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[ Writer ] = BAD
[ 01/22/08 ] = Until The Death

I've been on an action game binge lately, and I've been playing a lot of Shadow Of Rome. Like Onimusha, Shadow of Rome is based loosely off of real figures and events in history. But the similarities end there. In Onimusha, you battle the infamous Nobunaga Oda and his horde of monsters in a struggle between good and evil, but in Shadow Of Rome, you stand against a host of unknown threats to unearth the truth behind the assassination of Julius Caesar. The game was produced by Keiji Inafune (the father of MegaMan) and co-produced by Yoshinori Ono (the genius behind Street Fighter Alpha), and what they created was a long, grisly tale of victims caught in the tangled webs of unfortunate circumstance. All of this, amidst the deterioration of an empire brought to its knees at the hands of tyrants (tainted by greed and betrayal). They managed to create a game that combines elements from both combat and stealth into one, cohesive, blood-drenched package, but as different entities.







The game starts out with the convict-turned-gladiator, hard-as-nails Agrippa. We're talking the kind of dude that eats lightning and shits chains. He comes back from defending his country not only to find that his father is being put away and executed for Caesar's assassination, but that his mother is guilty by association and to be put to death accordingly. His mother is murdered in his arms (literally), and he goes from pissed to fucking pissed. Agrippa vows not only to have vengeance, but to save his father while doing so. He's not alone, though, and gets help from his loyal friend Octavianus, and a mysterious gypsy named Claudia. But what they uncover in the process is a conspiracy traced back to the upper echelons of the Roman empire itself. The intriguing story is enough to attract any fan of the Metal Gear or Onimusha games, and by the end of the game you really come to feel for Agrippa. I say that because unlike other games (where the main character is already developed), we see the gradual development of Agrippa through the struggles he encounters on the path to his father (and revenge). At the beginning of the game we see an independent, unbreakable soldier, but as the game progresses, we see a desperate man, dependent on others as his life hangs by a thread in the balance of the forces that be.

SOR's gameplay is all over the place, and those who like sporadic, ever-changing objectives will like this game a lot. This game is played in two levels from completely opposite ends of the spectrum; aggressive on one hand (Agrippa), and passive on the other (Octavianus). Agrippa leaves piles of bodies and lakes of blood in his wake, while Octavianus leaves trails of paper and bodies tucked in corners. Everyone says this game is like Metal Gear Solid 2 because of the stealth elements in the parts where you play as Octavianus, but that parallel is off. There are some definite similarities in the execution of the stealth parts (like sticking to walls and strangling enemies from behind), but it's more like a mix between Onimusha and Haunting Ground. Why? Because in MGS2, Solid Snake is a hardened soldier armed with mad skills and conventional weapons (in case things get ugly), who can take a bullet. But in SOR, though, we have two main characters (Agrippa and Octavianus), and only one of them is a hardened soldier (Agrippa). The other one (Octavianus) isn't a hardened soldier armed with mad skills or conventional weapons (he has virtually nothing), and he can barely take a shield tackle (let alone a bullet). In fact, unlike Agrippa and Solid Snake, he has no lifebar (so he dies in one hit), and he can barely attack enemies directly (his most useful attacks are from behind).

While Agrippa's out caving heads in with maces, Octavianus is out throwing flour in guards' faces and rats at waitresses. No, really, this is how he fights. When someone gets in Agrippa's way, he solves it by bludgeoning them to death with anything he can get his hands on, but Octavianus solves problems more quietly, and uses things like rope, honey, and even banana peels in some parts. There is one part where he uses a torch to catch these two idiots ablaze, but that's more comical than anything else. Aside from smashing vases over the heads unsuspecting guards, or making them slip and fall on honey, he is pretty much defenseless. Because he can't take a hit or attack nearly as well as his counterpart Agrippa, there's a lot of running going on, and this reliance on running (with no life bar) is a lot more like Haunting Ground than Metal Gear Solid 2. Climbing on top of bookcases and hopping into barrels (to avoid being seen) echoes the evasion style of Haunting Ground (few weapons and no fighting skills, but tons of clever hiding).

Even the distribution of fighting and sneaking is different in SOR. In MGS2, even though fighting and sneaking are bonded as one, the emphasis is more on sneaking; in SOR its just the opposite. Agrippa can creep and duck behind crates and stuff, but the parts where he actually gets to use it are rare (since he's pretty much always surrounded by multiple assailants). The arena battles make-up the bulk of the Agrippa parts, though, and it's what the game owes its variable gameplay to. Most of them are just all-out assaults on anyone who gets in the way (until nobody's left standing), but then you got ones with objectives like capturing flags, saving hostages, holding the fort, and even chariot races! You heard right; brutal chariot races like you see in the movies (complete with spiked wheels, whips, and all). There's even a swashbuckling ship battle part at the end of the game, and you do other cool stuff like burning ropes to bridges and throwing rocks through doors. Between these chapters are underground fights where you can earn extra points (like bonus stages). These and a few other parts take place outside of walls of the arena, but most of the action takes place within its walls.

Agrippa dispatches opposition in a variety of different ways, with a variety of different weapons, in a variety of different ways. When you start out, the weapons are standard-issue Roman swords and other assorted weapons, but as the game progresses you get flaming maces, giant axes, flame bows, and spears. This game's all about weapons, and there's pretty good variety in the selection. The coolest weapon in the game is arguably the Magnus Sword; a giant sword of brilliant gold and silver, capable of severing with the greatest of ease. Different types of shields can be acquired from downed enemies, as well, for that much-needed defensive edge during heated battles. With all this stuff, Agrippa has the means to really clean house, but the bloodspill always comes to an inevitable stop, since each weapon has a short lifebar that limits its use (and really hurts the game's momentum).




But that's not all; it gets worse. They made it so that enemies could snatch your hard-earned weapons right out from under your nose. That's right. It's already hard enough to keep a weapon in your hand (thanks to the short lifebar), and to make it worse some bastard comes and takes it before you can even get to it? Cheap. Fucking, cheap. It really takes a lot to get the crowd to throw out weapons, and when you finally get them to throw out the good ones, they always get taken. It's fucking terrible, and wrestling your weapons back is unpredictable, too. You'll be saying stuff like, "C'mon! Get that mace, motherfucker!" or "No, no, no, you fucking bastards! Stay away from my shit, man!" a lot. The game could have been more fun without this. Special thanks to the asshole who thought this was a good idea; because of you I almost have a coronary when I play this game.

But in the short time you actually do have a weapon in your hand(s), you can cut limbs and heads clean off, and even cut dudes completely in half. Blood geysers spray from stumps when extremities are lost, and as a result, affect the performance of the victim(s); cut an arm off, and your adversary will slow to a crawl and be limited to using one-handed weapons (like the knife). Exploiting this becomes crucial when fighting against multiple foes (disable to even the odds), and especially against big guys who wield two-handed weapons (arm-cut for the win). Amidst the bloodshed, the brutality and/or candidness of your battle performance is highlighted by descriptively-entertaining, onscreen commentary (similar to the Devil May Cry games). You can do several during battle. For example, you can start by making a "Gladiator's Booty" call for a weapon, stop and smell the flower(s) by cutting a dude in half with one swipe for a "Full Bloom," kick his friend off a ladder to make him "No Super Man," and then celebrate with some "Meat Pudding" by cutting their other friend's body in half after severing his arms and head. And for the vegetarians out there, "Meat Pudding" can be substituted with a "Red Radish" or "Juicy Tomato." As a bonus, true fans out there can even pay homage to Capcom's history with the "Cut Man" finishing move (with a little help from a giant axe, of course)!

There's a method to this madness, though, and this commentary serves a purpose in determining the amount of points you get (earned in the form of Salvos, which are basically achievements based on brutality). And when the going gets tough (or when the weapon selection gets dry), you'll need enough Salvos for the crowd to throw out the good stuff (like the Magnus Sword and/or Grand Mace). As of this writing, though, I can't get certain decap and/or limb-specific Salvos because the severed parts seem to miraculously reappear. I've played both versions, and unless my memory fails me, even with adjustable violence and gore (via the option menu), the Japanese version appears to be awkwardly censored. Salvo names appear to have been changed, too (for those of you who were wondering where the "Full Bloom" and "Red Radish" Salvo names came from). But even in its censored Japanese form, SOR is still pretty violent. SOR's graphical polish doesn't just lie in its vivid expression of violence, though...

Granted, Capcom used the "Emotion Engine" to create the blood effects from the various sustainable injuries, but they also used it in manipulating the profound facial expressions of the characters. Despite all the pouring blood and guts, the facial expressions are incredibly realistic. At the beginning of the game, we see three different sides of Agrippa in a single scene. Grateful in his mother's warm embrace, overtaken by despair as she collapses from a sword in her back, and smoldering with rage upon discovering who put it there. We see short, emotional glimpses of Agrippa's character through similar facial expressions; one after a bloody coliseum bout, and the other when he eats an apple. It may seem like he's just eating an apple, but it's actually one of the parts where Capcom lets you see the humane side of Agrippa. It's actually one of my favorite parts of the game!

Unbelievable texturing and detail was put into SOR, from its solid cast and their environments, to their weapons and armor. Everyone in this game looks pretty cool; heroes, piss-ant enemies, and bosses alike. Take, for instance, the boss Arcanus. She looks as good as Vegadonna from Onimusha 3, and she is one awesome bitch! She's like the kind of bitch who pokes holes in condoms. Seriously. Her design is that sinister. Then you got the sultry Claudia, but after that the rest is just a big sausage-fest. Decius and Antonius were modeled so as to convey what assholes they are (a feat Capcom's artists accomplished with perfection). Highly-detailed, intricate environments were one of the best parts of Onimusha 3, and the ones here are just as impressive. A high level of detail was put into every part of every structure. This game was made at the peak of Capcom's PS2 development, and it literally shines through in subtle details like dawn twilight (just after Barca is defeated). Weapons like the Magnus Sword are nice and detailed, and upgrades like the Fortus Rex Armor compliment them well. You can also change into an outfit with a mask that looks like one of the Slipknot dudes, but it's only in one part of the game!

Lastly, the sound. The turmoil of Rome's collapse is brought to life by epic audio straight out of the movie Gladiator, with key parts of the game highlighted by the distinct sounds of treachery, perseverance, and hearts breaking. Complimenting its epic soundtrack are visceral sound effects bring every slash, swipe, stick, decap, and sever to life. The spoken dialogue seems a little stilted, though; not so much the grammar, but the intonation. Did the Romans really talk like this? Did they really talk so rigid and robotic? On the other hand, the unspoken dialogue is pretty good, though. It's not nearly as stilted, and there are some funny parts. One, in particular, is when Octavianus meets an entry guard that asks him what his name is. Done down in women's clothing, he says his name's Claudia, but the guard sniffs out the lie like fresh shit and says, "well, yeah, you look like a Claudia, but I still can't let you through."




There are a lot of different ways to look at Shadow Of Rome. Does it come close to other Capcom greats like Red Dead Revolver, or Maximo - Army of Zin? Well, close, but it's difficult to top a game that pays so much tribute to the classic Gun.Smoke (Red Dead Revolver). Likewise, with it's homage to the Ghosts N Goblins series, Maximo - Army of Zin has a special place in my heart (and on the hardware). Shadow Of Rome is an experience, though, and a long one at that. It took me nearly 27 hours to clear it over a span of 2 months (amidst working full-time and playing other games). Capcom takes their time fleshing out the story in this game, and you find out most of the important stuff near the end of the game. This is probably open to debate, but it even seems longer than God Of War (which was also lengthy), and the story is more intriguing (for conspiracy buffs, at least). Capcom's signature touch in Maximo - Army Of Zin made it easy for anyone jump in and dispatch enemies with ease. Shadow Of Rome is different, though; unnecessary things like ridiculously cheap AI, a high learning curve, and an annoying weapon system prevent it from fully reaching the stride of other Capcom action games. Capcom undoubtedly left this one open for a sequel, too (tidbits after the last battle and game credits reveal this). The only question is, will Capcom choose to pursue the story, or to let it die? Only Mr. Ono knows the answer to this one...