core of the game. Since, barring a few side-quests and the rare random
encounter between towns, all scores are settled in the arena, it
sometimes feels like there's distance between the story and the action.
Even the game's different towns are really just menu interfaces that
give you the options of buying equipment, recruiting local gladiators
for your team and entering tournaments.
I played as Ursula, because I like to watch animated hot-chicks
swordfight in skimpy outfits. If you, too, should choose this path, the
game begins as she, along with her brother Urlan, fight in several
regional tournaments in your homeland of Nordagh. The first dozen-or-so
fights are fairly basic. Ursula has a sword; Urlan has an axe; you walk
up to your opponents and slug it out until someone wins. But, after
falsely building my confidence for a couple of hours, Gladius took me to
school, ate my lunch and handed me my ass at recess.
Combat mechanics are initially simple, but quickly become more complex.
With melee attacks, the "swing meter" is very similar to those in games
like golf simulations. Instead of hitting a perfect drive straight down
the fairway, during your turn, a well-timed button mash will deal
maximum damage to your opponent. Later, in order to enter many of the
other tournaments, you'll have to hire and train other types of fighters
who are more proficient at things like casting spells or throwing
spears. Similar to all good RPGs, these characters' close-combat
vulnerabilities are offset by the power of their long-range attacks,
which in this case are doled out by pressing timed sequences of buttons
-- more similar to games like PaRappa the Rapper.
Terrain modifiers, such as boxes and boulders, affect both the
likelihood and effectiveness of an attack, and even the crowds, cheering
at each arena, will affect your competence in each battle. If the crowd
loves you, your team can gain momentum throughout the fight, earning
improved speed and accuracy. Some character classes, such as the saytr,
can even use their turns to win crowd approval. (The guy dances jigs,
spews flame from his mouth like a circus freak and can attack enemies
with his horrible breath. What's not to love?) Even the unaccustomed
will quickly get the hang of the timed button mashing and grasp how to
handle the terrain in different types of fights. But when my opponents
began morphing into wolves and bears, casting spells and infusing their
weapons with the powers of the gods, I quickly lost what groove I had.
The game really does require players to become well-versed in the
variety of attacks, spells and equipment at their disposal and to
develop a team that's well balanced in all of these aspects.
"Affinity attacks" are a good example of the combat system's complexity.
Of the game's broad array of weapons, armor and accessories, available
for purchase or by winning tournaments, many are infused with powers of
earth, water, fire, wind, light and dark. Successful strikes with these
weapons accrue affinity points, which ultimately allow your character to
launch special attacks with that weapon. Defensive items, such as armor,
earn affinity points whenever you are attacked, but, if someone attempts
to strike you with a weapon of the same affinity as your armor, each
point of your defensive charge will cancel out one point of their
weapon's offensive charge. If several successful affinity attacks are
launched at your ill-equipped team in quick succession, players will
proceed to their respective kitchens, grab several beers from the
fridge, and watch Aqua Teen Hunger Force re-runs until it's time to go
Ok, you know, I've really got to quit whining. The fact is, Gladius is a
challenging game, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with being tough.
At its best, the game plays a lot like a series of great chess matches
with tons of new variables to learn. You've got to have a good sense of
which gladiators can go toe to toe with specific opponents (based not
only on their general toughness, but often on their weapons, armor,
accessories, etc.), and which need to hang out on the fringes, waiting
for the right opportunities to strike. Since your team's competition is
almost always equally matched to your abilities, you'll almost always
need to sacrifice a few of your fighters to win the objective.
(Although, as the game explains, "healers" are on the sidelines in every
arena, so characters can't die in arena combat, they're just eliminated
from a battle after taking a certain amount of damage).
For example, in many of the matches, such as the timed King of the Hill
fights, you'll need to dominate not only the "hill," but also strategic
surrounding areas. You've got to have someone who can tough out the
close combat and be ready to step in when your King of the Hill, almost
invariably, gets offed. But, you'll also need some heavy hitters on the
sidelines to distract or chip away at opponents so that they can be
dealt with quickly should they gain the top spot. In other matches, such
as those that deploy several small teams against one another in a
last-man-standing brawl, you have to pick your fights carefully, or try
to avoid conflict altogether until absolutely necessary. The game has a
broad array of other battle scenarios, and many require a distinct
For me, that often meant a whole lot of heading back to the drawing
board to figure out what worked best. Fortunately, the way the
tournaments are segmented allows players to fight most battles within 10
or 15 minutes, or four times or five times within an hour, which is
generally enough to win most of the tougher fights. And, if one
tournament becomes too frustrating, the game's open format allows you to
visit another town's tournament or even backtrack and build your team up
a little more before trying again.
I recommend Gladius as a rental for hardcore strategy-RPG players
(before purchasing) -- there's just so much going on that casual players
might easily be overwhelmed during a weekend. But, for anyone who's a
fan of strategy games, Gladius offers a compelling, in-depth experience,
and it's worth a buy. If you're the type of gamer that only has an hour
or two at a time to spend in front of the tube, the segmented style of
the game will keep you entertained for weeks.
- M. Enis
(May 23, 2004)