Gladius may look like a game based on Ridley Scott's Academy Award-winning film, Gladiator, but, in fact, the game's premise and its execution are both original. LucasArts' game is set in a world where mythological creatures, like minotaurs and ogres, are nearly as common as gladiatorial pit fights. This strategic role-playing game, appropriately billed as an "epic gladiatorial RPG," lets you build up a powerful squad of gladiators, ranging from small and lithe ones on up to extremely large and powerful ones. You then equip them with a seemingly limitless variety of weapons and armor. As your warriors gain experience, you can have them learn all sorts of special abilities, and using these to their fullest potential in battle is a process that never ceases to be challenging. Gladius is a long game that's somewhat similar to strategy RPGs, like this year's Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, though, in truth, there's nothing quite like it. Some aspects of the game could have used some more polish, but these shouldn't deter anyone looking for a deep, involved, great-looking, and memorable RPG from getting Gladius.
Valens and his companions embark on a long journey to become the greatest gladiators in all the land.
The game is set in a world reminiscent of ancient Rome and its outskirts. Factions similar to the ancient Romans, Norse, and Egyptians coexist in an uneasy stalemate, satisfying their violent cultural urges not by waging war, as they once did, but by competing in gladiatorial "games" in which mighty warriors, magic users, and beasts attack each other with everything they've got for the pleasure of the arena spectators. At the beginning of the game, you may choose from two main characters, a noble fighter named Valens and a strong-willed princess named Ursula (the two's destinies are intertwined). Valens is the son of one of Imperia's greatest gladiators and hopes to carry on his late father's legacy--and he hopes to discover why his father was murdered. Ursula is the daughter of the barbarian king of Nordagh, who encourages his son to look after her and encourages him to fight in the name of his country. The king suspects that by allowing Ursula to travel with her brother, she may be less of a conspicuous target for the witches who insist that the young woman is key to a ritual that will revive the "dark god." The plot will thicken both for Valens and Ursula but only as the two come closer and closer to becoming the greatest gladiators in all the land.
Like other strategy RPGs, Gladius is squarely focused on combat. As Valens or Ursula, you'll be able to travel from town to town on an overworld map, but the action takes place exclusively on the battlefield--and almost exclusively in organized tournament settings. The game's towns are nothing more than an interface for choosing from the various battles available in that location. The structure of the game is straightforward: You compete in leagues to earn cups; cups are earned by winning a number of matches within a league (not necessarily all of them). Once you've earned a sufficient number of cups, you may enter that town's tournament. If you win that town's tournament, you're one step closer to qualifying for the regional championship of that country. There are a number of different towns spread across four main regions. This may not sound like a lot of content offhand, but since the battles can be quite lengthy, by extension, so is Gladius. This definitely isn't a game you could finish in a weekend, even if all you did was play it.
A huge variety of different gladiator classes, as well as beasts, monsters, the living dead, and more, compete in Gladius' tournaments.
Different battles have different restrictions. You might be able to bring forth a half-dozen of your best gladiators or maybe just one or two. Depending on the league, you may be limited to gladiators of light, medium, or heavy weight; of male or female gender; of a particular nationality; of a particular religion/sect/cult; and more. Generally, this keeps things quite interesting. Though, at times, the restrictions can seem a bit severe. Certainly, they force you to build up a diverse group of gladiators, who will, in turn, take on many diverse opponents in different types of matches. The best and most common types of matches are the ones where you simply need to eliminate the competition. Some other match types include point matches, where you try to cause the most damage over time, and king of the hill, where you need to occupy a certain point for longer than your opponents. Regardless of the match type, the enemy AI mostly does a commendable job of competing against you. Sometimes foes will take the long way around, when things get crowded, rather than wait for their allies to get out of their way, but that's about the only noticeable flaw in the AI's strategy.
Your combatants gain experience points whenever they win a battle, though all your gladiators on the sidelines also earn a share. Gaining experience levels tends to noticeably improve your gladiators' prowess; they gain more strength, hit points, and other key stats, and they earn skill points, which you can spend on various special attacks, passive abilities, defensive maneuvers, and more. That, combined with the game's tremendous variety of items, means this is the sort of game in which you can spend lots of time just scrutinizing your forces, making satisfying decisions about how to develop their skills and how to equip them. You can even customize your gladiators' outfits to some extent. You also earn money by winning battles, but good equipment is always expensive enough to where you won't find yourself in the position of being able to buy all the best gear for all your gladiators.
You'll likely grow attached to some of your gladiators, who'll serve you well through countless battles and for countless hours. Fortunately, you needn't really worry about them dying on you. The game briefly explains that powerful healers are on the sidelines of all organized gladiatorial events, restoring fallen combatants to full strength. How convenient! In any case, you typically don't need to worry about losing your fine gladiators to a stroke of bad luck. Nor is it a problem if all your forces are wiped out. You can just try the battle again, though you may need to pay a small entrance fee with every attempt. There are a few exceptions. For example, it's possible (but not at all common) to stumble upon a random encounter while traveling between towns, and here, your troops are in mortal danger. Saving your progress in between towns will prevent anything truly bad from happening, though.
You'll compete in various regions in a variety of different types of matches.
Gladius is quite open-ended. You can't advance to the next region until you've won all the tournaments in the region you're in, but you can travel to any of the towns in any order and take on the battles at your own pace. More importantly, you can choose to recruit whichever types of gladiators you wish. Towns tend to offer a good variety of viable recruits, whom you can hire on permanently or just for the duration of a single battle if you only need temporary assistance. Available recruits will always be of approximately the same level as the other gladiators in your party. This ensures that you'll always be able to find viable, new members for your team, but it also undermines the satisfaction gained from building up your forces. You won't feel quite as special about that 15th-level legionnaire in your squad, who joined you way back when he was a first-level wimp, since you could just recruit another 15th-level legionnaire if you wanted to. Also, aside from Valens, Ursula, and a handful of other main characters who star in the game's nicely done cinematic cutscenes, your gladiators don't have anything to do with the plot. Ironically, you'll probably find that Valens and Ursula aren't even your strongest warriors, but they'll still end up getting all the credit. Fortunately, they're likable characters.
The game's turn-based combat works very well and has a couple of interesting twists. It's complex but is explained effectively and quite thoroughly in the context of the beginning of the game. Characters move in order of their initiative scores, meaning smaller, lighter characters will get to move prior to and sometimes more often than larger, heftier ones. Some arenas have impassible terrain, high ground (from which the attacker has an advantage), and/or dangerous obstacles, but most arenas afford you with plenty of room to move your gladiators about. Some gladiators have ranged attacks, but most don't. If they do have a ranged attack, they need to move adjacent to their enemies to initiate an attack. In some cases, characters can move and attack in the same turn. Certain other, generally more powerful, abilities require a full turn. Special abilities require from one to five points to use. You start a match with a full five points, and you can never have more than five points. You recover one point each turn. This is a good, simple system that prevents you from overusing your most powerful abilities. Also, Gladius features a partial-turn system whereby characters may move farther than normal before their next turn for when you're trying to cover a lot of ground fast. This prevents any of the battles from becoming tedious cat-and-mouse games, especially since most arenas are relatively compact. These and other clever design decisions make Gladius' combat genuinely interesting.