Gladius - Box

Ages: Teen - Blood and Gore, Comic Mischief, Violence

Gladius is a turn-based battlesport game set in a pseudo-historic landscape of adjacent Barbarian and Imperial countries. If you generally like turn-based battles, this is a good game to get; it is varied and difficult enough to remain interesting, but taught well enough to not overwhelm new players with complexity. If you merely tolerate battles as a means of engaging you in a story, or if you like games where pressing a lot of random buttons quickly gets your character to perform spectacular stunts, you'll be frustrated with this and lose interest after two hours at most.

When battling, you're positioning the members of a small party of fighters in non-overlapping tiles of the playing field. There they stand, weapon raised, knees slightly bent, eyes wandering, moving ever so slightly -- and patiently wait their turn while those ahead of them in the queue come over and bash them, bite them, stab them, cast spells at them, or take a swing at them with an axe.

On the good side, this leaves you time to plan your moves, because the enemies wait for you just as you wait for them. On the bad side battles draaaaag on, especially among large parties, especially when you're losing. I wished for either something to do during defense -- perhaps a button press at the right time to weaken an attacker's blow -- or a way of just giving up and getting the crushing defeat over with.

Terrain and position are crucial for battle tactics. Because sword fighters can only strike or move to directly adjoining squares, the relative position of your party's fighters makes all the difference between support and obstacle. Some weapons can reach into diagonally adjacent squares or even cover a distance, but they, too, cannot fly around fighters - creating an interesting tension between keeping weaker distance fighters in the back of the group and giving them room to throw their spear.

Other factors that influence your fate in the arena are terrain height, audience reaction, fighter type, and the usual system of mutually incompatible alignments tied in with weapons, armor, and spells.

But it's not all tactics; there's room for skill, too. Individual moves are parametrized with the human player's precision and speed. Spells are made more powerful and swords hit harder by doing things like pressing buttons at the right time after a countdown, entering a prompted, changing, 8-button sequence within a short time; or alternating between buttons. Klutzes can turn this off completely, but the interfaces usually allow risk-averse players to play it safe.

Layered on top of the battles are the usual party planning and shopping. You hire diverse gladiators, train them, buy them magic powers, equip them with armor and weapons, investing money that battles bring in; you move your school from small town to small town, winning battles which win tournaments which get you access to more tournaments, and so on. Bad management can be compensated for by fighting the same old battles over and over for prize money; varying enemies make that drudgery bearable.

The backstory hovers somewhere between a Wagner opera and the Mighty Ducks. The battles equally feature female fighters, one of their ancient superhero bands - the Valkyries - is female, and one of the two heroes is female; but the surrounding society comes across as a bit patriarchal, with concerned fathers, brothers, and a male family friend protecting the little sister in the Barbarian storyline.

There are a couple of other rough edges, maybe because the game is coming out in time for the Christmas market. - Accidentally pressing the wrong button and leaving town for the first time threw me into about ten minutes of cut scenes and storyline I didn't want, with no way to back out. - The game displays random tips while loading, but even then I got tired of watching the sword spin; why does it need to load the same battle I just lost, anyway? - The AIs lack goals in unclear situations; watch for shapechangers turning into bears and back.. and back into bears... and back into humans, which is painful to watch because part of the "bear" spell seems to involve just standing there for a few seconds. - Lip sync is sometimes off. The cut scene dialogue stopped to be voiced after I fast forwarded through one of the utterances. - I really don't want to hear the same canned line more than once per battle. - You can customize a character's skin tone, hair color, and outfit, but that customization only shows in the battle scenes; so your Jamaican fighter princess with her dark braids continues to be represented by a blond, fair-skinned drawing in the roster. - As the game time day progresses, the fighting arena becomes hard to see; it also seemed to me that my PlayStation 2 version at times had trouble keeping the screen refreshed. (Either that, or it's their way of drawing rain.)

But those seem like minor details in an overall decent, deep game, with great voice acting, consistent visuals, and rich details that keep the battle play varied.

Reviewed by: Jutta D. - 12/03

Gladius advertises itself erroneously as a console RPG. It's more accurately described as a turn-based tactical combat game with a few RPG elements tacked on for flavor.

The game begins with a big chunk of story, told in poorly animated cutscenes. The story revolves around the background of the primary player character, Ursula, and the war that began before her birth. As the game progresses, the story unfolds through more and more of these cutscenes. Unfortunately, the animation never gets any better. Even more unfortunate is the failure of the game developers to link story with gameplay. There's no player agency in the plot development; it's like taking a break from the game in order to watch a bit of movie. Still, my desire to "find out what happens" kept me plodding through battle after battle, trying to get to the end.

Did I just write "plodding"? Oh yes I did. The mechanics of the gladiatorial battles are actually well executed, but the gameplay is ultimately tedious. Gladiators take it in turn to move and fight. When a gladiator's turn comes up, the player (or computer) designates a movement destination and/or chooses an action. The computer then animates the gladiator's movement and action. Most actions - attacking, taunting, and powering up - require the player to use a reflex-based control called a "swing meter". By hitting the right button(s) at the right time, the player makes the gladiator's attack stronger or weaker. It's similar to the control system used by sports games to throw footballs, swing bats, et cetera.

It's primarily the animation that slows the game down. Each animation lasts from five to ten seconds - an eternity when you have eight gladiators on the field. In addition, some animations have accompanying sound bites. After the tenth "Watch me dance! Watch me dance!" in the same battle, I was heading to the Options menu to disable character speech. Less (or faster) animation would have made the fights more exciting, while preserving the turn-based mechanic. I'd also like to have seen an "action queue" similar to the one used in BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic. Most gladiators have one optimal attack routine that rarely varies - Ursula fights well using Empower Self, then Combo Attack 2, then Combo Attack 1, then Affinity Attack 2, for example. It would be a great time-saver to program in these routines as desired and then let the computer execute them in order.

The tedious gameplay doesn't diminish the tactical challenge, however, and this is the game's greatest strength. Each arena, league, and battle has its own idiosyncrasies. Gladiator selection and placement are crucial, since the weight classes are set up in a rock-scissors-paper relationship. Height gives an advantage. Obstacles block line of sight and obstruct movement. There's a bewildering array of weapons and armor that interact with gladiators' statistics in various ways. This is a very deep game that rewards methodical play and careful preparation. With such care given to the game's fundamentals, it's strange that the execution is so clumsy.

As far as graphics and sound go, Gladius feels like a development build. As I mentioned earlier, the cutscene animation is terrible. Character models throughout the game are poorly proportioned and blocky. However, the texture mapping is fantastic. It's as though one of the rendering teams missed its deadline and the game went to press anyway. The sound is similarly strange. The voice acting is well-executed, but inconsistently implemented. Some interludes use voice acting exclusively; some use subtitles only; and others use a mix. Again, it's as though the game went to press before the voice actors finished recording all the parts.

Ultimately, Gladius feels like a great game that was rushed out the door half-baked. I'd like to see version 2.0 of this game; hopefully version 1.0's shortcomings won't ruin the opportunity for a better-built sequel.

Summary: A mediocre turn-based tactical combat game that somehow manages to be incredibly compelling. One confused thumb sideways.

Reviewed by: Finn Kisch - 01/04

  • Gladius
  • © Lucas Arts $45.95
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