|Platforms||:||Nintendo GameCube, Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox|
|Review by||:||Ethan Deneault|
I usually shy away from any game that has a game reviewer's opinion on the cover. This is a long held fear of reviewers from major magazines – they don't get paid to write bad reviews. (Hello GamePro!) However, it was my charge to review the GameCube version of Gladius, so into my console it went. And it hasn't yet come out, even though Mario Kart has been pleading for me to beat the Mirror Mode.
Gladius, as its name implies, is based around a pseudo-Roman-era world. The scene is set with a rather well-done intro, painted frescoes depicting an ancient battle between the lamely named "Affinity Gods" and the dark forces, with the wars of men serving as the catalyst. In the end, the dark power is sealed away, etc. etc. etc. It's too common these days to have a cliched story; luckily, Gladius doesn't dive into the all-too-common "lone boy saves the world" motif, and instead presents you with an unexpected option right at the start: Who do you want to play today? You get a choice, patrician Valens (marked as 'advanced') and barbarian Ursula (marked as 'beginner'). The back story seems no more than flavor text throughout most of the game. In fact, barring some ominous warnings interspersed throughout, one senses that the story is subtle in it's telling.
In the world of Gladius, everything revolve around gladiatorial combat, which is the way that the lands of the world remain at peace. No matter which staring character you choose, you are unceremoniously dumped into a tutorial-cum-plot section, where you are shown the ropes of combat in the games. In a refreshing change from the Final Fantasy school of tutorials, Gladius' tutorials are tightly integrated into the game itself, never breaking the flow of the story, or sounding like someone is reading the manual to you. During the many long load times, your sagacious character will pop up and give some general assistance. Interestingly enough, however, at some points the main characters seem to act as though they know they are in a video game, which is creepy.
As most of the game centers around combat in the arena, any aspiring gladiators should be willing to slog through hundreds of battles with a less than stellar combat system, right? Not so. Gladius' controls and combat is where the game really shines. I often found myself retrying already-mastered combats just to kick the crap out of a bunch of punk barbarians again.
The combat system is much slower paced than other RPGs, and its emphasis on facing, placement and movement across the arena puts Gladius into the same category of "tactical" RPGs such as Ogre Battle or Final Fantasy Tactics. The control scheme for the game is wonderful, and makes good use of the GameCube's controller. The number of options is a bit daunting at first, but the tutorials help immensely, and with only a bit of practice, the player can get a sense of how intuitive it really is.
Not content to simply assign each player a certain to-hit ratio as in OB or FFT, the developers added a nifty feature called the swing meter. The swing meter is similar in form to the version seen in golf games. The indicator bar hums along a horizontal bar on the bottom of the screen, and you tap a button, or series of buttons, at the right time to either hit normally (get the marker in the orange), glancing (get the marker in the blue), or strike a critical hit (get the marker in the red). To keep things fresh, different types of attacks have different types of swing meters as well. Critical hits are completely within the player's control, and a player with good timing can go an entire battle without missing a critical hit. As the difficulty ramps up early on, knowing the swing meter is invaluable.
Speaking of difficulty, Gladius isn't a particularly hard game once you get into the swing (har har) of things. But early in the game you may be tempted to throw your controller through the window if you don't keep your gladiators upgraded with the best weapons and ensure they all level up equally. Good skill choice is also important: forget affinity skills until you acquire the capacity for combo attacks. When you hire other gladiators for your school, don't forget to grab some spearchuckers (Peltasts and Gungnirs), too; with conscientious effort, they are surely the most important fighters on the field.
The graphics are a bit average for the GameCube. Every gladiator is made with what looks like a low-polygon count model. For long camera angles, this is fine, but up close, it's very noticeable — especially in Ursula's hair. There is very little slowdown or choppiness; however, and even with many gladiators on screen, the game maintains a nice, smooth framerate.
Whereas in many games, voice acting is a cringe-inducing nightmare, it's a good thing here; each character is played with an appropriate tone, and never once does it sound forced. Doubtless this quality is due in large part to Gladius being originally written in English, for American sensibilities. The game's music keeps it moving, and is perfectly suited to the game without being ostentatious, or sounding too much like elevator music.
Now, for the bad: load times, load times, load times. There is no excuse for a GameCube game to have such long and frequent loading screens. Even though the pain is buffered by having a "tip of the day" flash up on many of them, sometimes 5-10 seconds is lost to a black screen. On a PC, the constant loading times would be acceptable, and even expected — but console games are a different breed. The menu system is also not quite up to snuff. Outside of combat, selecting gladiators, even going from the arena to the world map is tedious. All in all, Gladius seems to have been designed from a PC-centric perspective — which isn't bad, but it's not what I would have expected from a console game.
Overall, I give this game an 8 out of 10. It has a few deficiencies – notably the curmudgeonly menu system and the load times, but it is an enjoyable tactical RPG. Such games are not designed for everyone; those that desire a deep storyline, lengthy cinematics, and a fast paced battle system will be disappointed on at least two counts. However, those who are seeking a well-made tactical RPG will do well to pick up Gladius.
This article is copyright (c) 2003, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.
Original publication: Gamebits, 31-Dec-03