My generation of 20- and 30-somethings has had our knowledge of the great Roman Empire shaped a little differently to most. Growing up, it was the adventures of Asterix and Obelix in the books of Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. Then a little later on, it would have been Monty Python’s cheeky send-up of the all-conquering empire, Life of Brian.
The result is that many of us have a rather less than reverential view of the pax romana, Julius Caesar and all that guff (see?). It’s all funny names and silly hats to us.
Which is the kind of level HandyGames has pitched Romans and Barbarians at. Though at heart it’s a fairly serious top-down strategy game, the setting and story are pure Asterix (in style at least). And so when you start the Campaign mode you’ll be introduced to a cartoony cast of advisors and generals, as well as an improbable plot whereby you convince the senate that you’re Caesar’s son and heir.
The writing’s ever so slightly clunky, and some of the humour misses its mark, but it shows a welcome light touch for what is traditionally a pretty dry genre.
Once you’re into the Campaign, you’ll be introduced ever-so-gradually to each of the game’s elements. There’s the need for sucus (wine) to keep your workmen happy, which calls for the planting of sucus fields. Once planted, you’ll be able to fuel your workmen to build a fort, which in turn opens up the possibility of creating troops and patrol guards.
In this way the game continues to branch out in scope and complexity. It keeps from becoming overwhelming in two ways, each with varying levels of success. First, the game focuses your attention on one task at a time, notifying you of imminent attacks or disgruntled citizens on the brink of revolt, to name two examples.
Second, and less successfully, the Campaign mode progresses at an excruciatingly slow rate. We lost count of the number of ‘defend your base from waves of barbarian attackers’ missions we were asked to do before a new element was introduced.
By about mission five we were ready to kick on and lose the stabilisers, but the game seemed unwilling to let go.
Which is funny, because we found the initial instructions completely insufficient, leaving us scratching our heads during the opening minutes over how to progress.
For example, we were instructed to build an aquaduct to combat an outbreak of plague, but it wasn’t made clear that the option to build it wouldn’t appear until we received notification of the outbreak. We spent a number of confused minutes trawling through the game’s menus until it finally clicked.
Once it clicks, though, Romans and Barbarians becomes a gently engrossing strategy title. Perhaps where you’ll appreciate its virtues most is in Empire mode. Here you’re given a blank slate on which to shape your civilisation. Occasionally you’ll be interrupted with tasks that need attending to, but essentially it’s up to you to build, expand, supply and defend your domain at your own leisure.
Where this mode suffers the most is in its lack of an instant Save option, so hours of work can be undone if you need to quit out to make a call.
We also encountered what seemed to be an empire-crumbling bug, when a lowly sucus thief disappeared before our very eyes. We then wondered why our sucus fields were failing to replenish their stock, causing us to embark on a mad sucus field destroying and re-planting spree.
It was only when we looked at the pause menu some time later that we saw that the task of stopping the sucus thief was still active, despite his disappearance and the total revamp of our set-up.
Glitches and balancing quirks aside, though, Romans and Barbarians is an entertaining and absorbing strategic experience. Those who have the patience to sit through the sluggish, poorly defined early stages will be rewarded with hours of fun. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.