Game: Swords and Sandals: Spartacus
Genre: Action, Arcade, Platformer
System: Nintendo Switch (also on PC and mobile)
Developer|Publisher: Whiskeybarrel Studios | Ultimate Games
Age Rating: EU 12+ | US Teen
Price: UK £11.69 | EU 12.99 | AU $19.50 | CA $17.19 | US $12.99
Release Date: 22th June 2020
Review code used, with many thanks to Ultimate Games!
Swords and Sandals
After undertaking a small amount of research, I was surprised to discover that there are actually a substantial number of games under the Swords and Sandals umbrella by developer Whiskeybarrel which can be found on PC and mobile platforms. The genres of these games vary quite a bit. The main underlying theme of the series seems to be that all of the games are historical in nature. Needless to say, you don’t need to be familiar with the prior games in the series to play this title.
Spartacus is a retro-inspired platformer based on the famous gladiator. Actual history doesn’t appear to know all the facts about this famous icon, but that hasn’t stopped TV, books, and of course video games from delivering their own interpretations of his tale. But is this game worthy of the legendary Spartacus, or should it be banished to the underworld? Let’s find out.
I Am Spartacus
The game follows the story of the famous Spartacus as he breaks out of the gladiator arena and forms a rebellion against the Roman Republic. Occasionally you will meet NPCs and giant boss characters where you’ll exchange small amounts of dialogue. But overall, this is a title that’s happy to keep the story simple and focus on the gameplay.
The graphics are decent pixel designs, and you can make use of a variety of filters in the options, like 80s arcade, oil painting, and a terrible 1950s TV mode which brought back horrible memories from my youth.
To my surprise the developer placed bookcases in each level which provide quick snippets about the life of Spartacus during the rebellion. These documents were a nice addition, and if it encourages you to look up Spartacus or the history surrounding him, I consider that quite the win for the developers. Although, it is funny to think of Spartacus running around reading books about himself.
To-the-Point Action Platforming
The gameplay keeps things quite retro. Playing out as a 2D action platformer, your main aim is to simply reach the end of each level. However, exploration is encouraged, to search for secrets and prisoners to save. Both of these reward you with gold, which acts as the game’s score.
Sometimes the game will mix things up by having you take on waves of enemies and even fight a huge boss. The level designs are quite varied; sometimes you’ll be running through a forest and climbing up trees, next you’ll be underground riding mine carts, or on a big lift descending as you avoid various traps.
In your way will be a plentiful variety of enemies. Some have swords, some have boulders; either way Spartacus only has one goal, which is kill them all! Each time you or an enemy die, the character makes a rather amusing death noise.
In fact I was a little perplexed as to how seriously I should take this game. On the one hand, the theme seemed kinda serious, what with Spartacus breaking out of the gladiator arena and leading a rebellion. But then when I collected 10 ember orbs, an utterly hilarious epic tune started playing and Spartacus suddenly became invincible and was able to tackle masses of enemies with ease. I wasn’t sure whether to cheer or take my top off and shout “Yeah! Spartacus!” out loud. Eventually I settled on not taking the game too seriously and just enjoyed it for the wacky experience it was.
Jump and Slash
The controls are simple: run and slash with your sword. The combat with enemy soldiers is fun, and you can pick up secondary weapons to throw which are surprisingly overpowered. When you finish a level, any score that you accumulate can be spent on upgrading your stats, like attack and health.
The game also does the Dark Souls thing, where if you die you lose all your points and can only reclaim them if you re-reach the point where you died. You can also do the Shovel Knight thing, where you can destroy checkpoints to gain more points, but of course death means you restart even further back in the level.
While upgrading stats seemed cool, I failed to really notice any significant difference. Despite throwing points into attack power, many enemies still required several hits to defeat. Upgrading health also seemed to make a minimal difference since the game is littered with one-hit-death pitfalls and traps.
The Halfway Point
All seemed to be going well with my playthrough. I was having fun and felt satisfied with the experience. I reached a point around 25 levels, where I fought a boss and it felt like the game was going to conclude. But it didn’t—the game decided to continue, and in my opinion went from a positive to a more mixed experience.
What essentially happens at that point is that you replay the entire game, only the levels now add new enemies and new hazards. This would have been OK had the difficulty not been ramped up to absurd levels.
Despite me leveling up my character’s stats almost fully, several enemies still took several hits to defeat. Some of the new enemies that were added, like the Grim Reaper, stalk you and are a real pain to deal with. Enemies were also placed in horrible places on platforms, meaning I would get knocked off easily, leading to cheap deaths. The hazards also speed up, and there are several of them.
Essentially I spent the final half of the game feeling very frustrated and just skipping enemies and hazards, rather than bothering to enter combat. The balance felt off compared to the first half.
Holes in the Sandals
This title feels like it probably would’ve been right at home being released on the Mega Drive. It feels inherently retro, which is both good and bad. Good, because the graphics work, the gameplay is great fun, and I enjoyed the simple design of just getting to the end of a level and progressing to the next. Just like the old days.
However, it also seemed to fail to learn some lessons. Traps were placed in horrible places, leading to cheap one-hit deaths. The platforming felt quite awkward at times, and I also encountered a few bugs where traps got stuck in the environments. Spartacus sometimes started a level moving slowly like a snail (his alter ego: Snailacus), which was only fixed by reloading the save. I was compelled to finish the game, but this port really needs some patching.
(P.S. I contacted the developer, and a patch is on the way to fix the issues mentioned above!)
Are You Entertained?
Swords and Sandals: Spartacus won’t take you to the field of Elysium, but it will undoubtedly still entertain. Something retro fans or those looking for a simple to-the-point action platformer should keep an eye on. While the later half of the game felt disappointing, it’s hard to ignore how much fun I had running around, slashing my sword and screaming “I’m Spartacus!” (no, I’m Spartacus!)*
Final Verdict: I liked it
* If you haven’t watched the 1960 film Spartacus, you should!