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PS2 Review - 'Gladius'

by The Cookie Snatcher on Nov. 26, 2003 @ 1:59 a.m. PST

In Gladius, players may choose to take on the role of Ursula or Valens. Ursula, from the northern land of Nordagh, is the daughter of a great barbarian king. Valens is the son of one of Imperia's greatest gladiators. A bloody conflict between their two homelands gave rise to a vengeful dark god, which nearly destroyed all of mankind. Only with the help of the revered Valkyrie was the dark god defeated, but it came at a great cost of many lives. This gave rise to an uneasy peace that has existed for decades between the two lands. Now the two young heroes must fulfill their destinies to keep the world from heading into another disastrous war.

Genre: RPG
Publisher: LucasArts
Developer: Lucasarts
Release Date: October 28, 2003

Buy 'GLADIUS': Xbox | GameCube | PlayStation 2

LucasArts is a development company that is not known for getting where it is by taking chances. Sure, plenty of off-the-wall titles have been released under their moniker, but when you consider the huge amount of money they consistently make on games that are based on the Star Wars franchise, the occasional Sam & Max or Maniac Mansion are hardly risky investments. Nevertheless, their newest multi-console excursion is an original project altogether, set in a world where mythological gods and demons play second stage only to epic gladiatorial pit fights where vying powers seek to destroy their opposition via deadly blades and powerful magic. This is a game where the player lives or dies by the Gladius.

While the evolving plotlines and underlying story of Gladius are not completely based on actual mythological literature, there are plenty of underpinnings that tie the story together that are. Multiple factions representing a host of classes and races must share the planet, and do so in a not-so-polite way, constantly bickering and fighting among themselves. After years of struggle, these races have finally agreed on a way to settle their conflicts: by competing in gladiatorial events. At the outset of the game you'll have the option of playing as one of two characters. One, a just and noble warrior named Valens. And the other, a warrior princess named Ursula whose hard-earned skills are second only to her hard-headed philosophies. Ursula is the character that most who are just starting out will want to choose since her missions are considerably easier than that of Valens. But as each character's story progresses you'll discover that their respective fates and destinies are closely intertwined.

Gladius is a strategy RPG along the same lines as the recently released Final Fantasy Tactics Advance or Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, but deviates from the traditional rules of turn-based strategy enough to make the game an original experience all its own. You'll travel from town to town, competing in a series of gladiatorial events and tournaments, slowly accumulating power and fame. Most of the navigation of Gladius' various locations will be done through long-winded text boxes and multi-tiered interface windows. Admittedly, this takes some getting used to. As you win league matches you'll earn cups. Once you've earned enough cups you'll be eligible to compete in that particular town's tournament. Winning tournaments brings you one step closer to competing in the country's regional championship. It's a fairly straightforward method of progression, though since you've got full control over the order of which events and tournaments to tackle, the game feels surprisingly non-linear.

Like the rules system in Final Fantasy Advance, each battle in Gladius comes with its own restrictions that help to keep each skirmish unique, albeit oftentimes frustrating due to the occasional lack of ideal resources. Some battles limit you to using either light, medium, or heavy gladiator units, while others restrict application by sex or nationality. If not for these unique restrictions, most of the game could easily be overcome simply by amassing a few very powerful gladiators and letting them handle everything. But as it stands, you'll be forced to recruit lots of different types of warriors ranging from melee types to spellcasters to four-legged beasties. Luckily, most battles are hack-and-slash free-for-alls that don't limit what you can and can't do, so even with minimal attention paid to party customization you'll still be able to progress through the game pretty steadily.

The method of distributing experience points among your party members in Gladius is great. Basically, the amount of experience a fighter receives is directly related to how well they performed in battle, while the warriors who sat on the sidelines still get a pretty healthy kickback. As you gain levels you'll notice that Gladius is not stingy with statistical enhancements, each attribute is improved noticeably each time the character levels up. There is also quite a bit of focus on item and equipment customization. Decking out your fighters with a host of different offensive, defensive, and other types of beneficial additions can be a time-consuming and satisfying exercise. But you'll have to win plenty of battles to be able to afford some of the game's more powerful equipment, and even then you'll have to be finicky with your purchases since even after playing the game for dozens of hours there is no way to amass the best equipment for every party member.

The main thing that keeps Gladius' seemingly repetitive combat fresh and fun is the inclusion of a golf simulation style swing meter that determines the strength of the blows you land on opponents. By successfully timing your button presses, you'll deal more damage. This is a far better method than the oft-used random critical attacks of most RPGs as it literally puts the control of the game into the hands of the player. There are a few different types of swing meters. There is a swing meter that simply requires you hit the X button once the cursor is over a particular area of the meter; there is another that requires you to hit the proper sequence of buttons at the right moment; and another meter involves rampant button-mashing akin to the arcade classic Track & Field, alternating between two buttons. Since the potential damage you can inflict on the opposition is directly related to how well you time your button presses, there is rarely an instance in Gladius' combat where you'll feel like you're simply jumping through hoops and going through the required movements to win. The physics of the swing meter ensure that every battle requires a certain amount of player focus that is rarely present in turn-based combat.

Visually, Gladius has a nice coat of polish and shine to it that fans of LucasArts productions have come to expect. But since a large portion of the experience is relegated to menu navigation (sporting low-res headshots and simplified maps), the nice looking character models and realistic animation in combat starkly contrast with the many non-combat instances of the game. There are lots of hand drawn art used throughout the cut-scenes of the game, and the in-engine cinematics exhibit some of the game's most impressive graphical feats such as highly detailed facial animation and subtle body animation. The various arenas also look great, though the level of environmental interactivity is disappointingly limited.

From an audio standpoint, Gladius manages to purport an authentic aural ambiance revolving around medieval orchestrations and dynamic musical shifts based on which side is about to win the battle. The voice acting is nicely done, with each character class in the game sporting a few different in-combat quips. Dialogue used throughout cut-scenes is also nicely acted. The sound effects appropriately represent the clashing and clanging sound of ancient arena warfare, working flawlessly in the background and enhancing the experience considerably. Sound effects are rarely noticed much less complimented in most games, so the fact that Gladius was able to benefit so greatly from them is quite surprising.

Overall, Gladius offers strategy RPG fans a long, satisfying romp through the perils and profound implications of ancient gladiatorial conflict. Those who can overlook the slow, plodding pace of the game's navigational system will surely find hours upon hours of entertainment in Gladius. Just keep in mind that this isn't a game you'll be able to beat in a weekend, it requires a hefty investment of time and patience to truly appreciate.

Score: 8.1/10


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