Review by Oblivion430

""I will win the crowd.....I will show them something they've never seen before.""

A boon to all Gamecube owners that may understandably be in the mood for a solid role playing experience, Lucasarts have tore themselves from the nearly indestructible sanctuary of the Star Wars genre and endeavored to make in Gladius an expansive and involved strategic turn-based RPG. The end result does little to disappoint. Gladius allows you to take up the role of one of 2 protagonists: Blonde-haired barbarian princess Ursula (representing the easy difficulty) or stout young gladiator trying to live up to his father's legacy Valens (representing the hard difficulty). The first quarter of the game will show you their individual story lines leading up to where their destinies bring them together. Along this course, you'll recruit new warriors into your posse of gladiators, a troupe that can range from being a motley team consisting of a wide variety of battlers and beasts, to a strict combat unit with soldiers and archers. Either way, your squadron will be called upon to do battle in the many organized gladiatorial games across the lands of 4 main regions, as well as defend itself from ambushes while en route from city to city.

Gladius is a highly effective and thoroughly enjoyable work, a compendium of eclectic styles that can appeal to numerous interest bases. Take a quick quiz with me, and mentally check off which of the following you have a strong penchant for: quoting movies like Conan and Gladiator (see my tag line), playing Final Fantasy Tactics, reading fantasy novels, studying ancient Norse and Roman Warfare and Mythology, strategizing like a fiend with RTS titles like Age of Empires, watching Xena: Warrior Princess, or even playing exhaustive season or ownership modes of popular sports titles. If any of those apply to you, you'll find enjoyment here. If all of those apply, you may well find yourself with an ADDICTION to playing Gladius. Take hold of your sword, warrior, and prepare to lead your ever growing school of gladiators on the journey to competing in the high tournaments of Caltha.

GRAPHICS: 8/10- Let me first establish one of the finer positives of the games visuals. I mean no disrespect to my beloved Japanese RPG's that I've been faithful and devoted to throughout the years, but seeing actual adult warriors going at it melee style on the battlefield is a welcome diversion from the standard superdeformed and/or 16 year old Meg Ryan look-alike heroes that RPG enthusiasts may be used to. Character models are well constructed with numerous looks of armor and weaponry, and details are well established in terms of musculature and armor. There is a wide variety of warriors and monsters to take a gander at, as well, and this variety is exponentially increased due to a limited ability to customize the color of their skin, hair, and outfits. Cinema scenes show some fairly convincing facial expressions on the main characters as they interact; particularly notable were the grimaces of Ursula's anxiety after first meeting Valens (and obviously being attracted to him) which made me actually snicker out loud, and her brother Urlan's perpetual sneering and derision towards people of other lands. Still, as I was playing, I always felt that the models were to some extent primitive (put them somewhere between Souledge and Soulcalibur). They're not necessarily bad, just slightly dated given the capabilities of the Gamecube.

Another common complaint for Gladius is that the overworld maps are fairly “blah”, which I would attest to as well, but I wouldn't deem them so boring as to be detrimental. The arenas, on the other hand, were very well conceived, ranging from small fighting pits, to ancient ruins, to massive stadiums. This provided a great deal of variety so as to greatly reduce battle monotony (a standard strategy RPG pitfall). My biggest complaint with the graphics of this title was with some of the “crowd” members in the arenas; if the camera is in a close position to the crowds, you see what looks to be blow up dummies in the stands, stretching up and down in the semblance of “cheering”, and it adds a painful lack of conviction to the battles to some degree. It's not a common problem in the game, as normally the crowd members are far off in the stands, but when you see it, it is a blatant one. Outside of this major complaint, graphics of this ancient realm and its warrior inhabitants are well done and quite effective for the game's purposes.

SOUND: 8/10-A saga of this magnitude merits an equally epic soundtrack, and the score of Gladius provides you with the pounding drums and powerful orchestral movements needed to make each and every battle another tale for the bards to weave. The composer seems to have drawn influence from a number of impressive cinematic soundtracks, namely the aforementioned Gladiator and Conan films. Battle music is always right on and appropriately varies depending upon which region you are in. Furthermore, there is always a grandiose opening at each skirmish, and as the battle draws to a close, the pace quickens and the pitch heightens in drama to match the intensity of the struggle. Overall, the score suits the military ambience and steadily progressive pace of the game perfectly.

On the other hand, the spoken dialogue seems to be done with the best intentions, but mixed results. Some of the voices fit quite well (notable is the character of Usus, who plays your mentor); others feel contrived.. Many of the phrases that are found in the actual battles are very entertaining, and they come with great variety; your fighters will call their opponents weaklings, sound battle cries devoted to their region of origin, and even comment on the arenas they are located in. It all adds greatly to the experience. Cinema dialogue is typically adequate, although some trends such as Urlan and Ursula's consistent bickering will grate on your nerves after a while. The effects are also well done; clanging weapons and armor, bloody flesh punctures, howls of agony, and the occasional butt blast from a Samnite who ate too much for lunch. Outside of the inconsistent quality of the speech, Lucasarts certainly puts forth a very commendable effort of bringing the sound of the great gladiatorial contests to the player.

GAMEPLAY: 9/10-For a strategy RPG fan, Gladius is just shy of heaven in terms of how you interact with the title. The classic chessboard style of Role Playing is done here as well as could be expected. There is little end to what strategies you can and will need to develop to advance through these battles. The biggest innovation is the usage of “swing” meters, meters where you time an arrow sliding along a bar to hit at a precise moment. These are what represent the effectiveness of your attack; land in the red, and you strike a critical hit that not only is stronger than a regular attack, but is impossible to block. The meters vary in type as well: on one, you need to essentially enter a Simon-like combination of buttons as the arrow slides towards being out of the red; enter fast enough, and you nail a critical. This consistently keeps you involved with the battles, so no naptimes really come into play as each battle unfolds. The standardized method of striking from the side or the back of your opponent to ensure a more deleterious attack is present here, but with a refreshingly intuitive twist; unless the opponent you're trying to backstab is currently locked in skirmish with another fighter, they will turn to face you and eliminate the advantage. Why can't I remember any other strategy title utilizing this very logical concept? Ground level advantages also come into play in Gladius, as well as a rock/paper/scissors advantage system between melee fighters who are classified as light, medium, and heavy, although you may find that the Heavy Warriors do seem to have an advantage no matter what. Menu systems are given in a simple standard pull down menu fashion and are easy to engage with. Movement may be a bit confusing at first without a track of blue squares to go by, but I adjusted quickly to the floor arrows, as well as the concept of setting your character to move a long distance, hence they get a running start and continue to move during other characters turns, another huge benefit.

There are droves of skills for your gladiators to accrue; each character has about 40 skills to learn, and you'll earn them as you earn job points with each level gained. Each class has its own set of skills from which to pick from. Some of these skills, such as Combo Attacks and Running Attacks will be shared with many other classes, some are unique, such as the Secutor's taunting counter attack, and the Amazon's Flirting ability (providing the gratuitous hottie moments which are prerequisite in games today…and I'm certainly not complaining). Then there is a set of differing weapons for each of these characters what's diversity could be expanded into a college course on warfare if you were to analyze all of them. The range goes from Pikes to Shanks to Compound Bows to Two Handed War Axes to Dried Horse Legs as clubs.

Magical abilities in Gladius are accomplished through the intriguing concept of Affinity Charges, separated into 6 elements, and are assigned based on the weapon you are using. Standard warriors can draw upon the charges to give their weapons an extra punch. Arcane classes can use these charges to cast spells and summon creatures to fight for them. The magical setup is definitely an attempt at something different than the tried and true MP usage system found in 99% of RPG's, and can be appreciated for the fact that it's a change of pace, but players will find that battles involving Channelers can become frustratingly choppy in pace, as they often will continue to steal each others charges turn after turn. Also, RPG players who have relied on the ability of being able to continuously bring fighters who are on the brink of death straight back to a clean bill of health will find Gladius' relatively minute number of weak healing tactics a bit disconcerting. These are truly the only notable blemishes on an otherwise marvelous tapestry of well woven turn-based combat. The broad range of possible warfare elements that all these facets of gameplay bring to bear is as well implemented as it is rewarding to the player. Any fan of the genre will begin to see the range and depth that the battles can and do represent in this title.

Best of all is that in spite of all the large scope of this game, Lucasarts does not onslaught the unaccustomed gamer with all of its elements, but rather guides them on their journey into this warriors realm and hardens them into the heroes they'll need to be. The opening battles are all about tutorial, and get you accustomed to the fundamental mechanics of the battles. The character of Usus essentially serves as the Dungeon Master during these scenes and walks you through what you need to do to immerse yourself into the game, and its all done in a fashion that stays true to the story line. Furthermore, loadtimes before battles are filled with a quick FAQ feature called Ask Usus, with a multitude of possible questions being answered in detail as you're waiting for the battle to commence. This helps to make game interface seemless and lets you get right into the thick of things with minimal frustration.

STORY: 7/10- Aye, there is a battle, lad, but is there a tale to this battle? There is indeed, although it's a bit weaker than one might hope for. Ursula is the fledgling warrior princess daughter of King Orin II, who, upon commission of her father, is escorted by her hulking brother Urlan, the heir to the throne, to represent Nordagh's Royal Family in the gladiatorial games. On the flip side, Valens is the gladiator son of Munio, a legendary warrior of the games in Imperia; when Munio is mysteriously murdered, Valens seeks to maintain the honor, integrity, and strength of his father's school. The gladiatorial games originated a century earlier than the events of the game, involving a titanic war between the land of Imperia and Nordagh (which are obviously meant to be Rome and Ancient Germania/Scandinavia, respectively). The bloodshed this war entailed manifested into the physical form of the The Dark God, who is a huge mass of writhing bodies topped with a dragons head. The Valkrie killed him in a last ditch effort, and man kind swore to eliminate wars and replaced them with bloodsports. The premise is here for a relatively engaging tale, but it just doesn't really develop that well. What you expect will happen of Ursula does after much balking, and when it does, you don't really get to enjoy it for too long. In general, you have some character conflict, you have some betrayal, you have some love interest, none of which evolves very effectively. What's very peculiar about the story to Gladius is that many of the background tales to the cities and sidequests you can embark on seem to have much more going for them than the actual central story itself. You can tell that much of the effort of creating this tale went into having a steady foundation, which is very effective…its just that the tale you live out doesn't do much to capture your imagination. There is a strong enough theme though, for the most part, and is never so loose a tale as to make you wince (much). If you're enjoying this game, it's for the combat, and the story is effective enough so as not to detract from this element.

REPLAYABILITY: 8/10-Considering that the title's strength is its well crafted and engaging combat system, and not so much the tale itself, it will lend itself more effectively to repeated plays by the average RPG enthusiast. The possible elements one can employ to customize their party will consistently bring players back to these realms to assemble squadrons of warriors and beasts anew and have at the hordes of foes that dare cross swords with them. Considering that this game can now be found in most bargain bins NEW for $30 or less, it's a rare gem worth a great deal more bang for its buck, waiting to be claimed by Gamecube owners.

OVERALL: 9/10-The nitpicking points I've made aside about this marvelous title, Gladius is a spectacular game, perhaps lacking some spark and polish at points, but is on the whole an extremely solid execution of a title bringing together MANY differing fantasy elements effectively and ultimately in a very entertaining fashion. The battles always feel fresh, require thought and concentration without being frustratingly difficult or pointlessly easy. The looks are sharp, the sounds are driving, and the story is enjoyable (enough). Lucasarts leap of faith from the hallowed ground of the Star Wars nation is a feat of Olympian proportions; when you've come to the conclusion of this epic saga, you'll find that Gladius merits a place in the Valhalla of great RPG titles.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 06/15/04

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