9.2

The proof that LucasArts doesn't just need to stick to Star Wars.

Game studio LucasArts - the brawn behind many of the Star Wars videogames nowadays - has recently begun to branch out from its intergalactic roots and try fresh new projects. Two of the standouts for the Xbox were Armed and Dangerous - a critic's favored sleeper hit - and Gladius, a turn-based RPG that offered a very unique type of gameplay and a very interesting premise.

Although Gladius is extremely different from the more recent RPG The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, it does share one fundamental quality that helps to make it an enjoyable game. That is that, unlike many other RPGs, it is surprisingly easy to pick up and it never seems overwhelming, albeit plenty challenging. Like Oblivion, Gladius also manages to keep fundamental elements other than storytelling or fantasy at the core - in Oblivion it was adventure and open-endedness, and in Gladius it is strategy. What ended up turning me away from RPGs like Fable and World of Warcraft was that they had too much emphasis on fantasy elements, and that they just threw you into the world without giving you a clue as to what to do (I'm not saying they're bad games - I just didn't enjoy them). Finally, the motifs and themes of Oblivion and Gladius are a bit more down to earth. Let's face it - on average, it's a lot easier to make fun of someone who plays WoW than someone who plays Oblivion, provided their levels of obsession are comparable.

The way Gladius plays is truly unique, like literally nothing before it. Turn-based games are extremely rare nowadays, and none of the other turn-based games feel the same or manage to use the turn-based mechanic so well. I like to call Gladius chess on steroids; this is a metaphor that's more fitting the longer I think about it, since the grid-based boards are played on by many different characters who all have different attributes and abilities. Chess is easily one of the most ingenious games ever conceived, and it is an intellectually demanding competition. Gladius manages to play off of this perfectly by pitting the pieces on the board against one another correctly, and by fusing with the core strategical element with touches of storytelling and the open-ended RPG.

Gladius forks at the beginning, allowing you to choose from one of two different storylines. You are allowed to follow Valens (harder difficulty), the son of a famous gladiator who must rebuild his school, or Ursula, the daughter of the barbarian king who must uncover the mysteries behind her destiny. The difficulties between the two are clearly different, and yet neither feels too easy or too difficult. Though beginners may want to choose Ursula, either way is fine since a tutorial phase is offered first in both, and since the gameplay in both feels much the same.

The gameplay is really quite interesting. As I have said already, Gladius plays like chess on steroids. During play, the players move on a grid-based floor and move by turn. There can be as many as four teams or as many as six players per team, and what these players end up being is entirely up to you. This is because building a gladiator school is a big theme of Gladius, and throughout your ventures you can recruit several of dozens of varieties of warriors. The game separates warriors into one of five classes - heavy, medium, light, arcane, and support - and this dynamic works very well due to how balanced these classes are. The heavy, medium, and light have a rock-paper-scissors type of advantage and disadvantage over one another while the arcane and support attack from a distance. This works very well because a disadvantage is always potentially painful but never too hard to overcome. This is where terrain effects come in - standing higher than an opponent and/or attacking from behind help to deal extra damage. This is also where statistical differences (being a higher level, mostly) and equipment come in - being a higher level than an opponent will give you apparent advantages, and being better equipped than an opponent will help as well. All of these elements combine to create a surprisingly deep and complex strategical element, and seeing how your characters develop as you face new enemies in new places makes the game progressively fun all the way until the end.

Gladius is completely different when you're not in the arena. The world of Gladius is composed of four regions, which you explore one at a time, and within each region you run around like a little piece on a board game. Upon finding a town you can enter it - towns basically just being a menu with a recruiting office, a shop, and an arena - and by dominating all of the towns and then the region you move on to the next region. While the game is liberally open-ended, it unfortunately still requires players to do some things first, and the sliver of game during which you can explore all four regions at the same time freely is extremely cramped. The game also isn't exactly chock full of side quests - many of the more interesting side quests are hidden away in the tiny portion of the game that allows you to explore all of the regions. Nonetheless, exploring regions still unearths a few redeemable qualities, and each region has its own unique appeal and speciality while mocking a portion of our real Earth.

The presentation of Gladius is impressive indeed, especially by RPG standards. Gladius is self-proclaimed as being 'epic,' and the graphics really help to sell it. All of the arenas - where you will spend 99% of your time - are truly interesting in concept and well-conceived visually. In the course of your adventures you will be playing in a dragon's tomb, on a frozen lake, in the shadow of a volcano, in a deep forest, among ancient ruins, and in the courtyard of an Arabic palace - to name a few. They all have unique moods and a sense of personality. The graphics manage to do the same for the people playing in the arenas, by rendering their faces smoothly and by providing consistently smooth frame rates. Many of the game's cutscenes and backdrops are hand-drawn, which lends a very artistic feeling to the game's look. The big problem with the graphics is the lack of syncing with sound or with character's actions - too often a sound effect associated with a certain action will come several seconds late or not at all, which damages the sense of immersion in the battle. Sometimes a visual effect that might occur as the result of damage inflicted - such as a cloud over a character's head representing a stun status - will appear several turns later or not at all. The lack of consistency is annoying and it takes away from the otherwise polished look and feel of the game.

The sound has the same sense of polish, even if it sometimes sounds repetitive. Several of the themes within the same are essentially tweaked versions of the same thing, and it may be on your mind after a certain period of time. Aside from that, the musical themes both fit the mood of the region and the epic motif of the game as a whole. The voice acting isn't spectacular but it is solid - the voices were chosen well for the characters, and the voice actors lend a good sense of personality to their roles. The script is sometimes goofy, but otherwise the story told is very personal and thus easily approached.

The combination of originality, depth, and surprising length (50 hours minimum) make Gladius a lasting value for anyone who is intrigued by the unique strategical element. While maybe you wouldn't play it again immediately, the game does offer two different storylines if you ever did decide to play it again.

Finally, Gladius has earned my tilt because its one of the true standouts in well-designed gameplay, even if it is a sleeper. But more importantly, I think it deserved my attention because it manages to earn the title of RPG while not sticking too closely to the fantasy-type elements of an RPG. You'll find that Gladius does have its own unique blend of fantasy and imagination, but is very conservative and down-to-earth which makes it much easier to approach for amateurs to the RPG crowd.

Gladius deserves your attention, because it manages to provide an excellent experience and yet remain humble. Unlike maybe Fable, it doesn't try too hard or take itself too seriously. The storyline progresses smoothly and wraps up nicely, all the while providing the canvas for artistically unique audiovisual presentation and ingenously crafted strategy. The only ways it really falls short are by not attracting a wider audience and by not keeping up with itself it some places. They are not nearly enough to knock Gladius from its perch as a well-polished and smart, if not popular, gaming experience.

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