Pros: Excellent gameplay, innovative mechanics, split story architecture.
Cons: Mediocre voice acting, unintelligent AI, strange use of graphics in cutscenes.
Lucas Arts Gladius, for the GameCube, Playstation 2, and X-Box, is indeed a tale of two heroes, along with their trials, tribulations, and triumphs. Set in a Roman-esque fantasy world, this story will place you in the role of either an aspiring young Imperial gladiator or a sheltered Barbarian princess who wishes nothing more than to see the world the choice is yours. In either case, you will follow your chosen hero though a long and challenging journey, and eventually your story will cross paths with the other, and your fates will intertwine.
Whether you choose Valens, a gladiators son from Imperia, or Ursula, the daughter of King Orin of Nordagh, is ultimately inconsequential. Each of their stories varies greatly in the beginning however, with a few exceptions during some of the major cut-scenes of the game, it progresses almost identically. This is not to say that you should simply play through the game with one character and shelve it forever; on the contrary, each story varies just enough that it makes another 40 to 60 hour play through of the game worthwhile and fulfilling.
Gladius story will take you to the four corners of the world the Roman-esque Imperia, the Northern forests and mountains of Nordagh, the desolate Windward Steppes, and the barren desert of the Southern Expanse. The plot is driven by the games dozens of cut scenes, each of which contains somewhat bland voice acting, which usually take place before and after combat, but occasionally occur after leaving a city or entering a new area. Some of the cut scenes are arbitrary some simple chiding before a match or bickering amongst party members while others are integral pieces to the games overall plot. In either case, they are often amusing, as the games characters are quite colourful (if not slightly dulled by the voice acting; they should have used colour-safe bleach) and occasionally downright goofy.
Enough of the story's mechanics. The gist of it is that your hero whether you are Valens or Ursula is the co-leader of an aspiring school of gladiators in the worlds games. I say co-leader because you will have either your long-time friend Ludo (in Valens case) or your overprotective twin brother Urlan (in Ursulas case) as your companion. Each characters goal is to build a school of gladiators capable of competing in the High Tournament in Caltha, the largest city in Imperia; you will spend the majority of your time striving to meet that goal. In the mean time, a deeper, more sinister plot is brewing (because, after all, what game is complete without a deeper, more sinister sub-plot?) which will test your skills in ways which the High Tournament will not be able.
Building your school and competing in the Games is where the meat of Gladius is. You will be able to recruit and utilize gladiators from any combination of more than a dozen different classes, each of which have their own strengths and weaknesses. Gladiators come in one of six key flavours: Heavy (your standard tanks), Medium (foot soldiers and other front-line fighters), Light (swift, agile, but physically weaker classes), Support (ranged attackers), and Arcane (magic-users), and Beasts (animals and insects). Within each of these categories there are three (or more) separate classes, and each class has its own unique list of abilities. Add that all up, and what it equals is variety. You can choose to build your party in nearly any manner, and in most circumstances your choices will actually matter.
The reason I say most circumstances is that not all battles are simple slug-fests between your ultimate party and the enemys. For instance, some battles may only be entered if you use a certain type of class, or a certain type of element (more on that later). So, while it is possible to complete this game using nothing but Heavy characters, or nothing but Beast characters, there will be several battles in which you cannot participate because you wont meat the proper criteria and, as some of these battles are necessary to enter the tournament in each city, you will occasionally find yourself hiring temporary help to complete them. This adds some good variety to the battles, and happens sporadically enough that it doesnt become too big of a hassle.
Speaking of variety in battle, even those in which you must use certain classes are not simple death matches. In many cases, you will be playing other games, such as King of the Hill, Dominance (where you must control several hot spots at once to earn points), Barrel Battles (in which you must destroy more barrels than your opponent), Point Battles (my personal favourite, in which you simply try to dish out more damage in a given amount of time), Rival Nations (kind of like Capture the Flag, in that you must move in to the enemy territory and destroy their pillar before they do the same to yours), and even a few more. Another interesting aspect of gameplay is that, in many cases, battles and games are not simply one team versus another. You will often be put in a huge melee of up to four opposing teams (including yours), each of which are competing for the same goals. Vary rarely are all teams stacked against you personally, so it really gives the battles some feeling when you see two enemy NPCs duking it out, instead of simply ganging up on you.
The only problem with that last aspect is that enemy AI is not always the brightest. While often-times it may surprise and pull a fast one on you (giving the AI just enough credit to not always be able to count on them to make the wrong move), there are several occasions in which they handle situations in a What the heck were you thinking? kind of way. For instance, Satyrs a Light class whose abilities focus on raising the crowds acceptance of their team and inflicting abnormal status affects upon opponents will often use their Crowd Pleaser ability even in situations where it makes absolutely no sense for them to do so. While pleasing the crowd does increase a teams Crowd Meter, which in turn provides that team with a number of morale bonuses in battle, the Satyrs will often perform this move even when it would be more prudent to simply smash their foe, such as in a Points Battle where doing damage is the only thing that matters. The AI may not always perform the best action for the occasions, but because the enemys level is always on average with yours, and because the enemy does surprise you on occasion, it doesnt make the game overly simple, either.
If you do happen to find that the AI is just too stupid to bother with, fear not, for this game has a multi-player option as well. You can either team up with a buddy in cooperative play and completely decimate the enemy together, or you can go head-to-head and try to determine if your buddy is any smarter than the computer is. Versus mode can be accessed only after completing your first Regional Championship about four to five hours of gameplay is all and once you unlock it you may use your schools characters in battle so, the better your team-building skills, the better you will do in Versus mode as well. While versus mode can certainly be fun, and add a lot of replay value, my one gripe is that it is often a test of who can score the most critical hits.
Using the games Swing Meter attack system, in both the main game and the versus mode, you will have to press a particular button at the right time to perform a more powerful move (kind of like in a golfing game). The swing meter allows you some control in how hard you hit an opponent, including whether or not you score a critical hit (which hits the target no matter their evasion abilities and does a bit of extra damage). The only problem with this swing meter style of play is that those who are good at timing their critical hits just perfectly will almost always decimate the opponent, as their shield and other evasive maneuvers will prove fruitless.
On the bright side, not all swing meters work the same way. For instance, you will use the swing meter not only to attack, but to perform certain skills, and your meter may change depending on what you are doing. When a normal melee-type character makes an attack, he will get a bar with a large orange band, a small red band, and a medium-sized blue band. If he presses the attack button while the meter is in the orange area he will make a swing that does normal damage, while in the red zone it will deal a critical hit, and in the blue zone it will likely miss, or cause very little damage. Certain skills use a bar with an orange band and a yellow band, however, and unless you press the appropriate button while the meter is in the small area of the yellow band, your skill will not be performed successfully (so you may, in fact, be unskilled at using a skill!). Another type of meter has you pressing a sequence of buttons as they appear on-screen and, the faster you press the buttons, the more likely you are to score a critical. There are other types of variants to these meters as well, but those are the most basic examples.
As a final gameplay note: the Affinity System. This is Gladius elemental system, in which each character has a particular affinity toward Fire, Earth, Wind, or Water (your four classic elements). Each character may learn affinity attacks, which may be used once their affinity gauge has charged a certain amount. This gauge charges when you deal damage with a weapon that carries the same type of affinity, and will charge more rapidly if your affinity is particularly high. Once you have enough affinity to perform an affinity attack, you may choose to do. Affinity attacks always hit their opponents, so the defenders affinity defense will be the only thing protecting them. To top it all off, affinity attacks come in levels one through four, each level indicating the power of the attack. By level three of a given affinity type, the attack will cause some sort of status ailment (Petrify for Earth, Burn for Fire, etc.) and once you learn to use the ultimate power of your affinity, you may even summon an Affinity Beast to damage every single enemy on the battlefield. These affinity attacks can add some good variety, both visually and tactically, to Gladius gameplay.
Okay, so the gameplay is good and, in some cases, rather innovative, but how do the graphics and sounds add up? Gladius graphics and sound, like every other aspect of the game, have several good qualities along with a few minor faults. While the graphics are generally well-done and well-animated, especially in battle, the cut scenes, again, leave something to be desired. You will often see Ursula and Urlan posed for battle, even in scenes where their weapons have no need to be ready, and their movements can seem rather stiff (as opposed to the nice, fluid battle animations). Its a minor detail, but considering you will be spending a fair amount of time watching cut scenes, it is one that should be noted. Aside from the aforementioned voice acting, the sound quality of Gladius is excellent. From the clash of sword and shield in battle to the triumphant musical score, Gladius rarely disappoints the ears. The music is outstanding and fits the games setting very well, and only during particularly long battles does the constant looping of the same piece tend to get old. You may often find yourself humming some of these tunes even while away from the game, as some of them are simply that catchy.
Overall, Gladius is an excellent turn-based strategy RPG that, while a little rough around the edges, offers several hours of interesting gameplay. With two characters to choose from, it adds some great replay value to the game and, even after you have finished it with both heroes, the multiplayer aspects will keep you coming back for more. Gladius is an enjoyable experience worthy of any strategy enthusiasts attention, but is light enough on the challenge and heavy enough on the fun that everyone should give this title a try, even if strategy games are not typically your cup of tea.