Domina review - Ave!

Published: 11:52, 05 July 2017
Updated: 13:22, 05 July 2017
Domina - Pit fight

Domina takes some of the best parts of the original X-COM and FTL, adds elements from management games and throws them on the blood soaked sands of gladiatorial and pit fighting arenas.

Domina manages to achieve that rarely successful blend of frustrating the player while at the same time keeping him glued to his seat for just a few more pit fights. It's all in the pacing and rhythm. The gladiatorial sim has its gameplay divided between managing your gladiator school and then having the fighters trained there battle it out to the death for the amusement of the senate and the people of Rome.

DolphinBarn Domina - One must fall Domina - One must fall

The management aspect of Domina does a great job of making the player prioritise between which gladiator to equip with what, where to invest, what infrastructure improvements to make, when to schedule fights and also plays host to a narrative kind of dialogue based mini-game. To my complete surprise, it even manages to tell an actual story and finds room for some social commentary. 

DolphinBarn Domina - They lift, all of them Domina - They lift, all of them

Your Ludus will also play host to most of the game's story. The writing has a sharp and gritty quality to it, with a decent measure of profanity and bluntness that a AAA title would either shy away from or fumble in some manner. To it's credit, Domina doesn't really suffer from these ailments - it's indie through and through, in a good way.

DolphinBarn Domina - Before Domina - Before

DolphinBarn Domina - After Domina - After

All of the efforts made in the management section are focused on producing results in gladiatorial pit fights. Small pixelated slaves and gladiators will be regularly pressed through the meat grinder of various Roman colosseums and fighting pits. The matches themselves can play out automatically or with player control. I opted for the former in most cases for a host of reasons. Having the gladiators fight for their own lives allows for a specific breed of management role-playing, and adds a lot to the excitement of having one of your chosen fighters struggle for glory and their very lives in front of the cheering bloodthirsty crowds, on their own merits. The AI also regularly mopped the floor with me when I tried to assume direct control myself.

DolphinBarn Domina - The Destroyer about to get destroyed Domina - The Destroyer about to get destroyed

The moment in which Domina really shines is the one where you find yourself shouting "NO NOT MARCUS!! FFS YOU INCOMPETENT IDIOT, OH YOU TOTALLY DESERVED IT ARRRRGHHH ROT IN HELL!!!" at your screen when one of your champions inevitably bites the dust. Permanently.

DolphinBarn Domina - So close Domina - So close

Domina, similarly to X-COM, has a way of making the player grow attached to their pixelated minions. All that care and training, invested time and equipment, and watching a gladiator succeed with proper guidance turns the randomly generated characters into something that player can care about in a very odd way. These are disposable people, both in terms of gameplay and story, but it's hard not to grow attached. Aside from that, the life or death of a particular gladiator can mean the life or death of your gladiatorial school as well, depending on how your current playthrough is going.

DolphinBarn Domina - The arena is open 24/7 Domina - The arena is open 24/7

I would strongly suggest moving the difficulty slider towards the hard setting. The several playthroughts I've done on the game have shown that things get a lot more tense and exciting once you really can't be sure whether your gladiator will make it out of the pit alive or not, no matter how skilled, well trained or equipped he may be. Milder difficulty settings make it possible to create a strong core of powerhouse one-hit-kill fighters after a relatively short while, and once the game becomes a breeze - it also becomes a bit of a bore, but a routine run to the finish line is definitely not how Domina is meant to be played.

DolphinBarn Domina - One-hit kill machine Domina - One-hit kill machine

Spicing things up and reinforcing the great rhythm of its gameplay loops is Domina's . It might not quite fit your taste, but the mix of an antique-like and oriental sounds, with flat and relentless distortion and drums creates an industrial vibe that goes very well with the twin corpse factories of your gladiatorial school and the various blood sport venues the game takes place in.

Domina performs in a solid no nonsense manner, and seems to hit all the beats it needed to for all of its interlocking systems to click into place just right. There are some quality hours to be had amid all the blood, gore, profanity and frustration. For those who stick with it for several playthroughts and enjoy a bit of casual role-playing, there is a deeply human dimension to it as well, hidden just out of sight.



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