Release Date: October 28, 2003
Gladius is an original turned based RPG from LucasArts set a world of fierce gladiators, mythical beasts, and magical spellcasters. Years have passed since the Great War ravaged the nations of Gladius and peace has settled across the lands. The battle between nations has moved to the smaller scale of the gladiatorial arena where spectators can watch man and beast clash in mortal combat. As the game begins, you will choose one of two gladiators to embark on a long, hard journey that will ultimately lead you to the High Tournament in Caltha where the world's best come to compete. The two gladiators you will choose from are Ursula the daughter of the barbarian King of Nordagh whose mysterious birth draws her to a destiny she does not understand and Valens the son of a great gladiator who struggles to rebuild his recently murdered fathers' school back to its former glory. Their stories are connected, but unique so there is plenty of incentive to play through the game with both characters.
Gladius blends strategy and action in a gladiatorial arena to stimulate both your mind and your thirst for violence. The vast majority of the game will take place in an organized arena setting in the various cities of Gladius. When you enter a city you will have several options to choose from. You can visit the local shop to pick up various weapons, armor, or accessories to outfit your warriors with. Each city has its own set of items so it is wise to check all of them out. You may also choose to recruit gladiators for your school. This can be done on either a battle to battle basis or as a permanent member to your school. As you progress through the game you will be able to add more and more members to your entourage. If your school becomes full you may expel members to make room for others. These expelled members can then usually be recruited again at the same arena where they were expelled. This becomes very important quickly as a well rounded school is the key to success. You may also choose to learn about the history of the arena or chat with the local merchant to gain back-story into the games. Finally and most importantly, you may enter into the arena and fight against other schools from the region.
These fights all have history and requirement that must be met before simply diving in. First there are the leagues that must be beaten. Each city has its own leagues with unique entry requirements that add a lot to the strategy element of the game. Some may require you to only use certain classes, genders, nationalities, or even species. Others may have popularity requirements which can only be met by winning other battles at that arena. Some of the harder battles require your school to reach a certain status throughout the land which is only possible after extensive playing. These various impositions force you to balance your school and learn the strengths and weaknesses of all classes. After beating a league you are awarded a number of cups depending on the league's difficulty. When you have enough cups you will then be able to enter into a city's tournament. It is not necessary to win every league before going to a tournament and often not even possible, simply win enough to qualify for that tournament. You must beat the tournament in every city before you can progress to the regional tournament and in turn each regional tournament must be beaten before you can enter the High Tournament in Caltha.
During your travels you will fight in battles that are not sanctioned by any league officer. These occur on the roads between villages, but these are far less common than the organized events. The key difference between the two are the "healers" that are located at the organized events to make sure that the fighters aren't killed, but simply beaten to the point of incapacitation. This ensures that any of your combatants that fall in battle can still be used in later events. In the random battles this does not hold true and any gladiator killed in on is dead for good. Saving often can dull some of the severity of these encounters, but forgetting to do so could have unwanted results.
Before beginning each battle you will have to choose which gladiators from you school will be competing and also there starting location in the arena. These early decisions can be crucial to winning or losing and require a great deal of strategy. There is a balancing system in place in Gladius so you can not simply put your most powerful characters in every fight and expect to win. There are four basic classes that each type of warrior falls into light, medium, heavy and support. Heavy fighters have an advantage over medium which in turn have advantage over light, which have an advantage over heavy. The support classes have no advantages or disadvantages over any of the other classes. The heavy fighters also typically have lower initiative, a skill which determines how quickly your turn will come up in battle, and thus have few attacks than the medium and light classes. The light classes do far less damage than the medium and heavy opponents. The medium class is the middle of the road with relatively average statistics in every department. These advantages and disadvantages can be overcome though through the use of terrain modifiers. Basically the player with the higher elevation will have the advantage over his opponent. This can cancel out the bonuses given to one class over another or it can greatly enhance those bonuses which can lead to some devastating blows. These factors make choosing the right warrior more critical than just using brute force. They also influence how you will set them up in the arena which can greatly affect the outcome of the battles.
Once in the battle your characters will take turns moving and attacking bases on their initiative skill value. Once you are in position to strike you will have several different skills to choose from based on your characters class. Every class in the game has a standard attack, various combo attacks, class specific attacks/defensive maneuvers, and affinity attacks (more on these later). With the exception of the affinity attack, almost every offensive and defensive maneuver will use a "swing meter" to determine the effectiveness of the skill. The swing meter is a bar at the bottom of the screen that will require you to perform various button presses to complete the action. In some cases the bar will have a yellow, red and blue area designating the amount of damage that will be dealt on the attack. As a line moves across this bar you must press the A button as it hits the red zone to deliver an unblockable critical hit and deal the most damage. Press it too soon and you will hit the yellow zone and deal a standard blow, too late and you will hit the blue zone and deliver a very weak attack that often misses. If you are performing a combo attack you may have to hit several different buttons as the line crosses through several critical zones, but if you ever hit the blue zone the combo is finished. Another type of swing meter requires you to press a series of button very quickly to deliver the blow ala the quick time events from Shenmue. For the offensive and defensive power ups another type of swing meter is used with only green and yellow areas. If you hit the green area the power up will be effective, but enter the yellow and it will fail. The swing meters add a lot to this game and keep it from getting dull and repetitive. If they would have offered even more types of swing meters it would have been fantastic, but there are enough so that gameplay doesn't become too repetitive.
LucasArts adds in another strategic element to the gameplay with skill points and affinity point. Affinity is your characters alignment with one of the elements- Earth, Fire, Wind, or Water. You will begin each battle with five skill points and no affinity points. Using the various attacks and combos will drain you skill points which can be regained either by passing on your turn, or using the standard one hit attack. This prevents you from using your most powerful move every turn. The affinity points will fill up depending on the equipment that your gladiator is currently equipped with, primarily the weapon. Many of the weapons in the game will have one of the affinities associated with it. Upon each successful attack with an affinity weapon your affinity points will begin to fill based on the type of type and strength of the affinity in that weapon. The strength of the affinity in the weapon can be modified by the other equipment worm by the gladiator such as the shield, helm, or armor. Once enough affinity points are gained you will be able to unleash an affinity attack on any foe in range. These are often high damage attacks and are very useful when your skill points are depleted. Affinity points are also useful in defense. If an opponent attacks you with an affinity attack of the same type of affinity you possess it will negate one point of damage for every affinity point you have built up. This is another strategic element to consider when choosing gladiators for a battle.
The various skills and affinity attacks don't come easily though. After earning enough experience your character will level up and be given "job points" to spend on his various offensive, defensive, and passive abilities. This is where your skills are chosen and affinity attacks earned. Every class has specific skills that can only be used by that class, but the affinity attacks are available to all classes. The better skills and higher level affinity attacks cost many job points so you really have to plan out your character so you don't waste points on skills you will never use.
So the game plays great, but how about the graphics? The character models, while not the best ever, are all done very well and are greatly varied to give this game a great deal of depth. The character animation is fantastic and really brings the battle to life; watching the satyr dance around while drinking moonshine is a sight to behold. During the cutscenes, the facial expressions are subtle and effective in conveying great emotion and really draw you into the story. The character icons are all hand painted and well crafted. There are also the occasional cutscenes which use actual paintings set to music and dialogue to convey the story. This artwork is beautiful and really a wonder to behold. To an extent all the players are customizable. You can select skin tones, hair color, armor color, and other small details that help make the characters special and unique to each player. The Xbox version is the only one with blood and it really helps bring the spirit of the gladiators to life. There are plenty of arenas to fight in as well, each one with a distinctive feel and characteristics. The only real complaint in the graphics department is the bland crown animations. Everyone in the crowd reacts exactly the same to all gladiators and they move at the same time and speed. This is a minor complaint though and really doesn't detract from the game.
The audio is also very good and really backs up the visual presentation nicely. The music sets the tone and draws you into the time period. Each arena has its own theme music which adds to the uniqueness of the arenas. The theme music can be a bit repetitive at times because you will fight in the same arena quite a bit, but the themes are short and you can skip through them so it's not a big issue. The sound effects are very good, but at times can be quite odd. During some death animations the characters will drop their weapon or their shield and it will make no sound but then there body will make a definitive thud when it crashes to the sand. This is just a small oversight that could easily have been fixed.
LucasArts has a real gem on there hands with Gladius. It is a well polished turn based strategy RPG with a lot to love and very little to complain about. The gameplay is unique and adds a great deal the turn based genre. The graphics are well done and the audio is equally impressive. The story is original and engaging. It would have been nice if they could have added more story elements between some of the battles to provide a little break from the somewhat repetitive gameplay, but it is engrossing enough that you will want to keep playing to find out what comes next. You also get great value for you buck with Gladius. This is not a game that will be beaten quickly with easily over 40 hours of gameplay per character. This is a wonderful game for anyone who enjoys RPG's, strategy, and good storytelling.
Score : 8.8/10