[/a]I can't believe I'm talking about a Flash game. I mean, seriously, it's Flash. The purveyor of the worst ads since the pop-under. The processor-gobbling, non-searchable mess that lets anyone with BitTorrent create his own "animated series." Sure, we have Flash to thank for YouTube and Strongbad, not to mention 30-frame-per-second advertisements with sound, Newgrounds and every corporate website in the world incorporating an animated swoosh into its web design. But it makes for one hell of a gaming platform.
The format has grown geometrically since I first grew interested in it; interested enough to actually seek Flash games out, anyway. My first game was a 3-D version of Pong that let you apply spins to the ball in order to fake out the AI (I woke up nine hours later, never able to get past level 15). Since then, I've made my way past Adventure Quest and a host of other productivity-devouring pastimes, each time narrowly emerging from some Zone with my work ethic in tact. It's possible for me to lose entire days in a Castle Defense game. I have it that bad.
A little turn-based RPG wrapped in an ancient Roman package, Swords feels more like a slow-moving Punch-Out than a period videogame, which is why it's so charming. You advance on a level-based track, receiving three points to assign across seven stats. As you defeat enemies, you earn gold, which you can use to buy weapons and armor.
Rather than suffering through a clickfest, you instead play out a turn-based, 2-D situational game, drawing your enemy toward you with taunts and trying to gain distance on him if he smacks you around too much. Taunts also work as ranged attacks, as there's a small chance a successful taunt will cause the crowd to cheer so loudly, the noise damages your opponent's ears. When you're in melee range, you get three different attacks to choose from: Power, Normal and Quick. Power attacks do more damage but don't hit as often as Normal ones, and Normal attacks do more damage but don't hit as often as Quick ones.
After poking around the robust character creator a bit, I was paralyzed with indecision; how do you really create an ancient Roman gladiator? In order to answer this question, I had to borrow from modern-day pop culture. Ancient Roman gladiatorial matches were spectacles thousands of people would flock to, rooting for their favorite competitors. My first thought was naming myself after a famous football player, but (most) football plans aren't rooting for their favorite player to literally kill the competition. Same with boxing; part of the sport is scoring points, not chowdering a dude's brain. No, the only "real" comparison to the Roman arena is the fabled squared circle, home of Jerry Lawler, Andy Kaufman, Hulk Hogan and ... Randy Savage.
Savage began his wrestling career as a foil to Jerry Lawler in the ICW before moving onto the WWF, where he eventually teamed up with Hulk Hogan to form the Mega Powers. His career is long and storied, his character suffering the gamut of pro wrestling's emotions: hubris, friendship, love and betrayal. While he was a natural athlete (he was in the St. Louis Cardinal's farm system before injuring his shoulder), Savage was primarily a showman, which is what extended his wrestling career beyond that of many of his contemporaries. And what's a gladiator without some pizzazz, uhh, brotherrrrr?
And so, Randy Savagicus was born. I set up his stats the way I think Randy really was: very strong and very charismatic. My strategy was to taunt my opponents, damaging them with crowd noise and tiring them out before they could even get close enough to fight, and then to beat the crap out of them after they were already weakened. I wouldn't wear too much armor, either; the Macho Man wouldn't roll with plate mail. In fact, I began the fight with pants, boots, and a badass bandana. I didn't bother with weapons because there was no steel chair option. No, it was all fists for Randy.
And it worked, too. I had Savagicus unleashing his fury on any and all comers, walloping them for double-digit damage and scaring them away with a mighty "Ohhhh yeahhhh!" I even took out the "champion" of the first heat in one critical punch. I was a gladiator on top of the world, missing only a manager and, since Swords is based in ancient Rome, my sweet, sweet freedom.
But my career didn't last as long as the real Randy's. Time and time again, my high strength/charisma strategy fell short in the champion battle of the second round of opponents. Unfortunately, being a well-liked guy able to lift five times your weight doesn't take you very far in the Roman arena, which may be the only crossroads where gladiatorial combat and pro wrestling don't intersect. I hung up Randy's bandana and tried mini-maxing.
And so I went, trying to find the right combination of stats to make my way past the second heat, to no avail. I've burned a couple hours over the past few days trying to eke my way through that fight, but I've yet to make it through. What I thought was Randy's problem is really my own: My strategy sucks, and no one else's music is going to play when my gladiator is low on hit points.