Written by  :  Terrence Bosky (5463)
Written on  :  Jun 20, 2004
Platform  :  PlayStation 2
Rating  :  4.6 Stars4.6 Stars4.6 Stars4.6 Stars4.6 Stars

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Put the lightsaber away, fanboy, and pick up a real blade.

The Good

In a narrated succession of animated paintings, we learn that the world of Gladius was torn asunder by The Great War. From battlefields drenched in the blood of fallen warriors, sprang forth the Dark God. Man united against him, but only the forces of Light, the Valkyrie, could defeat him and seal his tomb. Now at peace, the four regions of Gladius: Nordagh (Germania), Imperia (Rome), the Windward Steppes (Asia Minor), and the Southern Expanse (North Africa) rely on the Gladiatorial Games to prove their supremacy. Such is the world of Gladius, where you take the role of either Valens (Imperia) or Ursula (Nordagh) on their quest to prepare their gladiatorial school for the High Games in Caltha.

Gladius is described as a tactical role-playing game (see also: Final Fantasy Tactics). Basically, combat takes place in an arena where you pit your gladiators against other gladiators. Each combatant has a list of RPG statistics that determines when their turn comes up, how much they can do in that turn, and their effectiveness in combat. There is a wide range of classes falling under five categories: Light, Medium, and Heavy combatants, as well as Support and Arcane classes. All things being equal, Heavy beats Medium which beats Light which stands a good chance against those lumbering Heavy oafs; all while suffering the spells and arrows of the outrageously effective Arcane and Support classes.

However things don’t have to be equal. While you fight, the crowd either cheers you or your opponents on (as do people in the room watching you), boosting or lowering your stats. You can use the terrain to your advantage. Attacks from higher ground are more effective and attacks from lower are less. Attacks from behind and from the side do more damage than frontal assaults. Finally, all is not left to invisible dice rolls. The player has the option of using a “Swing Meter” to attack. Depending on the attack, you might have to press the correct sequence of buttons as fast as possible, press X at a specific time, or rapidly press two buttons. This, combined with a wide assortment of combat and movement options, makes Gladius a fine tactical game.

Gladius features a multi-tiered ranking system used to establish your school’s level. Beginning in either Valens’ or Ursula’s home region, you must first complete a series of battles giving you the right to travel in that region and compete in other towns. Each town has its own bush-leagues which must be defeated before you can compete in the town’s tournament. Finally, completing each town’s tournament and certain key league battles allows you to compete in the region’s Championship. Once a region is completed, it’s on to the next one.

All this might sound repetitive, but each town has a drastically different (and often visually impressive) arena with new (and more challenging) opponents. There is also more to the battles than just throwing your strongest guys at the enemy. Many (if not most) of the battles have certain requirements or restrictions. You might be required to use only nonhuman gladiators or only female ones. Plus, there is a wide range of armor and weaponry available, character customization, and a unique magical system which adds flavor to the game.

While there is no character building (characters either join your party as the story dictates or you recruit them from the local towns), you can customize their appearance from their hair to their togas to their sandaled feet. Also, as they gain levels, you can’t add points to their attributes, but you can spend “Job Points” on special skills: healing, critical strikes, innate abilities, and affinity powers. The world of Gladius has six Affinities: fire, earth, air, water, light, and dark. While the Arcane characters have the greatest control of the affinities, every character can use affinity weapons to supercharge attacks or use affinity armor to block against said attacks.

Rounding up the good parts of Gladius, there is no death in the arena so you won’t have to reload every time you lose a battle. There is death in the random encounters, quests, and story missions you face as you move along the world map. This is a nice change of pace which alters the feel of the game. Graphically the game is strong, from the numerous arenas to the detailed combat animations and the specialized look of each of the four regions. Sound is less strong, but voice work is consistently at a high level and the music is great.

The Bad

If I have one major complaint about Gladius, it is that for most of the game, the story being told doesn’t match the story being played. Most games have a main story and the missions the player plays are subsets of the story. The story arc and the gameplay weave together so we understand the master plan. Not so here, and the only way I can really explain the incongruity is to say imagine beating the Super Bowl in Madden NFL 2003 and having proved your team’s worth, you then take on Al Qaeda in NFL Street.

As far as minor complaints, I noticed some synching problems during the cutscenes and the music sounded like it couldn’t decide on specific track from time to time. Other than that I have no complaints about the game.

However, one repeated complaint I’ve read and heard is that the gameplay is slow. It’s turn-based combat and there is a lot you can do in your turn. This may seem slow at first (while you learn the controls and figure out what to do), but after a playing for a bit turns move much faster.

The Bottom Line

It's interesting. Even when LucasArts isn't making a Star Wars game, they still end up making a Star Wars game. The familiar themes are here: light against darkness, living up to your father, finding allies in strange places, the power within, etc.

If you are looking for a fun, long lasting game with an emphasis on tactics rather than hacking-and-slashing, I strongly recommend Gladius. Plus, my wife found it quite fun to watch.