Ever wanted to run a gladiator school in the year 3000? One where aliens fight each other in small arenas for fortune and glory? Indie developer Creative Storm fills that gap with Age of Gladiators II, the sequel to their first major title. The premise alone is a fun one, but the payoff, despite some major shortcomings, is a game that really scratches an itch for a very niche audience.
Emphasis on the word niche. Age of Gladiators II has a lot of moving parts to it, but most of it is ultimately a passive experience for the player. The game is more akin to a sports simulation title in the same vein as the Football Manager games than anything else. Here, the stats screen is the most important part of the title. Each gladiator and staff member are grades on a spreadsheet, with varying strengths and weaknesses that the player, as any good manager, must balance out with their checkbook daily. It is a very corporate-style simulation; a game which is won passively rather than through proactive participation.
The game is all about managing time and finances, making the experience a very passive one. You start with barely anything save for a pile of in-game credits, and you need to spend them quick to build up your school in the early going. Hiring scouts, trainers, doctors and other specialists if they are affordable; recruiting potential gladiators (or buying slaves, if you want to be amoral) and selecting from a small number of weapons and armor to equip them. Your interactions with your gladiators is minimal at best; you ultimately need to keep them happy and well taken care of while at the same time, managing resources elsewhere. The end goal is limitless; rake in enough money and retire at your leisure, all to become the richest person in the galaxy.
The catch, of course, is managing your time. Since fights are automatically scheduled with a random number of fighters per match, you need to plan accordingly or be forced to forfeit matchups or worse, sacrifice injured gladiators in the arena. One of the neat features of the game is the ability to mine out an asteroid to be your base of operations; a place where you can build a ton of facilities that help to train your gladiators, boost their morale, and even build upon your barracks to increase the number of fighters on your payroll. It takes twenty in-game days to mine out the first layer of the asteroid, and another twenty days to build a facility. In that forty-day period, you may have to fight several battles in a row, sometimes on the same day, with a limited number of fighters and support to keep them actively healthy.
This early stage of the game is the most rewarding part of Age of Gladiators II. The lack of resources save for what you buy and invest in can be challenging to navigate this way, but by building up your school, while costing a ton of money and time to obtain, it quickly makes the overall experience extremely easy in the later stages. By the time the first season of fighting ends, that blank asteroid is now a functional school, complete with weapon labs, medical bays, and mission boards that offer side-quests for gladiators to partake in. All that time and money becomes well spent as it makes your fighters healthier and hit harder than most of the competition, sapping Age of Gladiators II of any late-game difficulty.
It becomes clear that the best fighters are not always the best-graded recruits. Using real-life sabermetrics to hoard enough money for these facilities is a winning strategy ultimately, turning Age of Gladiators II into a sort of blood sport version of Moneyball. Each gladiator has a plethora of statistics to follow, each of them providing bonuses to health, attack power, action points and more, but even lower ranked gladiators can do massive damage in the arena with the right combination of weapons, armor, and items despite being inferior in their stats. There is a bit of role-playing thrown in for good measure, as your gladiators level up they become stronger and more experienced; even becoming famous for their skill outside of the arena, but outside of some hidden statistics this doesn’t affect much in-game save for morale and experience gains for your fighters.
There are also a lot of ways to make money quick in Age of Gladiators II if you feel like going on a spending spree. The fights themselves often don’t yield a lot of revenue, but betting on fights (for or against yourself) is a quick way to make millions, as is going to money lenders or investing in real-estate deals if you have enough cash to try it. These additions are nice little flairs in the game; features that are there to make you feel like a businessman running a company, over an active participant in the arena.
Interestingly Age of Gladiators II does improve on its predecessor by adding the ability to fight in the battles itself if you choose to. The inclusion of wholly controlling your fighters is a welcome one, but it is also the weakest point of the game because of how weak the enemy A.I is. There is little strategy involved in the arena battles; the best tactic is often to overwhelm your opponent’s one at a time until they fall to the floor, and in one on one fights playing defensively to gain an advantage.
The real problem is the battles become boring when the challenge is gone, making the game even easier in turn. After a while, my school would have a 90%-win rate, losing less than 6 fights in a what adds up to being over fifty fights in each season. What’s worse, all the losses were done in the game's spectator and simulation modes, where fights are automatically determined instead of directly controlled. This makes the combat portion one of the most disappointing parts of the entire game, being overly tedious and devoid of any depth.
That kind of sums up the worst aspects of Age of Gladiators II, the simulation aspect, ripe with statistics and analytics to track constantly, is ultimately boring if you are in the wrong frame of mind. Equipping and leveling up your gladiators, sending them on side missions, building up your base; in the classic simulation sense that is the only active participation you have outside of the arena fights. It is a game about management over action, and that alone is a tougher sell for some because of the slower pace.
Other faults are mostly just budget issues for being an indie game. The 3D models for your fighters are the same skin with eight different alien heads, while the sound effects are stock sounds of grunts, slashes, laser blasts and more. The music in-game is completely forgettable, and the overall presentation is bare-bones, taking a dark blue and white motif for in-game menus borders. I can’t fault for the relative “cheapness” of the games overall look, but when compared to the first game in the series, it feels like a step back in terms of aesthetic style.
Still, the game's overall look are minor quibbles to what is a decent simulation game. Age of Gladiators II is certainly not for everyone, but it will soothe the simulation itch by being a well-made, stat-heavy game with a strong thematic backdrop. Despite some flaws in the overall title, those looking for such an experience should give the game a try.
Our Age of Gladiators II review was conducted on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.
Age of Gladiators II is certainly not for everyone, but it will soothe the simulation itch by being a well-made, stat-heavy game with a strong thematic backdrop.
- Good Thematic Backdrop...
- Very Stat Heavy...
- A Lot of Different Things to do...
- ...Poor in-Arena A.I.
- ...May be Too Stat Heavy for Some.
- ...Ultimately a Passive Experience for the Most Part.