I’m not typically someone who rage quits.
I stay the course, learn from my mistakes, and take notes to prepare for the next clash. Besides, as a part-time optimist, I sometimes wonder if I can turn things around. I mean, who doesn’t like a good comeback? These beliefs of mine, though, are not as steadfast as I thought, and boy, were they tested.
Enter Domina: the most frustrating game currently in my library. Never have I been so triggered by failure, so demoralized by defeat, and so ready for the sweet salve of booze to heal my blackened soul. Blackened, because never has a game lead me to believe I was doing so well, and then outright shat on my hopes and dreams. But, as is with abusive relationships, I was drawn back in for more and more punishment, ignoring all reason and logic. I never considered myself a sub, but this title definitely became my dom. (Get it?!)
When you first launch this flat, isometric pixel wonder, you’ll perhaps imagine yourself reliving some of the amazing stories featured in the STARZ hit series Spartacus. Maybe you dream of chanting “Maximus! Maximus!” as your champion leaves the arena, like they did in Gladiator. But alas, there are no orgies, and there are no stories of redemption or revenge. There is just blood, sweat, and, more than likely, tears (for you).
More than likely, whoever you send is slaughtered instantly, so don’t get too attached...
You begin with a small story about your father leaving you his ludus, and expecting you to train some champion gladiators. It’s simple enough, in actuality. You get a ragtag group of under-equipped, scrawny slaves, train them over time, and hope to win the championship fight at the end of the year. Shortly after being handed the keys, you get tossed into your first fight. More than likely, whoever you send is slaughtered instantly, so don’t get too attached to any of your initial recruits.
The learning curve is steep, albeit short. Your primary enemy here is not other gladiators, but time. It passes quicker than you would imagine, and there’s quite a bit to manage. For starters, you need to ensure you’re constantly training something in the skill tree with which your doctore (gladiator trainer) provides. You also have the opportunity to hire various staff to build additional training or utility structures, provide morale boosts or healing, or even spy and scheme on your behalf. Suddenly, you realize the wide variety of strategies that can manifest throughout the lifecycle of the game.
Adding yet another dimension, you have to manage relationships by keeping two new acquaintances happy: a magistrate and a legate. You can purchase slaves or gladiators from these, as well as get sponsorship and fight exhibition matches. If you choose to employ a spy, you can dig up dirt on these guys to either milk them for cash, or sell the secrets to the other to win favor. Alas, the easiest way to stay in these guy’s good graces, much like in real life, is giving them tons of wine.
You get the hang and cadence of the game down, and you think you’re doing well. You’ve amassed a few victories, a small group of personal killers, and life is good, right? Well, you’re wrong. Every staff member and gladiator on your team consumes food and water daily… who would have thought? If you haven’t been keeping an eye on your resources, you and they are all dead.
I have been late for meetings, dinner, and sleep multiple times simply because I can’t stop.
That death will sneak up on you, and it will be frustrating. Yet, it’s not the most crushing, anger-inducing defeat that you’ll face. Those dejections come in the form of combat. You see, you’ll spend quite a few cycles upgrading and training a gladiator to be the champion that you’re going to use for every fight. The match will appear, you’ll survey your opponent’s stats, and you’ll get really cocky and confident that you’re going to dominate the fight. The match begins, and you’re completely obliterated.
"WHY?!” you’ll scream in a boiling rage. Well, it’s because the AI is an asshole, that’s why. Even when three of your slaves go into an arena against one AI champ, and their combined health is well above his, they will be cut down like he’s a level 110 fury warrior spawn camping a starting area. Spin to win!
All of this is mayhem and disappointment is painfully addictive, though. I have been late for meetings, dinner, and sleep multiple times simply because I can’t stop. The gameplay is so well-crafted, the mechanics so mesmerizing, that I need to be forcibly removed from my keyboard. If there was a mobile version of this, I would have numb legs every bathroom visit.
The soundtrack is unexpected yet perfect. At the beginning of the game, it sounds appropriate to the theme, but when you get into battle, it’s hard rock, and so on point. Another detail that you don’t expect is that, when you get to the point where the gladiators will yield and ask for mercy, an old, analog-style audio level gauge appears and you need to button mash your mouse as fast as possible to save him. It’s so coin-arcadey, it’s awesome. You spent all this time and money upgrading your champion, and his life lies in your ability to overcome carpal tunnel syndrome and hit the mouse buttons in blistering succession. It’s serious fun.
If you have commitment issues, be warned: there is no save function.
Another great thing is the attention to physics. The heavier you make your gladiator with layers of armor and weapons, the slower he moves. As a matter of fact, the slaves you turn into gladiators have different weights, which affect their movement, and also their potential max HP. Interestingly enough, I had great success in early rounds by simply leaving my fighters totally bare, and maxing out their weapon. This is not as effective in later rounds, but if there are battles where you don’t want to risk all the money fully upgraded gladiators require, throw in a few bare guys and they’ll put a dent in your foe’s HP before becoming pixelated pools of blood and body parts.
If you have commitment issues, be warned: there is no save function. If you’re lucky enough to have the strength of will to stop playing, pull up an in-game menu and walk away, but do not close. If you are easily distracted from other important life tasks, frankly, don’t even play, because no matter how frustrating I found this game, I always went back for more. Plus, for the reasonable price of under ten bucks, you can’t go wrong. You know what, just buy it, because great games are worth the countless repercussions IRL. Just ask any WoW player.
Domina frustrated me beyond belief, but in the best way. I thought I had planned a match out to perfection, got slaughtered, but loved every minute of it. I only wish there was more to the game, as restarting again at square one became a little tedious after a while. Despite that, I will still revisit it time and again for a quick fix of blood and profanity.