In ancient Rome, the life of a gladiator was short and bloody. According to historical records, few survived after their tenth fight. Don’t expect to last that long in Domina, a business management/arena battler game by Dolphin Barn.
In Domina you take control of a once glorious ludus, a training ground for gladiators, that due to poor financial decisions fell from grace. Your goal is to take part to the emperor’s tournament at the end of the year and to prove how powerful your house still is. As a management game, in Domina your commodity is gladiators. You can win them after successful fights, you can purchase them from the Legate or the Magistrate, two powerful political figures in the game, or you can find them in some random events. There are two main screens in the game that you’ll do most of your choices, the ludus screen when you are in your home and train the gladiators, and the arena.
In the ludus you have the option to develop your gladiators, research special techniques, buy food, water and wine for yourself and your warriors, hire employees that offer different improvements, like faster healing or faster training and in general manage the day to day life of your home. In the arena things are simple, you go in, you fight and depending on the favor of the gods (or the AI) you win or lose. If you lose, say goodbye to your favorite gladiator. If you win, you get some rewards that will help your house stay afloat and keep going.
Each one of your warriors begins with very basic stats and your job is to train them well so they might have a chance to survive in the arena. There are five stat sliders (Agility, Weapon, Defence, Strength and Meditate) that affect each other. Each time you raise one of them, another will be lowered so, depending on your playstyle, you can try different combinations. You want a fast warrior that stings like a viper? Go with Agility and Weapon. You want a beast that can endure sword cuts, nets and spears all at the same time without feeling anything? Go with Defence and Strength. You can try different things and see if they really work for you in the arena.
There’s also Meditate, which is the AI attack efficiency of the gladiator. In Domina you have the choice to let AI handle the fights and if you play this way, then you should invest in Meditate. You can also develop a special training maneuver early in the game called Mind Control, which lets you control the fight with keyboard and mouse. Personally I play this way because I like to be in the action but I also did a completely AI controlled playthrough and it works pretty good.
Be aware though that things might not go the way you want, your beast of a gladiator with 180 health points and 60 damage might fight versus a puny little peasant gladiator with 140 health points and half your damage, and still lose. The “scream at your screen as the blood of your favorite gladiator drenches the sands of the arena” ratio is higher when AI controls things, just a warning from me to you.
If you want to control the fight yourself, you will discover that the fights are faster and have a Dark Souls vibe in the controls, especially when you dodge roll and since most of the times you can die with a couple of hits. You can defend too, but the tiny pixel art graphics and the fast speed of the fight don’t clearly signal when an attack is coming, so it is easier to just dodge. I really found it enjoyable though to partake in the fights and I played this way for four of my playthroughs.
The visual style quality is pretty good, low res pixel art with good animation, lot’s of blood and enough details to understand what you are watching. I would personally like more detail or maybe bigger sprites in the arena so I can enjoy more every hit that lands. The developer in a news update maybe jokingly wrote that voxels are coming in the future. I don’t know if it would be a good idea but it would definitely have more details in the fights.
And now we come to one of my favorite elements of Domina, the music. When you go into a fight that can decide the life of your gladiator and actually can end your playthrough right then and there, you want something to pump your blood, to push your adrenaline to the max. The soundtrack does this and more. Heavy electonic beats will make you headbang while watching the bloody spectacle unravel before your eyes and will make you scream profanities at the enemy when he lies cut down at your gladiator’s feet. The fact that one person did everything in the game, the programming, animation and music is pretty awesome, since every element compliments the others.
Domina is pretty addictive. The moment I started playing I didn’t want to stop, I wanted to do another fight, to develop another technique, to gather money and upgrade my gladiators. Even in the first playthroughs where I was learning the ins and outs and died often, I wasn’t frustrated, I went back and trained another gladiator, ready to be slaughtered for glory and money. The thing was that after my first playthroughs I didn’t care about my gladiators. Everyone has a name but for me they are just cannon fodder, they are assets to bring me wealth and develop my ludus. To some that might be a problem since there isn’t a real connection with the characters and I felt that too. But on the other hand, you are not going into this game for the story.
The other thing is that Domina can become pretty easy with the correct strategy. As I mentioned before, I did most of my playthroughs controlling the gladiators by myself. At some point pretty early I found that if I create a fast warrior that hits hard, I could end the fight in two or three hits. So I let two of my gladiators train in Agility and Weapon (one for fights, the other as a spare, in case the first died). When my two favorites grew strong, I took them cruising to all the fights, some times against multiple enemies. I reached the final championship in Rome with my Demetrius of Ioannina easily, though what happened next is spoiler territory that I won’t mention here. I believe that the randomness of the AI can give longevity to the game, so make sure you try both ways of gameplay.
You can buy Domina on Steam for the price of 9,99€.
Domina is a totally enjoyable business management/arena battler game. It’s gritty, it’s bloody, it’s addictive, its mechanics work great and the soundtrack will keep your blood pumping throughout your playthroughs. Pax Romana doesn’t apply in the arena, get in there and die for the glory of Rome!
+Blood pumping soundtrack
+Very good management elements
+The AI works well and can make fights pretty exciting and sometimes frustrating
–The graphics in fights could be more detailed
–You don’t develop a real connection with the gladiators
–Can become pretty easy with the correct strategy
~Dimitris “Dimi Kaye” Kalyvas