effects, and way too much chest oil but they are kinda the same feeling I got as a kid.
Much to my delight, when I heard about Domina (Steam link) I was super excited. Domina puts you in charge of your own gladiator fighting team or “Ludus” in a fun pixelated management style game. So that way you don’t have to feel bad about murdering someone chained to the floor, it’s pixelated! The story is short and sweet, something about your dad going bankrupt and his estate landing on your lap. The Emperor wants to have an awesome ruckus of a year with arena combat and is offering all sorts of gold, glory and fame. Opportunity is plenty and ripe for the taking, if you train your gladiators well.
Normally this is when I would starting talking about features and what I think about them, but before I do that I want to talk about game development. It’s hard, mmkay? Aside from that being the biggest “duh” of a sentence, it needs to be underlined. Why? Domina is developed by one person, not two, not one and a half. Just one. That means programming, art, music, the whole shebang lands on one guys shoulders. For my part as a reviewer, I always keep that in mind. You as a reader should too. Otherwise go make your own Indie studio and prove me wrong.
Domina is best broken down into two half halves. One side is the management and the other is combat.
The game starts with offering you a tutorial and introducing each aspect of the game bit by bit. I would honestly suggest skipping this. The reason is that the tutorial really doesn’t explain all that much. It introduces side characters and what they are for, but these aspects aren’t as important as the gladiators themselves, which it lightly touches upon. It’s also a little slow paced compared to just starting the game normally. Yes I know that’s the point but it just comes off unnecessarily slow paced.
Domina is a game that is meant to be beaten in about hour and a half chunks. Think FTL but with a focus on building a championship team of gladiators over a series of exhibition style bouts. It is a rather robust but simple system that has some deep strategy once you understand the basics. It took my first four games before I noticed there was a trait system that really changes combat. There are multiple facets to the game I am going to go over but it all serves the same purpose, which is your gladiators.
First you have your city officials which are the Legate and the Magistrate. They serve two purposes for the most part. Primarily they are the ones running the local arenas and depending on how much they like you, may affect the prize or even the match style itself. Additionally they also can be used to purchase new gladiators/slaves. Additionally there are random dialogue events that can occur to make one or the other happy. Depending on what hirelings you’re using or what the level of your gladiators are may change these events. It’s a really neat aspect that kinda adds a roleplay, FTL element to it. You can also make them happy by drowning them in wine. It’s Rome, what do you expect?
Up to three hirelings can be added to your Ludus for many different purposes. They can come in many varieties from the obvious such as Medicus to heal your gladiators after a fight or the Haruspec who can make sacrifices to the gods for favour. Other choices include Architects to modify your training grounds, Educators, Bards, and Agents. They all contribute in unique ways and it’s rather neat to try different strategies as you play.
There is also some minor resource management. This area is by far the weakest aspect of the game. It’s really not that important other than having a steady flow of food/water/wine. Which you can buy from the market in droves. So it makes very little difference to overall gameplay long as you just keep buying the stuff. There are some hirelings to produce these resources but that would be a wasted slot in my opinion. It’s something I think needs to be patched to make more relevant or just be done away with all together.
There is a card customization system that allows you to add buffs to individual gladiators. These cards can be earned from successful arena matches or pit fights. Which finally brings me to the gladiators and their plethora of customization’s. I could go over every detail but I will just hit the general stuff. You build each individual gladiator up, from what stat they focus on training, class, armor, weapon, to managing their happiness. There are also traits that are randomly generated, permanent stats on each character, that make all gladiators fight a little differently. These are broken up into aggro, turtle, evasive and stamina and they are something you should pay keen attention to if you want to win this game. Which I haven’t managed, yet.
You can grant gladiators freedom, sell them, put them to death. Everything about their lives is in your control. The management aspect of the game is in depth but don’t let all this fool you. The UI and hirelings really simplify this process. You can get as in depth as you want but the busy work is done for you. I loved this aspect to the game and it’s by far the most addicting aspect to it. I haven’t even mentioned the three classes and skill tree. The gladiator system is that deep.
On the other side of the fence is combat. Which is brutal and messy in good and not so good ways.
There are two ways to head into the arena, you can control your gladiator or let the AI do its best. Both have their benefits and draw backs. One thing that they do share is that it all ends quickly. You will either die in about ten seconds or win in ten seconds. No more, no less. Controlling your gladiator might seem like it is the easiest. You can dodge, raise your shield, and the controls are very responsive. The problem is that the AI even on the easiest difficulty can rip you to shreds and knows how to do it. Keep in mind there are five difficulty levels.
I don’t know if it’s due to balancing or I just possibly suck, but the enemy AI just knows exactly how far it needs to reach to hit you. Combat proved to be extremely difficult for me and I just couldn’t figure out why. I set myself up to be vastly over powered but would still often die randomly or win randomly. I couldn’t spot clearly what I did to tip the combat in my favour other than smashing on the attack button. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still plenty of fun and I cheered gleefully when I cut off my enemies head or saw an arm fly off. It’s still gladiator combat and watching a lion eat my gladiator is awesome.
Believe it or not I have had WAY better luck letting the AI do all the dirty work. An important note though is that there is a dedicated AI stat that needs to be maxed for this type of strategy. I got the farthest with this strategy but still would suffer an occasional stupid death from my best fighter. This is what indicates to me that there might be some sort of balancing issue. It didn’t turn me off of the game because I still had fun trying new strategies and plans out. Although, again, this is on easy and I even started using guides.
The overall goal is to defeat three regional champions to get into the championship matches. These are equivalent to a boss fight and these guys are not playing around. They will make you think twice about fighting them as they brutally murder all your gladiators. I have yet to beat a single one, but I got darn close one time. I would love to elaborate more on this content but again, I suck. It could simply be that I was just jumping in too fast.
To sum up combat its brutal, fast, glorious, and humbling.
The rest falls in line quite well. Graphically the pixel nature of Domina lends itself to the brutality of the fights. I loved the way the weapons/armors all have detail to them even though they are pixelated. Despite the color palette representing the time being miserable, Domina still had some light to it and some cool scenes. I have zero complaints about the aesthetic style. It’s great work.
The music comes off a bit flat at times but the roaring of the crowd really did it for me when I got into combat. I was so keenly focused on murdering, that most of the time all I heard was swords and shields clashing. Sound effects are top notch here and you feel it when an enemy guts you brutally. Music always comes down to personal preference. I think I enjoyed the music more in the arena but you spend a vast majority of time at your base.
Domina does feature Steam cards and Steam achievements. Currently there is no controller support but it does have rebindable keys.
One major complaint from reviewers does stem from its replay-ability. At that the time this review was written, a recent save and quit feature was added. I did play it without said feature being in the game though. It never bothered me one way or the other. I can see why people were upset but at the same time, I care more that the game was fun. Which it is and it has great replay value. I am glad that the save and quit feature is there now for those who needed it.
To wrap up, Domina is a unique, fun, and brutal experience that I enjoyed thoroughly. I may have gotten my butt kicked several times over, but I licked my wounds and kept coming back for more. Balancing/difficulty spikes is a matter of patches or perhaps the right strategy. Time will tell on this one. I am still vastly impressed with Domina, being a one man development team can’t be easy and this game is innovative. We need more games like this. Coming in at $9.99/£6.99 I find it well worth its price. I gladly recommend this title to lovers of management games and brutal fighting games.
Official Site: Domina