Review by Munkwunk
"I just can't put it down!"
First of all, let's get one thing straight: If you're expecting a game based on the movie GLADIATOR, you're sorely mistaken to be looking here. Gladius was never intended to be a game based on that movie, despite its theme and date of release. Comparing the two is inappropriate, so before continuing your reading of this review, make sure you have that in mind.
Gladius is a Strategy RPG with a Roman-esque gladiatorial theme to it, set in a world similar to -- but in many ways different from -- our own. More than just humans and lions compete in the gladiatorial games in this world; here you will not only compete against others of your race, but against yetis, minotaurs, ogres, undead, mongrels and more. You will compete in four different lands: the Roman-esque Imperia, the forested barbarian lands of Nordagh, the all-but-barren Windward Steppes, and the arid desert of the Expanse. Each of these places are unique, and you will get to know all of them throughout the course of your journey.
When starting your first game of Gladius, you are given the option to either play as Valens -- the Imperial soldier -- or Ursula, barbarian princess of Nordagh. While each has his/her own starting location, their stories wll eventually intertwine and, with a few exceptions, become nearly identical throughout the latter portions of the game. Still, playing as both characters is well worth the time invested, as even the differences in their opening stories and meeting sequences are well worth the extra invested time to see. In either case, you are one of two founding members of a School (a team of gladiators), and your primary goal will be to compete in the High Tournaments of Caltha (the World Championship). To get there, you must first prove yourself in games around the world, winning Tournaments in every town and Championships in each of the four regions before being able to compete in the High Tournaments.
At first, this may seem like a lot of effort. The game provides you with a "Goals" map, where you are shown which towns you have completed and how many more must be conquered before being able to move on to the next area. To top it all off, you must gather one of three "Key Badges" for each region by playing specific games (Leagues). At first glance, the Goals screen can be quite intimidating, but once you get used to looking at it and you get a feel for what it takes to complete each League, you won't feel so overburdened. Another bright side is that each city only requires you to play a certain amount of games before being able to move one -- you need not defeat every single match in every single city in order to finish the game, and which matches you do play is largely up to you. This gives a very non-linear feel to an otherwise linear storyline.
So how does all of this stack up? Following is a point-by-point rating of various elements of the game.
I start with Gameplay because, in my opinion, it is the greatest aspect of any Strategy RPG, and the one which deserves the most emphasis. I must admit, most SRPGs are not heavy on the storyline, so gameplay is what keeps us hooked. Gladius, I am pleased to announce, leaves very little to be desired in these respects. I cannot possibly sum up all of the different elements of play in one review, as the game has a wide variety of options, but some major points are in need of touching upon.
First of all, play is turn-based. Each character receives his or her own place in the Initiative Order, and when his or her turn comes up, you will have the ability to input commands for that character. Basic commands include Move, Move-to-Attack, and use a Skill. When simply moving, you may move a certain distance within a single turn, but if you desire to travel further than one turn permits, you may specify a destination and your character will continue to move to that spot until he arrives, or until you give him a new command. What this essentially does is speed up gameplay by removing much of the tedium of covering larger distances, something that many SRPGs could learn from. It is hard to describe, but in practice, it is a very good point indeed. When performing a Move-to-Attack, you can simply select an enemy to move to, and your character will attack when he arrives. Combining the Move and Attack options in to a single command also helps to streamlin gameplay, as it removes the "move THEN attack" style that is so common in SRPGs today. Finally, you have the option of using various Skills, of which there are five different active types. Using a Skill against an opponent requires that you already be standing adjacent to them because (as the game describes it) they require more time, concentration, and balance to perform than a standard Move-to-Attack, so you cannot perform a Skill at the end of a Move. Finally, using a Skill requires the use of a Skill Point. Each character starts a match with five Skill Points, and recovers one SP per round, though many skills require more than one SP to use.
That general idea of combat aside, there are also several different categories of combatants, and several different character classes within each category. Your most basic forms of gladiators are Heavy (high damage/low accuracy), Medium (balanced damage and accuracy), and Light (low damage, high accuracy and Initiative). Other categories include Support (ranged), Arcane (magical), and Beast (bears, wolves, scorpions, etc.). In theory, there is a chain of power that is described in the game: Heavy classes are supposed to beat Medium classes, Medium is supposed to be Light, and Light is supposed to beat Heavy (because they are agile and difficult to hit). In practice, this is one of the points which the game could use a bit of improvement. Many Heavy classes simply crush all other classes with little effort, depending on how well you use the Swing Meter (more on that in a bit). Since a Critical Hit is ALWAYS a successful hit, a Heavy character who makes good use of teh Swing Meter can easily crush even a Light character, despite commonly having only a "5%" chance to hit them. Light characters are also often given such abilities as Backstabber (which allows them to do insane amounts of damage when attacking a character from behind), but it is all-too-easy in the latter of stages of the game to acquire abilities or items which completely negate an enemy's ability to attack you from behind, thus making such abilities obsolete. So, in practice, making good use of Heavy characters will win you more battles than making use of Light characters, but fortunately the enemy AI doesn't utilize these tactics nearly as much as a human player does.
Next, the Swing Meter. The Swing Meter is somewhat similar to that of a golfing game; as your character winds up to take a swing with his weapon, you see a bar on the bottom of the screen, and you press a particular button to stop the bar when it is at the desire location on the SM. In general, pressing the button while the meter is the Orange zone causes a normal hit, the tiny Red zone will cause a critical, and the Blue zone will be a Weak hit, or a Miss entirely. The SM is not always the same, however. Certain skills, such as Combo Attacks, alter the meter in such a way as to change the timing of your button presses, as well as change the particular button you need to press to confirm the attack. At other times, the SM will require you to rapidly push the A and B buttons to charge the meter, and more damage is applied if you manage to charge it up a lot. At other times, pressing the A button while the meter is in a Yellow zone is the way to successfully perform a skill (commonly "buff" skills). Finally, one type of SM variation is to press a sequence of buttons in a particular order before the time runs out; pressing them very quickly and without error will result in a critical hit. The end result is a very active approach to the traditional SRPG style of play, and the numerous variations in SM styles ensures that the game never gets too monotonous.
Overall, the gameplay for Gladius is excellent, and with the few balance issues aside, makes the game worth playing all by itself.
Graphically, Gladius is quite impressive to behold. Each arena is hand-crafted, so none of them ever look the same, and each one is modelled beautifully. They range from the extremely large to the extremely tiny, with in-game explanations for each if you care to read them (though it's not necessary). Every character model is unique, or at least customizable. For instance, each of the Heroes and other key characters have their own character models -- and Valans and Ursula even get new uniforms when they travel to the deserts -- and each different character class has its own style. While all males and females within the class may be modeled the same, you also have the option to Customize each and every single one of them. Customization ranges from changing their Outfit style, armour and cloth colours, hair colour, and even skin colour. The result is a very broad range of options for your character designs. Models aside, there are a few neat quirks to the interface as well. For instance, the text font for each of the foru regions -- including characters from each region -- varies to suit that area. For instance, Imperia has a "Times New Roman" style font, while Nordagh has a more primitive font style to suit the barbarians who inhabit it.
On the down side, the background colours to some of the character models -- especially the deep maroon and the bright yellow colours for the Steppes and Expanse characters, respectively -- can cause a bit of colour bleeding when viewing character models in the status screens, and the menu screens aren't always a luxury to behold. Otherwise, the graphics are fantastic, with only two or three minor cases of frame rate problems noted; the game, in general, runs very smoothly otherwise.
Okay, so the story is pretty average. You play a character whose actual class title is "Hero", and you meet up with another Hero along the way. In the mean time, your best friend (in Valens' case) or your brother (in Ursula's case) follows you along, each with his own reasons for doing so, and you watch as the story unfolds. The story is told using various cut scenes throughout the game, usually which show up just before or just after a major battle, but some times simply after you beat a Tournament or leave a town. The game has its share of predictable moments, but the character interaction is usually quite good, and often times rather humourous. Most of the cut scenes are fairly short, so they don't detract too much from the gameplay, but are enjoyable to watch even the second time through the game (and if you play through it twice, it's worth it to see the various changes in many of the major sequences). There is nothing really bad about the story, but to be perfectly honest, it's nothing we haven't seen before.
The music in Gladius is, in general, very pleasing to listen to. Orchestrated tracks accompany menus, the world map, and the battles. It is usually quite pleasing to listen to, though particularly long battles will ensure that you listen to a track loop several times, which may either cause you to become annoyed or jaded, which ever you're more inclined to do. The voice acting is fair, at best. In battle, characters have a variety of one-liners which, by the end of the game, can get pretty old to listen to but fortunately there is a wide enough variety that it's not too much of a problem. The voice acting for the cut scenes, however, leaves a bit to be desired. Valens in particular is guilty of run-on sentences, but there isn't a lot to complain about beyond that; the voice acting is okay, but nothing spectacular. Finally, the sound effects for most actions in battle are pleasant and very appropriate, and aside from the Satyr's oft-overused "Crowed Pleaser" lines, don't tend to get old.
Aside from a few areas that could use some polish, Gladius is an absolutely wonderful game, and I would recommend it to anyone who desires a fun, strategic, experience.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 05/28/04
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