Is fantasy-based Punch-Out!! all it's cracked up to be?
Ghostfire Games cut me right to the core when they called Rage of the Gladiator a fantasy-based Punch-Out!! game. I'm a big fan of Nintendo's venerable series, so when I heard this, I became quite excited for their newest WiiWare title. The end result is good and has fantastic production values, but it lacks the finely tuned precision of Punch-Out!! games, with slapdash motion controls and overly long battles.
The first-person viewpoint is the starkest change from Nintendo's boxing series, and it's also one of the low points of the game. The lack of any kind of on-screen avatar makes dodging and judging whether or not you're going to get hit difficult, which is integral to doing well in the game. What you see on screen are your hands, which are filled with a hammer and a shield. The hammer is your basic manner of attacking, and the shield can be used to block or knock enemies off balance.
Throwing a wrench into the Punch-Out!! style are magical powers and a skill tree. The magical attacks are kind of like Punch-Out!!'s star punches, but with a lot more visual flair. For example, there is one attack where you slam your hammer down into the ground and unleash a pillar of fire. You gain and upgrade these attacks, as well level up your offense and defense, by putting points into your skill tree, which is split into three different sections: Offense, Defense, and Magic. It's quite novel, and you can power up your character in a variety of ways. However, once you make a decision, you're stuck with it for the entire game. You can only get more skill points by getting better grades on past bosses, and you can't repurpose ones you've already spent. This wouldn't be so bad if the game didn't ramp up in difficulty as you worked your way through it.
As far as controls go, your hammer is represented by the Wii Remote, and your shield is represented by the Nunchuk. You can pick between different directions to swing your hammer (up, down, left, or right), which is emboldened by Wii MotionPlus if you have it, but it does nothing more than allow you swing in a direction and attack as opposed to holding down a button and swinging. In general, all of the motion controls have slight delays, which make the parts of the game that require precise timing difficult to complete. Luckily, there is a Wii Remote-only control scheme - reminiscent of Punch-Out!! - that solves most of these problems.
The game's presentation is its biggest triumph, as it features some of the best 3D graphics on WiiWare, and also features voice-acting for every one of the 11 bosses you fight. Additionally, every one of the bosses has personality and style, whether it's the drunken former warrior or the comical snake tamer.
Each bout is pretty long, as they all have three distinct rounds. On one hand, the bosses learn new tricks and become different and more difficult as you go through each round, but on the other, they often run long and repeat the same pattern too many times.
Rage of the Gladiator tries to be a Punch-Out!!-esque game, but it doesn't quite live up to the promise. Still, it's an entertaining game with solid production values that manages to wind its way down the road of quality despite some superfluous controls, rigid skill trees, and extra-long battles.