Review by Razorskin

"LucasArts breaks into the SRPG genre with some new ideas"

Gladiator-style games seem to be a genre that hasn't seen much in the way of coverage. The same can be said for Strategy RPGs not developed in Japan (like Nippon Ichi, Squaresoft or Atlus). Gladius manages to cover both bases. The story is set in a fictional world that pits nations based on the Romans, Vikings and Egyptians against each other. Much like Front Mission 3, Gladius gives you the option to play through two campaigns, each telling a different side of the story. On one side, you play as Ursula, a barbarian princess who is sent out to fight in the Leagues in hopes of hiding her from a witch's prophecy. The other campaign focuses on Valens, an Imperial who must solve his father's murder. The game starts out with a lengthy tale of a conflict between the Imperials and barbarians of Nordagh, which sets a tone throughout the story. Story sequences and conversations are told through different means, including in-game cutscenes, story sequences composed of handpainted artwork with voiceovers and conversations done with small conversation boxes, often while the player is in one town or another.

After some tutorial battles, you're taken to your first village to partake of the battles there. In each location, you'll be able to fight in Leagues, which earn you Cups once completed. Each League is often composed of a series of fights, each worth a certain value towards earning the Cups. Once you have enough Cups, you can enter the local Tournament to be crowned local champion and earn that location's badge. While this sounds relatively simple, you have to take into consideration that most Leagues have certain requirements and restrictions, including the number of team members, their levels, classes and even regions. And, battles are more than just kill-or-be-killed. You will find yourself fighting in King of the Hill variations, defending statues from damage and even trying to score points by either causing damage to enemies or to barrels on the battlefield. This variety keeps the battles interesting.

If you're not in one of the many towns, you'll be able to walk around the region, built in full 3D and visit whichever town you like. This interface is a nice step-up from the standard ''move the cursor on a map'' way previous SRPGs have been executed. Once you get into town, though, you'll be staring at a menu-based interface that allows you access to your school, the local shop and the arena. One of the nicer features is that if players grow tired of fighting in one location, or find themselves unable to compete in certain events, you can leave town and find somewhere else to fight in the region. This allows a non-linear progression through each region, which is a rather pleasant change from previous titles in the genre.

Before too long, you'll start to realize that you can have a huge variety of people in your roster. But, it will serve you well to have a good range as Gladius focuses largely on a rock-paper-scissors means of priority. Light soldiers are strong versus Heavy, who are strong against Medium, who have the upper hand on Light. Along with this are Arcane (magic users), Support (Javelin Throwers, Archers) and even Animals. While these are considered Neutral in the scheme of things, you'll soon find out what they are good at, such as your Javelin Throwers can do great distance damage at a distance, but poorly in close. If you find yourself in need of a certain type of ally, you can always recruit them in-town, be it for one battle or permanently.

Battle itself is a modified turn-based affair, where characters' turns are based on their speed. This gives an order to who goes first and how often their turn comes up. Moving around the field is done with the Left Analog stick, but instead of being limited to moving characters a turn at a time, you can actually select a path to move and they will take ''half-turns'' and continue moving during other character's turn. The only consideration is if their path gets interrupted by another character. I find this to be a nice idea that cuts down on the tedious overmanagement of movement. When a character's turn comes back around, you can just choose to Continue and move onto the next character in the que. Once you actually get near an enemy to attack, you can just move in and use the standard default attack, or by using the D-Pad, you can select special attacks and spells that your characters have learned. Characters learn Skills by spending points that they gain when they go up in level.

Another nice feature that keeps some interactivity in combat is the inclusion of swing and power meters for attacks, not unlike a golf game. Each type of attack has different activities: standard attacks have you hit a button as the meter rises, distance attacks will make you punch in a random series of buttons as fast as you can and magic will make you alternate between two buttons. Because of this, combat is much more interactive and actually requires user interaction. Also, there's less emphasis on making sure your allies are faced in a certain direction. While attacks from behind can be more damaging, you have to be actively engaged with an enemy before someone can actually attack you from behind. If not, your ally will turn around to face the attacker.

From time to time, you'll be able to pick up a quest from town's people wholly unrelated to your gladiatorial conquests. These will send you out into the wild, where you don't have the benefit of ringside healers to keep your allies from dying in combat. One of the additional features of fighting in the ring is a momentum meter that will give you temporary bonuses depending on the quality of your attacks. Land a lot of damage and expect the meter to rise noticeably, possibly giving you bonuses in movement or even critical damage. Of course, if you swing and miss, expect your meter to drop.

It won't take long before you'll become privy to character's Affinity and it's usefulness in combat. Players can align themselves to one of the Affinity Gods (based on the elements) by equipping weapons and equipment. After building up your Affinity gauge in combat, you can attack with special skills learned to do powerful damage. Equipping certain Affinity-based items will also allow you to nullify your enemies Affinity attacks. Along with the fact that spells and special attacks likewise use up rechargeable skill points in battle, you won't find yourself abusing special powers and Affinity attacks too much.

For those who love to customize, Gladius will feed that desire. You can go in and alter the color scheme of your character's clothes, skin and even what they wear. Equipped weapons and armor appear on the characters during battle. While not every item in the stores can be equipped by all classes, you will find enough there to personalize your own school. It's a shame that these changes don't show up in the cutscenes, but it's not that much of a big deal.

LucasArts, in their wisdom, also included multiplayer into the game, which allows you to play both a co-op campaign and compete against other players. This is a nice bonus that gives SRPG players something they haven't seen much of - the ability to have friends over.

Visually, the game shows some nice artistic style. I'm very pleased that someone is trying the build a fully polygonal SRPG, instead of relying on anime-based sprites. Character models have a good level of detail and great animation, especially on the main characters, and the arenas prove to be interesting. During combat, you can actually get a decent look at the character models with the right analog stick, and since equipment and your custom color scheme are reflected in battle, you'll be pleased with the way things look. The only real complaint I would have with the graphics are the mediocre spell effects that just feel bland. While not the pinnacle of graphics, Gladius does look pretty sharp, especially for a genre not big on next-gen graphics.

Much like the graphics, the audio portion has a lot of good going for it. Voice acting in the cutscenes is pretty sharp and help delivers the conversations well, keeping things interesting. During battle, your characters have a small group of comments they can utter, which is nice, but you'll find it gets repetitive before too long. The music, while themed well and performed nicely, isn't varied enough and before too long, you'll have heard everything. Sound effects are nice, although there seems to be a lack of consistency on how they're utilized. At times, you'll hear something so specific as weapon drop when an enemy dies, while other times, you only get the benefit of a body hitting the ground.

While Gladius provides a lot of good things, there are some issues that I wish weren't present. First and foremost, there is a lot of time spent in loading screens, so much so that it breaks up the flow of the game at times. Also, the interface can be a bit complex for some, forcing you to look in the in-game help menu to figure out some elements. And, while you may grow attached to some members of your school, you'll find that it takes more effort to level them up than needed. Since potential allies that can be recruited are usually at the level your main characters are at, it's almost always worth it just to hire new, more powerful allies and ditch the ones you were trying to build, which hampers any focus you might want to put on specialized development.

It's obvious that LucasArt's development team went into this title thinking ''What can we do to add something different to the genre?'' Gladius is not only a nice addition to the genre, but is a great game on its own. While the game is quicker-paced and more interactive than most in the genre, it is ultimately a fine representative of a genre that's heavy on lengthy battles and a lot of invested time. If you have the time and desire, Gladius is an excellent choice to add to your collection.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 11/08/03


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