Gladius | Developer: Lucasarts | Publisher: Lucasarts | Year: 2003
Gladius NTSC-U Box Art depicting a gladiator standing over a fallen foe

Gladius

Gladius is the first game featured in this blog series that wasn’t an Xbox exclusive. It’s one that I’ve been keen to revisit though because whilst I’ve re-evaluated a few entries on my negative lists from years ago, I haven’t looked back at many games on my positive lists.

This is quite relevant as far as Gladius is concerned because although I’ve always praised it in passing, I still considered it — until now anyway — the best video game I never completed.

In my defence, Gladius has a huge 70+ hour campaign and that estimate doesn’t even include all the optional content! When you also consider there are two separate campaigns (with alternate starting locations and story beats between them), whether you end up loving the game or not, you’re certainly getting your money’s worth.

After selecting one of the two main heroes, players are thrust into a mythical world where they must train an entire school of fighters to compete in various gladiatorial games.

These games are conducted via a turn-based battle system where players issue orders to their gladiators. When a gladiator attacks, players are presented with a swing meter that will determine the accuracy and power of their strike.

Different attacks and abilities initiate a different type of swing meter to determine their effectiveness. There are times where a player will need to stop a moving arrow, or mash buttons, or correctly match a random sequence, similar to a sporting game like International Track & Field.

Outside of battle, players will focus on more RPG-like pursuits; travelling to arenas to earn money; battling to gain experience; and outfitting their school with stronger equipment and new members. A background story adds colour and intrigue to the proceedings, although it’s sporadically featured for the most part.

The main emphasis is on fighting, which isn’t a bad thing considering how satisfying the combat system is. Games are deliberately paced, but they possess good tactical depth.

Gladiators can have strong or weak match-ups depending on their weight class and the weight class of their opponent. It’s also vital to pay attention to an arena’s terrain because height advantages are incredibly potent if leveraged correctly.

Supporting this is a huge roster of gladiators from all four corners of the world. There are famous classes inspired by Roman history; classes like the centurion and the secutor, but you also have more fantastical classes like ogres and yetis, summoners and berserkers, and various beasts including bears, scorpions and even fire-spitting scarabs.

Players have total control when building their school. You could choose to become a bandit lord by only training the nimble classes who favour flanking; recruit more gungnirs and archers to dominate from range; or surround your hero with their very own wolf pack. The game encourages a more diverse approach than that, but there’s little stopping you from experimenting on a wild idea.

Such ideas are easy to consider because Gladius is so easy. The computer AI knows how to take advantage of flanking bonuses, but it really struggles when navigating terrain and doesn’t always understand how to best use a gladiator’s skills. Beating the computer is therefore an easy task in most instances, with only a few lopsided battles in the entire game presenting difficulty for an experienced player.

Players can partially solve this problem by recruiting from the weaker classes, but of course that only highlights how suspect the balance is to begin with.

The swing meters are front and centre of this issue. Players who can reliably hit the sweet spot on each meter will score criticals on a consistent basis. Critical hits ignore the accuracy of the attacker and the defence of the defender, with heavy damage being dealt into the bargain. This means a player can very quickly outperform the computer, with less thought given to their gladiators’ skills and equipment.

Fortunately, Gladius allows players to turn the swing meters off completely. Doing this makes attacks and skills resolve randomly, with a gladiators’ statistics often contributing to the outcome. This makes the game less interactive, but it also makes it faster and more balanced, to the point where terrain, weight classes and passive abilities become truly relevant with the meters off.

On the downside, there are several unfortunate bugs that spoil the balance further. Certain classes like the mongrels and berserkers are heavily weakened by their bugged skills, as is the crowd meter that governs your school’s popularity. The crowd meter is almost worthless as a mechanic; something that makes the crowd-pleasing satyrs next to useless in combat.

Another problem arises for the gladiators who can’t equip armour. Their accuracy and defence statistics develop poorly as a result. And then you have the looting mechanic which doesn’t even work until chapter 3, presumably due to another bug that prevents enemies from dropping treasure chests in the earlier chapters.

Even worse is how you can’t reset a gladiator’s skills. Recruitable gladiators have levels which scale with the overall level of your school, but those gladiators recruited at a higher level will have their skills preselected by the computer. Therefore, if you really want to train an optimised school that doesn’t waste its skill picks on weaker alternatives, you actually need to avoid gaining experience points so that the recruiting levels stay as low as possible. It’s a very strange way to play.

Gladius gameplay screenshots

Gladiatorial games sometimes come in different flavours (e.g. king of the hill, barrel-smashing contests), but the default head-to-head games are still the most fun.

It’s also a bit irritating that your school slots unlock slowly. Aside from your main hero, there are several other heroes that you’re forced to recruit, so you’ll always be yearning for more slots. Again, your best gladiators are the ones you can train up from first level, so the limited slots in the early game dampen diversity and make things less enjoyable.

And the heroes you’re forced to recruit usually have a medium weight class. Because the heroes are naturally stronger than most other gladiators, it makes the recruitment of further medium weight gladiators less attractive.

Some players are unlikely to care or even notice some of these problems, and like Deathrow, there are cheat codes present that can help take the edge off some of the botched mechanics.

Another thing that helps distract from those problems is the game’s world-building. Everything oozes theme. The concept feels original and every town has its own story told by shopkeepers and the occasional obscure side quest.

The gladiators themselves are also nicely rendered. Character models look good, the voice acting is good, and there are many nice little touches like the stylised fonts for each realm menu, the art galleries and FAQ sections, and the way that gladiators slump when their health drops to a low level.

Some of the loading times can be a bit obnoxious. From what I understand, the Xbox version of Gladius has the edge over the PlayStation 2 version because the animations are held on the Xbox’s hard drive, so there are no pauses or visual flickers during battle.

Gladius also takes advantage of the Xbox’s controller ports by offering local gameplay modes for up to four players. The campaign games let you assign gladiators to additional controllers making it fully cooperative too. This is a rare feature for a console game of this genre, and although the idea of playing through such a ginormous campaign with multiple people will be unrealistic for most, the drop-in design makes it easy to manage. It makes you wonder why more games like this don’t do the same thing.

Evidence of cut content, as well as those aforementioned bugs, give the impression that Gladius was rushed to meet its release date. It’s possible considering how busy 2003 was for Lucasarts (they released both Star Wars Galaxies and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in that same year).

The lacklustre story contributes to the impression. Whilst it starts off well enough, the plot loses steam in the second half of the game. The final act feels especially weak with its bikini-clad female villain looking and sounding rather silly in the few cutscenes devoted to her. A romance sub plot is handled a little better, seeing as it actually gets paid off in the end, but beats like those still feel half-baked.

So coming to the end of this retrospective, I do concede that Gladius doesn’t deserve a spotless record by any means. It certainly has its fair share of annoying flaws. The game needed a few bugs fixing, it needed a Hard mode, and it needed a new game+ option so you could return to your save file after the campaign is complete.

What Gladius really would have benefitted from though is a PC port to allow modding. This remains a deeply original strategy game with incredible longevity. There is value in returning to a game like this. As a result, a PC version would surely have attracted a modding community that would have quickly patched those bugs and no doubt tweaked and adjusted a whole lot more.

As it stands, Gladius remains a console gem that, the odd frustration aside, is still a damn fine experience well worth tracking down and adding to your retro collection.