Given the flurry of tactical RPGs that had come out in 2003, it was perhaps unsurprising that LucasArts, a company with no experience in the genre, would attempt to ride the tide to glory and attempt to knock off their own tactical offering. Thus, they produced the Roman-themed TRPG Gladius, releasing it on the Playstation 2, GameCube, and Xbox. By the way, I should mention that this review is for the Playstation 2 port, which is, I should mention, fairly sloppy, and even so, the game itself doesn’t really shine, despite the glowing reception it strangely received among the mainstream gaming media.

Battles in Gladius occur in arenas, where players can choose from a variety of leagues. Combat is grid-based, although instead of having a traditional area-based system of movement for your characters, the game allows players to move in lines a certain distance, although they can only move so far in their current turn. If they can’t completely cover the specified distance in their turn, they’ll continue to do so during the turns of allies and enemies, which basically means simultaneous character and enemy movement a la Vandal Hearts II.

Once close to an enemy, a character can move and attack or perform a select few skills; most offensive skills require an ally to stand still while near an enemy. Nearly all special skills utilize a Swing Meter, somewhat like the Judgment Ring from Shadow Hearts albeit with more diversity, all requiring different types of button-pressing. Enemies can’t block critical attacks acquired by hitting red zones in the Swing Meters, so mastery is important here. Special skills consume Skill Points, with a maximum of five per character, maxed out when a battle begins, and gradually refilling during a battle. As they attack, characters also build up Affinity Points, also maxing out at five, and starting at zero when combat commences, which they can consume to unleash elemental attacks.

Despite all this, combat in Gladius feels overly simple. For instance, there is no system of consumable items, and while there is magic, most, aside from Affinity Attacks, border on useless; healing spells, I should mention, are very difficult to come across. The choppy framerate of the graphics at times can also throw off your Swing Meter concentration. Levels rise very slowly, as well (and experience isn’t even rewarded until you win a battle; losing just dumps you back to the arena interface with no rewards), although you do get some points you can use to gain new skills for your characters when you level up. Enemies you battle, moreover, will almost always be at the same levels as your party. There are some interesting fights, such as those where you must deal the most damage or occupy certain hotspots the longest in three minutes, although in the end, one word easily sums up combat in Gladius, and that word is redundant.

One word that could sum up interaction in Gladius, moreover, is unintuitive. For one, load times are maddening, and the fact that the game relishes in burying players in a labyrinth of menus and button presses doesn’t really help at all. There are some bugs and freezes at times, as well, although thankfully, most of these didn’t seriously damper my experience. The points of no return near the end of the game don’t really help this aspect, either, and in the end, this is one spot where the developers definitely could’ve made things better.

Gladius, more or less, is a giant ball of borrowed concepts, with the Swing Meters in battles, for one, being reminiscent of the systems found in games such as Paper Mario, Legend of Dragoon, and Shadow Hearts. The Skill and Affinity Point meters also resemble the Force Points systems from the Wild ARMs games, and borrowing simultaneous character/enemy movement from Vandal Hearts II certainly won’t win any points for originality, either. The various kinds of battles requiring conditions other than killing your enemies, though, are somewhat inventive, but all in all, those seeking a fresh, original game should probably look elsewhere.

The story can’t really save Gladius, either. As with many other RPGs, it has some nice backstory, involving a Great War, a Dark God, and so forth, but the game’s present time period, whether you choose to play as Valens, the son of a venerable warrior, or Ursula, a barbarian princess, largely involves going around the Roman-themed world of Gladius to fight in a bunch of arenas in order to compete in the High Tournament, after which the plot somewhat picks up, although a little too late. In the end, the story, of course, could’ve definitely used more attention.

The music in Gladius, going on, has a bit of an “epic” feel, albeit generic in nature, largely forgettable, and horribly repetitive. The voice acting is mediocre, as well, and the developers, I noticed, didn’t do very well in making lips fit the voices, resulting in Bruce Lee-esque lip flapping during most cutscenes. Overall, the aurals are nothing to write home about.

The graphics aren’t, either, though they do rise somewhat to mediocrity. Like many other games of its generation, it uses a “realistic” visual style, with things looking fine when the camera keeps its distance, though looking a bit ugly when the camera comes close, showing ugly, pixelated textures, among other things. As I mentioned before, moreover, the choppy framerate at times can throw off your concentration on the Swing Meters. There is some decent art, though, during many backstory cutscenes. Still, the developers could’ve worked on the visuals a little.

Finally, the difficulty of Gladius hovers somewhere between medium and hard, and depending upon whether or not you really want to complete every battle the game has to offer, it can take anywhere from forty to eighty hours to finish.

In conclusion, LucasArts’ inexperience in the tactical RPG genre rears its ugly head in Gladius. Despite the glowing reviews it received, it has quickly fallen off the mainstream RPG scene, and given its poor sales, LucasArts mercifully killed any plans for a sequel. There are definitely better TRPGs out there, so you’d best look elsewhere for entertainment, because there really isn’t much to be had here.

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