Thank Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe for re-awakening interest in Rome and gladiatorial combat. You have to admit that the action sequences of the movie stirred something primal in the minds of the viewer: a thirst for blood at watching athletic warriors fighting to the death. Dusty arenas echoing the screams of the wounded and the cheers of the crowd. The clang of weapons and the clatter of shields. These scenes revived the three C’s of sport: contest, conflict, and celebrity. Capitalizing upon this reawakened interest in mortal combat, LucasArts delivers one of the year’s most detailed RPGs with Gladius, a startling yet impressive departure from their Star Wars franchises.
I’m going to break from my traditional format of reviewing and make a personal observation up front: This review will not do this game justice. Before your alarm bells go off, let me state that the complexity of the strategy found within Gladius will easily make this a favorite of hard core strategy fanatics and RPG fans alike. However, the presentation of the game is accessible for beginners or newbies to this kind of tactical RPG. Simply put, if you’ve ever been interested in this genre, you will love this game, and the following comments should serve to intrigue those of you who are on the fence.
Gladius is set in the land where the Teutonic and Norse-influenced tribes of Nordagh and the Roman kingdom of Imperia live in an uneasy truce. Once before, these two regions clashed in a world changing event known as The Great War, which almost saw the resurrection of a dark god and an evil army. Both Nordagh and Imperia had to put aside their differences to face this malevolent threat, and after being severely tested, barely managed to triumph over these forces. To honor this victory, both lands established gladiatorial tournaments throughout their territories where warriors could test their skills and become champions.
Players assume the role of either Ursula, a warrior princess from Nordagh or Valens, a strong fighter from Imperia. Yet this choice isn’t just a cosmetic selection for the game; each character has their own storyline as they adventure throughout the world, although their paths will cross often: Ursula and her twin brother are seeking glory and adventure, while Valens is trying to get out of his father’s legendary shadow to become a renowned gladiator in his own right. These plotlines become darker and more twisted as play goes on, with Valens seeking to avenge his father’s murder and Ursula discovering her part as a prophesized sacrifice in a dark ritual. Unveiled through numerous cutscenes throughout the game, Ursula and Valens’ fate as heroes becomes readily apparent, requiring players to surround themselves with capable allies to achieve their destiny.
Unlike most RPGs, you won’t acquire a stereotypical “party” of warriors to adventure with from city to city. Instead, because this game focuses around gladiators, players will build a “school” of fighters that will travel from city to city, building their skills and stats with every battle waged and purchasing new abilities with each new level. These include new combos, innate skills and affinity attacks (strikes imbued with elemental properties). These abilities play into the class system established for combat, which has a distinct rock/paper/scissors bend to it: Heavy soldiers beat Medium ones, who in turn crush Light fighters, who can dish out a ton of damage to Heavy gladiators. While this may seem like an overly simplistic battle scheme, it’s way more complicated than that thanks to the additional three support classes that can be added into battle. Beasts comprise any number of animals that can be fielded, Support fighters are long-range attackers with javelins or arrows, and Arcane users wield spells and other magic abilities.
Once you’ve built up your school to your personal tastes, you’ll need to take on rival schools in an arena to test your characters, acquire money and more importantly, regional fame. Each arena has a major tournament which can only be entered after surviving and conquering the various minor leagues, most of which have their own conditions for victory. Aside from simply killing every fighter on the field, there are king of the hill fights, object destruction missions (whoever destroys the most barrels or sacred statue wins) and most inflicted damage within a time period, amongst others. During a battle, players can attack or use the aforementioned skills to assault their opponents.
Although Gladius features some common battle tactics, such as increased damage when attacking an opponent from behind or from higher ground, it also hosts a creative twist to the typical RPG input command: instead of simply ordering a character to attack, a swing meter will pop up on the bottom of the screen which will determine your chance of successful, even critical damage or catastrophic failure. This leaves much more of the action in the hands of the player, which adds significant tension to an encounter, especially if your timing is off. The swing meter isn’t the only modifier to combat; some attacks will have players mashing buttons to fill gauges or even inputting strings of commands to trigger combos.
Gladius shows off a number of huge, defined character models for each warrior on the arena floor. Many of these characters can seem larger than life or completely out of mythological tales, especially if you consider fighters like the satyr or the undead summoner. Once you add in the number of weapons, armor and items that can be equipped and visually seen on a member of your school in battle, the amount of attention to detail becomes apparent. Much of this extends to cutscenes and cinematics, some of which appear to be from a hand drawn painting with animated sections that come alive for specific effects. Facial animation has also been given a ton of work, as evidenced by the solid lip-synching found in every cutscene.
Battles animate very smoothly, with each landed or missed attack occurring with a visible weight appropriate to the damage inflicted. For instance, a light hit might glance off an opponent’s armor, while a stronger or critical hit will stagger your enemy. Curiously, the Xbox is the only version that shows blood from damaging hits, a facet that wouldn’t be expected on the family friendly Gamecube but is oddly missing from the PS2. While Gladius is graphically solid on most fronts, it does tend to suffer from the random dropped frame every now and then. There’s also the perceptible clip through of objects, and sometimes the random continuation of running towards someone even if your characters manage to close the distance between them and are simply awaiting their turn to attack.
As I said before, Gladius has clearly been inspired by Gladiator, and its soundtrack is no different. We’re talking everything from the rousing battle marches to the pastoral, laid back tunes of town. While they’re quite inspiring, they tend to repeat themselves way too often, leading you to quickly tune them out entirely. The comments made by fighters during battles tend to fall prey to the same problems of repetition, yet it’s somewhat balanced by the solid voice acting within other facets of the game. Lead by Linda Cardellini and Michael Rosenbaum, their delivery fits Ursula and Valens’ character to a tee, and gives a great sense of development to the story of these complex warriors.
On top of the solid voice acting and graphics, Gladius has an incredible amount of replayability and depth. Both Ursula and Valens’ quests can easily take 40 hours or more to play the main quest itself, not counting the multiple side quests. Players that truly get into tweaking their schools or manipulating the hundreds of items found within the game can extend this amount of time substantially. What’s more, the fact that the game randomly generates rival schools and opponents every time your combatants step foot into an arena means that your potential challenge is almost infinite. Yet even with this depth, there are two main issues (and a minor problem) that do crop up with Gladius. While the game will generate random enemies, it also generates a random level of AI, meaning that you could face an incredible challenge from a school in one match and stomp over them in the next. Odder still is the fact that the AI will sometimes make poor strategic choices that will ensure that it won’t win a match, bypassing objectives in favor of arbitrary targets. Speaking of arbitrary, the crowd meter that provides stat bonuses and boosts to a school that’s performing well in a match will vacillate wildly. Players can dominate a match, simply to watch the crowd’s support wane because opposing fighters move a step or an attack isn’t crippling. Finally, there are some immense load times that can slow gameplay down, even on an Xbox. Players don’t need to wait 30 seconds or more simply to transition between cities, or even load up certain battles. They just want to smash their enemies.
If you’re looking for a game with a ton of depth, replayability and a solid storyline, look no further. Gladius is stockpiled with a ton of features that will appease everyone from the beginning adventurer to the hardcore strategist. Along with an easy to grasp combat system and solid technical merits, Gladius is easily recommendable as a gift for any gamer during this holiday season.