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Gladius

Review By:  Tim Mitchell

Developer:  LucasArts
Publisher:  LucasArts
# of Players:  1-4
Genre:  Strategy/RPG
ESRB:  Teen
Online Play:  No
Accessories:  N/A
Date Posted: 

9-22-04

Gladius marks the first foray of developer LucasArts, the house that Star Wars built, into unfamiliar territory for them - the niche genre of tactical RPGs. Set in a mythical land that closely mirrors the Roman-era (in case you couldn’t tell from the name), this title handles it’s main draw well but doesn’t offer much in the way of additional features.

If you’re expecting a typical RPG experience from Gladius, don’t. Exploration is almost non-existent, the only point of the world map is to follow the roads, walk from town to town and (rarely) deal with a random encounter. There are no hidden wildernesses to explore, just cities. Even those are not to be seen, rather when you “enter” a city you’re taken to a menu, allowing you to select from the wares available in that city, the arena battles available, your own stats and settings or back to the world map. Those are your choices. This game is focused on moving from battle to battle. Everything else is just window dressing.

The combat system itself is thankfully worthwhile, encompassing enough strategic elements to be entertaining. Different classes of gladiators duke it out in arenas, with dozens of different advantages to be considered, from terrain height to attack direction. There are quite a large variety of offensive and defensive techniques to keep one interested. There’s even a “Low Kick” that can only be used on male opponents. Your imagination is correct; it’s low in every sense of the word. Technique effectiveness is determined by a variety of means, like stopping a meter or sequenced button mashing. Different magic affinities affect the potency of attacks. Even the crowd’s reaction to your performance plays a part. With all this detail, you might think the mechanics are difficult to master, however the beginning tutorial battles do a good job of explaining things, and while you still might not understand it all at first, it comes quickly once you try it in action.

Don’t get me wrong; there are a few things that could have been done better. For one thing, the camera in combat mode is pretty annoying. Zoom functions and better control would make things so much easier. I also noticed some very rare slowdown during some of the more particle-effect heavy portions of battle, but it wasn’t much of a bother. Finally, I was a bit miffed that the game never let me trot out more than five warriors at a time, even though it seemed to indicate I could use ten. But I guess with the aforementioned slowdown, that wouldn’t have been feasible. Finally, toward the end of the game you go up against some large bosses. They look awesome but go down easy, ending up as nothing more than bigger targets.

Between battles is a less sure thing. Oh, it all looks promising. You can recruit new gladiators into your “school”, customize their skills as they level up, equip them with new, more powerful weapons and armor and even change the colors of their hair, skin and clothing. Things start out pretty slow, because you’ll have a lot of battles and equipment immediately available to you but your characters and your wallet are not ready for 90% of them. But with a little persistence, you make it through your first few battles and pretty soon you have a dizzying number of options in building your school. Still, all you’ll be doing after a battle is re-equipping your warriors, maybe recruiting a new one or two, and then throwing your team right back into the arena.

The music is unremarkable and repetitive. It fits the mood well enough, and it’s not annoying enough to grate on you, but don’t expect to remember most of it. Some of the triumphant gladiatorial fanfares do manage to get the blood pumping now and then… Sound effects are about what they should be, sword clangs and magic blasts and such. The voice work is quite good, done by some talented actors including Michael “Lex Luthor” Rosenbaum as Valens. Sadly, only about half the dialogue in the game is spoken, and you really miss it when it’s not there.

Gladius does its job when it comes to graphics. The arenas in particular are beautiful. The world map is a little less so, but as I said you won’t be spending much time there. Over the course of the game you traverse four countries, each with its own distinct look and feel. There’s even a day/night system running throughout, though for little more than novelty. The only major complaint I have is the lackluster textures on trees, particularly those seen in the background at several arenas. I’m sorry, but the “two flat intersecting polygons” trees went out with the last console generation. Maybe they didn’t get the memo? On the other hand, the main character models look great, with nicely detailed facial expressions. This doesn’t carry over to the audiences surrounding the arenas, who look rather sloppy. But they’re in the distance and rarely seen. One other thing I must mention are a few storytelling sequences using 3D effects like rain or mist over painting-like images. Very pretty.

I couldn’t call Gladius an RPG, strategic or otherwise, without giving pause to mention the story. When it’s present, it’s good. The characters are charming and interact well with each other, with compelling dialogue and emotion. The overall plot is intriguing, revolving around Ursula’s strange powers and their connection to a prophecy regarding the Dark God, and the mystery surrounding the murder of Valens’ father, respectively for each of the two campaigns. Sadly, with the immense amount of battles, all of this is few and far between, and often in short but sweet doses. There isn’t much beyond the main plot either, a precious few side-quests usually involving just another fight. In addition, each town and arena has a detailed history that you can hear by “gossiping” with the shopkeeper in said location. The question is “Will you care?”, and the game doesn’t give you much incentive to. There’s nothing else story-wise, no interesting NPCs to interact with. Even the additional gladiators you recruit into your school are completely generic. The point being, you’ll spend most of your time looking forward to the next cutscene.

There’s a good deal of short load times, in the 1-5 second range. But honestly, if you’re the type to get annoyed by that, you may want to look for a different title, one requiring less patience. Simply put, the game is long. War & Peace long! I’ve been averaging a good 12 hours of gameplay per day since I got it, and it took me three days to beat the first country, and that was on the easier of the two distinct campaigns. There’s 200 hours in this game, easily, if you try and complete everything. If that sounds daunting, the game is fully co-op capable for up to four gamers, so share the burden. Then see who’s the best, as beating your first regional tournament unlocks head-to-head tactical RPG action.

Highs:

  • More hours of game time than you have left in your life

  • Nice graphics on the arenas and character models

  • Intriguing main story and characters

  • Deep, enjoyable combat system with many possible strategies

Lows:

  • Severe lack of exploration, subplots and minigames to distract from all the battles
  • Bland soundtrack
  • Shoddy camera work
  • Rare slowdown with multiple special effects on screen
  • Some easy fights in the final chapter

Final Verdict: 

Gladius is a strategy RPG that’s heavy on the “strategy”. The game revolves around an intricate and clever combat system, with only a good but thinly spread story to keep you going in-between the hundreds of battles. If you’re a patient, meticulous gamer who’s not afraid to mix a bit of monotony with their fun (and if you’ve ever stayed up till 4 AM playing Civilization, that means you), you might just enjoy Gladius. And it will keep you occupied for a long, long time.

Overall Score: 7.7

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