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Written by  :  Terrence Bosky (5463)
Written on  :  Aug 20, 2004
Platform  :  PlayStation 2
Rating  :  3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars

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"Are you not entertained?" Um... a little, maybe.

The Good

Imagine a game whose story merges Ridley Scott's Gladiator and any classic Ray Harryhausen film. Imagine that the same game plays out like a 3D version of Golden Axe and you have Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance.

Gladiator begins with the death of its protagonist. After the mysterious death of Emperor Trajan, the lean and hungry Consular Arruntius has seized the throne. Renaming Rome Arruntium, Arruntius has turned the city into a theatre of blood. As a final nail in Trajan's coffin, Arruntius has arranged a spectacle for the mobs which will end with Trajan's personal gladiator champion's death. Enter Invictus Thrax, the Invincible Thracian—the man who was born a slave, made a gladiator, and would have been freed by Trajan.

The game play begins with Thrax's last moments on earth. Operating as a tutorial, Thrax runs through the intricate gauntlet that was the streets of Rome slaying opposing gladiators on his way to the coliseum. Here the player learns Gladiator's combat system. Thrax automatically targets his nearest opponent with the second nearest opponent having a secondary target. Mash away on the X and Square buttons to engage the primary target then hit L1 to switch to the secondary. With practice, Thrax can bounce back and forth between opponents performing various three-stage combinations. Here Thrax also learns how to use the action button. If Thrax is near something he can use or do: a rope swing, a jump, etc, all he needs to do is press O and it's done automatically—no problem at all.

So then Thrax bites it and the real game begins. In the Elysian Fields, Thrax is confronted by Romulus and Remus, who wear the eerie comedy/tragedy drama masks, and is charged with the task of restoring the spirit of Rome. This involves traveling through the Roman Other Worlds and confronting Phobos and Deimos, Mars' errant children and the Dark Gods supporting Arruntius.

With the Elyssian Fields acting as a hub world, Thrax travels to different planes, taking the fight to the Gods before restoring the glory that is Rome. Thrax has three main weapons: gauntlets, an axe, and a sword. In the afterlife, he can find stronger versions of each weapon as well as four-stage meters for each weapon. These meters reward Thrax when he performs specific combos and avoids enemy blows. Basically they turn him into a whirlwind of death. Thrax can also find urns which lengthen his lifebar, unlock more power-ups, and recover hidden artifacts which unlock more rewards if he can find them all.

All of the weapons and items are earned by completing time challenges, which can be mandatory or optional in a way not obvious to the player. Most of the challenges involve killing all the opponents in a small arena, sometimes with a shortened lifebar or with a weapon restriction. The other challenges involve breaking all the barrels in an arena by powering up and unleashing Battle Magic.

There are three types of Battle Magic with which Thrax becomes proficient: Herculean strength and prowess, Pluto's command of the dead, and Jupiter's control of lightning. After earning the powers, Thrax charges a blood meter through combat and then unleashes it by hitting Triangle (which also cycles through the available spells).

Thrax meets a variety of opponents: walking skeletons, Cyclops, other gladiators and more. There are some smaller bosses along the way and Thrax has the option of dispatching them with a bloody finishing move—automatically, just by pressing the action key.

Gladiator has great graphics and a respectable camera system. Voice acting is very good. Music is stellar—very original, haunting stuff here, and sound effects are fine.

The Bad

Every so often I experience a disconnect when I'm playing a game—it becomes quite clear to me that I'm just pressing buttons. Gladiator is pretty easy and for the most part it plays itself. The lock-on combat system automatically targets an enemy, orients Thrax towards him, and moves Thrax at him when you press one of the two attack buttons. Unlike Mortal Kombat, as I said above, finishing moves are one-button. There are no tricky jumps here, just press one button.

Combos are completed by pressing the X and Square buttons, no funky controller moves, just those two buttons. The manual laughably advises players to avoid button mashing in order to get the most out of the game... really. Dude, if you only have two buttons to use, they're gettin' mashed. As Thrax's weapons become more powerful and he gains more magic, the game gets easier. He becomes a cyclone and is visually obscured by swirling graphical effects. As long as the player keeps pressing buttons, Thrax keeps killing—relegating the player to a spectator position, cheering Thrax on by applying pressure to the controller.

In order to challenge the player, the game attempts to outnumber Thrax which works to some extent (it definitely challenges the PS2), but also gives him the opportunity to use the weapon meters and charge the blood meter. I'm not sure why play-testing didn't reveal that some of the hardest battles were one-on-one. Lastly, I was amazed at the scripted Boss behaviors. Aren't we past jumping on Bowser's head three times?

The Bottom Line

It's amazing how little time Thrax actually spends in any gladiatorial contest. Most of the game is spent slaying Greco-Roman mythological creatures and exploring interesting landscapes. If more time had been spent on the combat system, and more emphasis placed on interactivity, this would be quite a game. As it stands now, it's a brief, bloody excursion to a Rome that never existed.