The last time we checked in on Gladius, LucasArts' upcoming role playing game, the game was in its first playable form at last year's E3. While the demo was solid and did a fair job of giving players a taste of the kind of gameplay they could expect from the finished product, a recent visit to LucasArts painted us a more complete picture of where Gladius is headed.
The most cohesive element in the game is its combat system, which is a blend of turn-based and real-time elements that's one part Final Fantasy Tactics, one part Super Mario RPG, and one part Final Fantasy X. You take control of a group of up to six fighters and engage in turn-based combat against an equal or greater number of foes (no one said all the fights in the game would be fair). As you go through the game, you'll gain access to a wide variety of fighters, ranging from standard humanoids to mystical creatures. Each fighter will have a set of attacks that you can expand as he or she gains experience. The attacks will range from simple single-button-press attacks to more involved assaults that require you to input a string of commands. You'll also find certain attacks will require you to input controller motions similar to the "overdrives" in Final Fantasy X. At the moment, the precise mechanics of the combat system are being tweaked and refined to ensure that the many battles you'll engage in are smooth experiences.
However, while combat is obviously a core element of the game, Gladius will be a multifaceted package. Like any RPG worth its item sack, Gladius will offer a strong narrative, character development, side quests, and even some exploration. The game's story will be told through two narratives: one that focuses on Ursula, the daughter of a barbarian king, and another that focuses on Valens, the son of a great gladiator. The two characters' quests will find them trying to ensure a war doesn't break out between their respective countries. The game's presentation will make hefty use of real-time cutscenes and hand-painted images enhanced by special effects such as rain or fog to move the story along. Voice work will be liberally used throughout the game, and LucasArts has tapped actress Linda Cardellini (Velma in the recent Scooby Doo movie) to voice Ursula and Michael Rosenbaum (known for his work on Smallville) to bring Valens to life.
While the game focuses on Valens' and Ursula's individual quests to stop the war, you'll interact with a variety of characters over the course of your adventure, some of whom will clue you in to side quests you can participate in. At the same time, you'll also have limited interaction with the warriors who will join your character's gladiator school. For example, in addition to training your warriors and equipping them with one of the roughly 2,000 different weapons being included in the game, you can choose to expel them from your school. However, rather than just have the fighter disappear, the Gladius team has opted to throw some karmic elements into the game. Expelled fighters are put back into the game's character pool and can be recruited by other schools and face off against you in battle. Unfortunately, most of them have issues with rejection and will hold a grudge, which can lead to some sticky situations in a fight.
The game's exploration elements are also tied to character interaction and side quests. Your battles will take place in towns on the game's 3D world map, and like many traditional console RPGs, Gladius will require you to make your way to each location on foot. Along the way, you'll interact with NPCs that will range from friendly to combative. It also sounds as though curious travelers may be rewarded with surprises if they poke around the map.
Gladius seems to be shaping up pretty well. The game is easily the most ambitious console RPG attempted by an American developer in quite some time. The gameplay manages to be a comfortable fit, especially if you're a fan of turn-based RPGs. Gladius is currently slated to ship this May for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. Look for more on the game in the coming months.