We who are about to die, salute you!
The battlefields of the Great War between Nordaugh and Imperia were so choked with blood and bodies that they gave rise to a horrible Dark God that threatened to destroy the land. It was only the self-sacrifice of the legendary Valkyries that was able to banish the Dark God.
The surviving leaders of both Nordaugh and Imperia made war illegal so that the horrors of the Dark God might never return. All combat was instead confined to arenas, and every city and town across the land built one. The best healers were employed to make sure that nobody would die, and all the warriors trained and fought for honor and glory.
This, of course, is a terrific plan, and the United Nations should begin considering it immediately. Not only would it end all sorts of worldwide suffering, it would make for some fantastic TV, because when you get right down to it, nobody is cooler than a gladiator (except possibly a pirate. Or a zombie.)
And it doesn't matter how old you are, because there's a hero for every generation. Russell Crowe inspired the masses and sold thousands of Gladiator Halloween costumes. Kirk Douglas both freed and aroused the slaves as the toughest Thracian Dog around. Charlton Heston was so cool, Jesus himself barely got a cameo role. Your great-grandpa could tell you about Ramon Novarro driving his chariot to victory before movies even had sound.
Back in the lands of Nordaugh and Imperia, they've also gone through their own generations of heroic gladiators. Many have forgotten the horrors of the Great War, and the young daughter of the Nordaugh King may be linked to the return of the Dark God.
Gladius lets you take on the role of one of those mighty gladiators, but not in the action-packed way you might have imagined. You choose from one of two characters: Ursula, the barbarian princess, or Valens, the son of a famous Imperial gladiator. However, you not only control their fate, but also the fate of their gladiatorial "school" as you progress through this deep, tactical strategy RPG.
Turn-based games are getting rare enough on the PC, so I must say it's a big surprise (and a bold move by LucasArts) to see one on the action-oriented consoles. Really the only comparable game I can think of is the Playstation's Final Fantasy Tactics.
While you can run around on the world map and you'll spend hours customizing your fighters in Gladius' myriad menus, the meat of the game takes place in the arenas. Through a series of pretty good tutorials, you'll learn how to place your fighters, move them, and use them to best effect.
You can choose to move, or attack, or sometimes both. There are other skills you can buy as your characters progress that will shift the crowd to your side or assist your teammates. Exactly when you get to move is determined by the initiative score of the gladiator in question, and in fact, most things, from accuracy to damage, are determined by your fighter's stats.
To make the game more than just a war of numbers, there's some actual button play thrown in. Most attacks involve a swing meter, just like in a golf game where you try to nail the sweet spots for better hits. Get the timing right and you'll do more damage and get the crowd fired up; miss and you'll look like a fool. Other ranged attacks and magic spells will have you follow a series of buttons or go just go for raw speed, Track & Field style.
The graphics are decent and are identical on all three game systems. Eyes and mouths move independently, animation is fluid and the dozens of arenas are very diverse. Even more diverse are the combatants themselves, and not all of them are human. Aside from a dozen different fighter classes like barbarians, bandits and archers, you will also fight alongside or against bears, wolves, cats, Yeti, minotaurs, witches, satyrs and many others. Xbox and Gamecube owners will probably think the textures look a bit blotchy, but PS2 people will feel right at home.
Gladius does stumble over its own sandals a bit when it comes to the sound. LucasArts never seems to skimp on the voice actors, and this is no exception with very well done voices for the story's many characters. They did skimp on the sound effects though, with identical noises for too many different hits and oddly missing noises for some actions, like when a shield falls to the ground. But the worst crime here is the repetition. I am so sick of hearing "Taste Nordaugh steel!" I can barely stand it. And each of the game's four major areas has only one battle theme, which you will hear hundreds of times.
And I really mean hundreds of times, because Gladius is a huge game. As the fighters in your school progress, go up levels, earn victory cups, and qualify for new arenas and tournaments, you just won't believe how much stuff there is in the four kingdoms.
On top of all the stats and skills, the list of equipment seems nearly endless. Toss in a complex system of "affinity" powers for different characters and equipment, and you can spend all day tweaking your fighters to perfection. This is not a game you can beat in four hours, or even forty, which means if you're the patient sort of player, Gladius offers more game time than a dozen gladiator movies.
All of which makes Gladius a very respectable fighter. Many action-oriented gamers arena't going to like this game at all, but you strategy buffs will be pleased that Gladius is such a strong contender, because you really don't have any other options. There are no other games like it. This gladiator wins by default.