For Wine and the Embrace of Questionable Women: Domina Review
The glory (and horrors) of Rome are at your fingertips with this unlikely little indie gem that's essentially a video game version of the Spartacus TV show, but its actually quite a bit better than the real Spartacus Legends game. Full disclosure: my son's name is literally Gannicus, so clearly I'm the target audience here.
While the lingo of the game was well known to me, for fun I decided to search for Domina and see what came up and if anyone else had covered it yet. Amusingly, that search phrase somehow gives you lady's heels and a particular strain of marijuana before the video game. The more you know I guess...
Indie Beta Wonder
Joining the crop of indie games with sprite-based graphics like Metal Tales or Shovel Knight that take one concept and execute it really well, Domina is still in beta as it nears official release, but gets updates on a near daily basis.
As lunista of a house you'll arrange for wine, coin, and yes, women, for your gladiators. They have to be trained by your doctore while you deal with the local legate wanting to use your villa to house his wounded soldiers, bribing the magistrate to get into better games, and generally dealing with the drunk and deadly world of ancient Rome.
The game is part management simulator - overseeing your ludus, hiring architects and armorers, buying new gladiators, sending out spies, purchasing equipment, etc. -- and part pixelated combat as you control one of the gladiators on the sands.
Both sides of the coin are brought together by a surprisingly well done heavy electronic soundtrack that deserves some accolades of its own.
Heavy Lies The Crown
Unlike your typical resource management game, there's a speed element at play here, because the day counter ticks down quickly until the next match, so you don't have unlimited time to decide what and who you are going to upgrade next.
From naked slaves with no clue which end of the gladius to use, it's your job to raise a crop of world class fighters outfitted with sword, shield, and armor.
You'll have to be quick and make split-second decisions on the way to a randomized match that might be easy with 3 of your gladiators versus 1 of their slaves attached to a chain... or it might be incredibly difficult with a fully outfitted ludus battling your poorly-equipped, severely injured team while chained lions eat anyone who strays too far from the melee.
In addition to upgrading equipment and buildings, there's a skill tree for learning new abilities and unlocking two other classes: one focused on dual wielding, the other on a spear and net combo.
Further keeping you on your toes as lunista are randomized interventions occuring at unexpected times that could offer opportunities, or could see you losing tons of resources and gladiators.
At one point an herbalist appeared offering tinctures to instantly heal my entire ludus for 2 coins, which is a huge boon over the normal slow healing at a rate of 1 coin per gladiator. Another time an overly drunk noble covered my home in all sorts of unpleasant things spewed from all orifices. I chose to clean him and buy him a new cloak... but it earned me nothing because he was too intoxicated to remember any of it.
Life And Death On The Sands
Although often frantic (particularly in the larger battles), there's a strategy to the combat as well, with rolling/dodge, attacking from different angles (left/right above/below) as well as dropping shields and picking up equipment on the battlefield.
Different arenas are available, from the large-scale combats lined up at specific dates to smaller and more intimate pit fights for earning quick coin. Eventually you have to attend championship games with the equivalent of bosses, facing off against behemoths of the arena with hundreds of hit points and devastating weapons. Expect to lose a gladiator or two in these matches.
Even outside the combat, there are possibilities for some serious Darkest Dungeon level bad things to happen to your ludus. Frequently there are no good options, but only several bad ones where you can only hope to mitigate the worst consequences or only anger one influential member of society rather than several.
One night when the legate and magistrate were drunk and both wanted to have a go at the same slave girl, I thought I'd try to not lose favor with either by suggesting they share her.
Realizing she probably wouldn't survive the encounter with these cruel men, the slave stabbed me and made off with my strongest, most well-equipped gladiator, never to be seen again.
I just started, slack-jawed, at the screen for a few moments as the ever-eloquent words of villain Batiatus from Spartacus came to mind:
Graphics And Missing Features
The old school, pixelated graphics actually work in the game's favor. You don't lose out on any of the blood, and Domina has a more unique style than your typical by-the-numbers 3D combat game.
The rolling and dodging animations in particular are really well done for graphics that are so basic, and you won't forget watching a gladiator slice down and then see a head go flying across the arena. The only downside there is that in the big mass combats it becomes difficult to tell who is friend and who is foe if your team doesn't have radically different equipment from the opposition.
Along with such frenzied, visually entertaining combat there's some interesting features built-in, like the ability to auto stream to Twitch or upload your combat segments to Facebook.
That being said, there are definitely some bugs to still be worked out and few times where it seemed like I was supposed to get something but didn't, like not receiving healing or new Jupiter's Blessings upgrade cards not appearing the deck.
At this stage in beta, there's also no save feature, and the game is capped at 365 days, which may be more of a problem for some gamers than others.
The no-save setup is apparently on purpose, as Domina is meant to be played multiple times with new randomized encounters and enemies, but its just on the borderline of being acceptable due to the time commitment. You could potentially put 4+ hours in to finish a run through, and plenty of people don't have the amount of time to put in at one time.
Thankfully, the developer has already stated save states are in the works at some point in the future as the most requested feature. Whether that's pre- or post-launch remains to be seen at this point, however.
The Bottom Line
Considering I played for an entire evening straight and never got bored, I'd say Domina is successful at what it sets out to do, with fans of shows like Spartacus and Rome in particular sure to love the setup.
Add a save game option (and give us another mode that isn't capped at a specific time) and this is a game that any gladiator enthusiast could sink a whole lot of hours into.
Note: Developer DolphinBarn provided a copy of Domina to the writer for the purposes of this review.