Review: Gladius (PS2)

Gladius
Genre: Strategy RPG
Platform: Playstation 2
ESRB Rating: Teen (Blood and Gore, Comic Mischief, Violence)
Publisher: Lucasarts
Release Date: 10/28/03
Official Home Page: Gladius @ Lucasarts

Over the years, the Strategy RPG genre hasn’t been all that popular with the mainstream. Even amongst RPG fans, many prefer traditional RPGs to strategy RPGs. But as of late, there have been more of the strategy titles getting critical acclaim over traditional ones. There are the over hyped releases like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and the under hyped ones like the wonderful Disgaea. But here’s another one that probably slipped under the radar even more. Developed by Lucasarts, this is a title that is not based around Star Wars like many of their titles, but is actually a very unique title that focuses on gladiator style combat. But don’t worry; it has nothing to do with the movie starring Russell Crowe.

The premise is that you are running a gladiator school and you must recruit new members and compete in tournaments to raise your standing among the kingdom so you can eventually compete in the granddaddy of all tournaments. What unfolds is a unique and interesting adventure, that isn’t without its share of frustrations. Have I piqued your interest yet?

Story
Many years ago, there was a great war between the “civilized” people of the Imperia, and the “uncivilized” barbarians of Nordagh. Because of the evil intentions of those who started the war, the Dark God came to destroy everything and everyone. Only by banding together did the two warring peoples destroy the Dark God and seal away his heart in hopes that he would never rise again.

After the war ended, the kingdoms started holding non-lethal gladiator style matches to get their violence in, rather than killing on a battlefield. This is where our story picks up, and actually branches in two directions. At the beginning of the game, you are given a choice of who you want your main character to be. You can choose Valens, son of the greatest soldier in Imperia, or Ursula, the daughter of the king of Nordagh. Valens, whose father was murdered, has taken up the reigns as leader of his father’s school, while Ursula, along with her brother Urlen, are leading up their own school in Nordagh. In both storylines, a tactician named Usus will help you train and guide you through the world, and help you reach the high tournaments. The story paths intersect somewhat, so you don’t really feel left out by choosing one over the other.

While the story itself is decent, it’s not spectacular. What makes it great is all the history they put in the game. Not OUR history, mind you, but the history of this world. In every town you go to, there is an arena and a shop, and each of the shopkeepers will tell you about the town and the arena. There are some great stories there, because they talk about how the town was founded and how it came to become what it is in the present, as well as the origins of the arena in the town. There is really a lot of depth there, which is something you don’t see in every game. So while the story itself is only so-so, the added detail makes up for that a lot.
Rating: 7.0

Graphics
The graphics surprised me, because none of the screenshots I saw really looked that great, but I was wowed by the actual game graphics. The characters are all well designed and very detailed, and very customizable. Every character you recruit can be modified in several ways. You can change their hair and skin color, as well as changing their outfits and the colors on their armor. Sure, it’s not create a wrestler on Smackdown, but it’s definitely better than most RPGs in this aspect. Another plus is that when you get new armor or weapons, it changes on the character model as well, which is something I always love.

The environments are excellent as well. All the arenas are very well designed and have a unique style. The arenas of the Imperia are mostly old ruins or theatres, and have a very Roman look to them, while the Nordagh arenas are all carved out of the landscape in some way. My personal favorite is an arena that was made out of the bones of a dead dragon that is actually dormant and may revive itself at any time. The colors are lush and time actually flows, so you will fight in the dead of night as much as during the day.

The only problems I have with the graphics are fairly minor things. There is, of course, the occasional clipping issue, where you’ll see someone’s shield sticking into their leg, but that only happened rarely. Also, I wasn’t happy with the limited amount of colors that you were able to change your armor and clothing to. And while they did a decent job with the lip-syncing, there were the times when the person’s mouth wouldn’t move at all when they were talking. Despite those small things, they did a great job here.
Rating: 8.5

Sound
Unfortunately, they didn’t do quite so well in the sound department. First of all, the voice acting wasn’t that great. They actually got some B-list actors to play the roles, but their performances sounded awkward and forced. Ursula is played by Linda Cardellini, who played Velma in the live action Scooby Doo movie, and Valens is played by Michael Rosenbaum, who plays Lex Luthor in Smallville, as well as The Flash in Justice League. Personally, I think they could have done a much better job with the casting and voice direction.

But the music is even worse. Well, actually, it’s not bad; there just isn’t much of it. There is a different theme for the beginning and ending of battles in the different nations, and there is a theme that plays when you’re fighting and when you’re roaming around on the world map. That’s about it. All of it is utterly forgettable. In fact, since the game is all about fighting in the arenas, I tend to tune out the music when I’m fighting. Despite that, I have to give them some credit, because it sounds like music would sound in the Roman era. It’s just not that great.
Rating: 6.0

Control
The controls are simple to pick up. During battle (since that’s what 99% of the game is), you use the left analog to move your “cursor” to where you want to move/attack, and you use the directional pad to choose which action or attack you want to make. What’s somewhat unorthodox is that every attack you make gives you a meter of some sort where you have to press a button at a certain time to succeed in the attack. It works kind of like the Judgment Disc in Shadow Hearts, except rather than a circle, the meter is in a line. Most attacks require you just to hit the X button at a certain time, and if you hit it exactly when it’s over a red line, you do a critical attack. Other meters require you to hit a sequence of buttons in order, and some just have you hit X and O alternately. The different meters really add to the gameplay and really keep you focus on the game, because without them, it would be really boring.

As I’ve said before, the bulk of the game is in fighting. Your mission is to build your school up to be the best it can be, and you do this by a) recruiting warriors to your cause, b) winning league battles in cities, c) winning the tournament in every city, and d) winning the regional championship. Once you’ve done that, you move on to the next region, where you do the same thing again, and once you’ve conquered all 4 regions, you can go to the high tournaments. After every region you complete, your school will increase in rank, which will allow you to recruit more members.

Since it’s a strategy RPG, there is a job system. There are many different jobs, but you can’t change them. Instead, you just pick all the skills you want by using job points, which are earned from leveling up. There are all sorts of skills, from the normal (throwing a spear) to the abnormal (turning into a bear). There are also 3 weight classes, each which is better at handling another weight class (think Rock-Paper-Scissors). Despite all the hoopla they make about having a very well balanced school, I still found myself using the same people over and over. Hint: Spearmen (Gungnir and Peltasts) and Centurions kick ass.

So, with all this depth, it brings me to my big comparison. This game reminds me, more than any other, of Gran Turismo. Before you can tackle any arenas, you have to qualify in every region, like getting a license in GT. You fight (race) for money, and you use that money to get new recruits (cars) and equipment (tricking out the cars). Many fights have certain restrictions on weight and class. You earn badges (trophies) in many fights, which allow you to do other fights. I may not be making it clear here, but the comparison will be obvious once you play it.

So while they try their hardest to make the game interesting by including the attack meters and having specialty battles like King of the Hill, it’s still really just fighting. A lot of fighting. And it unfortunately gets old after a while. But then again, doesn’t almost every game get old after a while?
Rating: 7.0

Replayability
This is always one of the hardest things for me to judge. This title is one that you can play again and use a different style of play, like recruiting different characters and things like that, but that doesn’t mean you’d want to replay it. Once you’ve won, you’ve won. Sure there are the two different characters you can play as, but I honestly don’t know if anyone would want to go through it twice. I couldn’t. The game just gets dull after a while, and it’s really hard to stay interested.
Rating: 5.0

Balance
This is one thing they did pretty well. When the game starts out, it’s pretty easy. It walks you through training and tells you what you need to know, then lets you go about your business. As your levels increase, so does the enemies, and as their levels increase, they learn new skills just like you do, so just as you watch your repertoire of attacks increase, you see more attacks coming at you. And that’s where the downfall comes. After you reach a certain point, the difficulty curve makes a sharp jump upward. It gets really hard. There were times when I’d do just the minimum amount of league battles to unlock the tournament in the town, then finish the tournament and move on. It also gets frustrating, because many times the enemies will get extra turns, and I don’t see why.
Rating: 7.0

Originality
I have to give credit where it’s due. And it’s due here. This is a very unique game. They didn’t use a standard strategy RPG mold for this one. The battle system is very unique and interesting, and though the tournament setup reminds me of Gran Turismo, I doubt they used GT for their inspiration. They put in a lot of work making this game different from everything else out there, and it shows.
Rating: 8.0

Addictiveness
The addictiveness is inversely proportional to the difficulty. As the game gets a lot harder, it becomes a lot less fun. I’m not saying I enjoy playing easy games, but there are many battles that are just too damn hard, and it’s not as simple as leveling up, because as you level up, so do the enemies. But the game is very enjoyable in the early going, and it was very hard to put down. But once you reach that curve, the frustration of the battles make it very easy to put down, to watch TV or something like that.
Rating: 7.0

Appeal Factor
This game would probably be a hard sell for Lucasarts, because not only is it unfamiliar territory for them, but it is also of a genre that isn’t considered mainstream. For fans of strategy RPGs, as well as fans of a certain racing game, it may be a little bit easier to sell. But for the rest of the population, I don’t see any reason why they’d want the game.
Rating: 6.0

Miscellaneous
Since I don’t have anything else to talk about here, I want to talk a little about the characters. Personally, some of the characters are extremely obnoxious. Ursula is the primary one. Having been cooped up in Nordagh her whole life, she is anxious to get out, and basically beats her brother Urlen into letting her join the school. She treats him like shit, even though he just wants what’s best for her. When Ursula meets Valens, she gets a little girly crush on him, and Urlen, who is kind of racist against the Impieria, is completely against Valens being around, which makes Ursula more annoying. Valens doesn’t help matters, gushing over Ursula as well. It makes me wish that Urlen would come and lop both their heads off with his big axe. So while not as bad as a certain Squall, the characters in this game can get really annoying.
Rating: 5.0

Ratings Summary

Story: 7.0
Graphics: 8.5
Sound: 6.0
Control: 7.0
Replayability: 5.0
Balance: 7.0
Originality: 8.0
Addictiveness: 7.0
Appeal Factor: 6.0
Miscellaneous: 5.0

Average: 6.65

Short Attention Span Summary
While this game succeeds at being original, it fails at being great. It’s a fun game for a while, but it gets old after that and there’s little hope at it remaining interesting. It’s definitely worth a rent, since there’s a good 20 or so hours worth of utter enjoyment, but I wouldn’t buy the game unless it was in the bargain bin.