Gladius (Xbox) review
"The moves characters can learn are determined by class. Even within that limiting structure, though, the player is forced to make decisions. Each character will have an assortment of moves available, but you must choose the ones you feel best suit your fighting style. The game cautions you that a lack of foresight will cause things to grow more difficult for you, and it isn't joking."
When I saw the movie Gladiator, I don't remember a moment where I suddenly found myself wishing Russell Crowe would turn into a bear or a wolf, or that there were more hot babes. Okay, so I lied about the babes. I wanted them desperately. Regardless, there wasn't really anything else about the movie I would have liked to see changed. My fondness for the movie lasted quite awhile, long enough that LucasArts snuck out their gladiator-based RPG, Gladius. Long enough that I wandered through the store, saw the game, and had to have it based only on the fact that it was about gladiators and published by LucasArts. I didn't know about the babes, and I didn't know about animal transformations. Which is cool, because it made those surprises and others that much cooler.
I was fresh off a streak of 70 hours of Disgaea: Hour of Darkness when I purchased Gladius. The last thing I was expecting was a deep, involving game with a bushel of similar qualities. And, in fact, there aren't so many things about Disgaea that Gladius mimics. The most striking similarities are the most important ones: depth and the sense of freedom the player has at nearly any given moment.
The game is structured rather loosely. A player first chooses one of two characters (each with different storylines). The character chosen impacts the difficulty level. Because she had a cute face and was well-endowed (and because the game stated her quest would be easier), I chose the female. She's called Ursula, and she manages to look quite sexy despite the kiss of death that is her name. Once the player is chosen, the game zips forward past a neat prologue, and you're soon watching real-time cinemas.
The cinemas in this game are pretty good, even though they're not pre-rendered. They use the in-game character models, which in and of themselves aren't that bad. The characters have a life of their own; they roll their eyes, breathe in ways that allow you to see their chests (or breasts) rising and falling slowly, and their mouths move as they talk. On a more negative note, their lips' movement isn't really in-synch with what they're saying, so the effect is a little bit like watching an old kung fu movie from the 70's. Since they turn their heads, you sometimes see things from a slightly different angle, and at such times you might see some polygonal issues that make their eyes look a bit odd. Still, these are relatively minor flaws in the face of the cinematic quality of the scenes.
Adding to the positive impact of such breaks in gameplay is the voice acting, which I found to be mostly pleasant. Ursula sounds suitably playful as she banters with her brother early on, and there are jokes between the two of them as the game progresses. I won't fib and say the actors deserve a sitcom for their talent, but they do as good a job as can be expected, material considered. Even if they sound wooden and stiff at times, it never really seems out of character. You get to know a good deal about the characters when you watch the scenes, which is important in a game where you'll be spending so much time rooting for them as they battle. It was nice to know I wanted Ursula to win not only because she has great breasts, but also because she is a strong-willed person with a decent heart.
And speaking of battle and opportunities to show heart, both will come quickly enough. As the cinemas end, it turns out that Ursula and her brother see things a little differently. She feels that she should be able to go on the road with him while he trains as a gladiator. And of course, her brother disagrees. The game cleverly uses this difference of opinion to walk the player through the combat system.
As you'll soon learn, combat is easily understood. It's for the most part quite conventional, with a vaguely grid-based system. Characters can move only so far in a given round. Their movement is determined by their attributes. Lighter characters can move further, while heavier characters sort of lumber from place to place. When characters are within range of one another, they can then choose to strike blows. Positioning is important, too. An enemy warrior can do more damage when he's looking down Ursula's shirt than if he's admiring her from beneath, for example. It's the same the other way around. When an attack is begun, the player in control then must press the attack button at just the right moment as the game flashes a 'swing meter.' A well-timed attack will do more damage, while a fumble on the player's part can cause the warrior in question to overreach and miss the target. This is a nice touch that keeps one more engaged than games where you just input a series of commands and then watch the results.
There's more to battle, of course, but the game doesn't expect the player to absorb everything all at once. As Ursula proves she is a worthy opponent to her brother, he finally decides she can go with him as he quests for glory. Meanwhile, her father is somewhat hesitant because of his daughter's history. This, of course, is one of the first signs that the game isn't just a Gladiator clone. The plot as the game progresses twists and winds its way around witchcraft and political intrigue, seamlessly presenting an alternate world where more is possible than was initially apparent.
As the characters leave the castle, the viewpoint then switches to an overhead map. This map is not so lifeless as one might expect. It's a 3D model of a rugged yet beautiful landscape. Hills rise to mountains, bridges cross gently-flowing rivers, and forests give way to mines. Towns are rendered in miniature detail, and you can also stumble across merchants or roving bands of monsters. Such hazards aren't ever visible, but random battles on the map are few and far between.
The game also differentiates between battle types. Run into monsters in the field and your characters have great potential to grow in strength. However, anyone who dies without the help of a physician nearby will be dead for good. For this reason, the infrequent random battles are definitely cause for concern, and good reason to save frequently. Other battles--those fought in the many arenas that dot the landscape--are less serious in tone. Fall in battle and you'll know it's just a short trip to the physician, who will set things right once more.
The rewards for arena battle are also a bit different. In order to conquer the game, your band of fighters must recruit numerous other gladiators. The band of warriors then must travel throughout the land, winning medals in each given area so that they can compete in the most prestigious tournaments held in a given region. Only in this fashion may they ultimately reach the game's conclusion. Some battles are optional, some required. Also, they rather swiftly grow quite difficult. Weaker players (such as yours truly) will likely choose the easiest battles in a given location, just squeaking by with enough medals to advance to the next stages of the game. Others may linger long enough to face the game's most fiendish challenges at each turn. Either way, the game manages to be challenging and rewarding.
With battles won, your wallet also will experience a nice boost. Your funds can then be spent to 'rent' warriors, or to buy their allegiance (for a much heftier sum). The latter is typically preferable, as conditions for entering battle can vary. One arena might require that you use only monster classes, while another will want only humans, or a certain number of each. On and on it goes, meaning you'll ultimately need a diverse line-up of monsters. Though renting can work just fine when such cases arrive, it's generally better to have a team already built so that you have more control over their various armor and weapons. Also, you'll want to keep the same units around because that allows you to teach them more moves.
The moves characters can learn are determined by class. Even within that limiting structure, though, the player is forced to make decisions. Each character will have an assortment of moves available, but you must choose the ones you feel best suit your fighting style. The game cautions you that a lack of foresight will cause things to grow more difficult for you, and it isn't joking. Even the classic elemental scheme comes into play. Characters might be able to choose from only a few 'base' moves, but they also will have to decide what element they wish to enhance. You only have a limited number of points to assign, so choosing to power up each of the areas means your characters will never master any one attack. In the end, you'll either have pansies with a wide knowledge base, or skilled warriors with only a few attacks.
Speaking of attacks, there's one type of move that is my absolute favorite: transformation. Not far into the game, characters will often be given a chance to learn moves that allow them to morph into different animal types, such as wolves and bears. Doing so takes a move, yet lends various statistical boosts to the warriors who surrender to the animal within. It's great fun to find yourself getting slaughtered as a human, only to turn the tables after morphing into a beast. The set of attacks you can use also varies according to your form, so there's a lot of strategy involved. Enemies are aware of this, as well, and also will transform. Because of this, battles will definitely keep you on your toes. Not only that, but they'll slap you in your face and insult your mother with impunity if you didn't make good choices about what moves your characters should learn.
This terrific amount of depth is simultaneously the game's greatest strength and weakness. Players who are sick of button mashers will likely adore the deep combat and level-up systems. They'll also find that the game offers quite a few hours of gaming bliss. However, those looking for the type of game that can be played for an hour here and there will be dismayed. Gladius just isn't that game. You'll have to invest lots of time to enjoy it most fully. Not only that, but it starts to own you early on, and it can be hard to avoid playing 'just one more battle' as the sun sets outside your window, the moon rises, and suddenly it's the sun rising and your wife is angry because you stayed up all night playing a stupid Xbox game. Ahem.
In case you hadn't noticed, I really like this game. I have a great time playing it, even when it's slapping me around like a little red-headed stepchild. It's not really what I was expecting when I purchased the apparent Gladiator clone. The movie was good, but this game is so much better. Who knew bears and babes could make such a difference?
Staff review by Jason Venter (April 16, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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