Release Date: September 24, 2003
LucasArts' Gladius is just that. As either Valens, the son of a murdered gladiator hero, or Ursula, a barbarian princess and the unknowing child of prophecy, you're about to leave for arena school. After you prove your mettle in a few training missions, it's time to start hiring other gladiators, training them up, gaining new skills, and fighting your way to the top of the gladiatorial heap.
The result is something that we don't see enough of on consoles: good, solid turn-based strategy. Oh, sure, we've seen it before, but Koei pretty much owns the genre, with the occasional exception (Sega's unaccountably abandoned Shining Force series, Final Fantasy Tactics, Front Mission, Ring of Red, etc.). It is still worth saying that in a day and age where you can't swing a Dreamcast controller without hitting some angst-laden sword-wielding seventeen-year-old on a quest to save the world, you just don't get enough strategic combat. That's where Gladius delivers.
The name of the game here is "customizability." You can take your main characters and mercenaries, and change their entire look as you see fit. Reequip them, train them in unique skills and techniques, buy a wide variety of weapons and armor, and send them out to do battle in the arena. While you don't have full flexibility, i.e. a Capcom vs. SNK style color edit mode, there's still a surprising amount you can do to change the look and abilities of each character.
Then there's the combat.
The engine has a surprising amount of depth to it, and you start in the shallow end. (Wow. I just either advanced that metaphor or shot it dead.) At the start of the game, you have a couple of interesting abilities, such as the hero's Empower Self skill, but the sheer number of skills you can acquire is almost intimidating. Special attacks, techniques, and even the ability to shapeshift can be earned as you progress.
The combat itself can be influenced by any number of factors, such as the other gladiators on your team, the terrain, the direction in which your enemy is facing, and morale. The only point that may be problematic with some is the presence of a sliding meter to indicate an attack; you want to press X at the right time, to land your cursor in the red part of the meter and thus land a critical hit. If you wait too long to press X, you'll either do almost no damage, or you'll miss entirely.
As for the storyline, Gladius promises an epic story of struggle. While the full story isn't in the playable build we've got, our hero's father was brutally murdered, and our heroine is apparently destined to overthrow a tyrant. Besides, all the good gladiator movies always end with the hero in charge of a revolution, so why not here? You'll be able to find out for yourself at the end of September.