Platform: Microsoft XBox, Nintendo GameCube, Sony PlayStation 2
Release Date: NA: 10/28/03, EU: 11/28/03
Genre: Strategy RPG
Battle System: Gladius is a gladiator SRPG. If you're playing it for anything but a good battle system, you're in the wrong place. That being said, the battle system is extremely well-executed. Elevation matters. Facing matters. Class matters. Size matters. There are enough variables in the battles to make any devoted SRPG fan happy. Almost every battle takes place in a gladiatorial arena, so the insertion of crates to stand on, pits in the battlefield, and broken pillars to hide behind is believable.
Where Gladius's battle system differs from the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea is arcade-style player influence. In most other SRPGs critical hits are doled out only when the computer-simulated dice roll allows. In Gladius, however, each move has a swing meter. Time your button presses correctly and you'll land a critical hit. Press early and you'll only land a standard blow. Press too late and you'll fumble -- either landing a glancing blow or miss entirely. Now you know why you scored a critical hit: skill, not luck. This feature can be turned off, but it serves to immerse the player in the battle. The swing meter brings arcade skill to the same table as critical and strategic thought.
Story & Characters: There are some witches and an ancient evil. It's more of a traditional RPG story than the deep involved SRPG story fans of the genre are used to. It's not great, and it gets pretty cliched and convenient toward the end, but it holds the game together well enough to keep you coming back for more battles. Technically, there are two stories: Ursula's tale and Valens's tale, but they're the same story, and the two meet up in Chapter 2 anyhow. Starting as Ursula is easier, and starting as Valens is more challenging.
Graphics: When compared to other RPGs the graphics are a bit lacking. Landscapes look washed out, and models look blurry. When compared to other SRPGs, however, the graphics are fantastic. Characters are large and 3-dimensional. Battlefields are 3-dimensional. A grid lies over the battlefield but is only obvious when moving a character. The graphical style suits the game and it's nice to finally see well-modeled characters in an SRPG. Character models reflect weapon and equipment changes as well, so you'll remember who's wielding the Sword of Stabbing and the Mace of Bludgeoning.
Sound: Sound is something of a mixed bag for Gladius. The sound effects and music don't seem inappropriate. The voice acting isn't terrible. The sound work is just good enough to not register as bad. You won't hum the songs after playing, but you won't want to rip your hair out every time a character speaks either.
Other: Gladius features co-op multiplayer (up to 4 can participate in many battles). This is huge for me. The multiplayer is well-implemented and it's fun to play. You control some combatants and your friends control some combatants. You make every decision about your controlled characters, and since the combat is turn-based, there's plenty of time to confer with one another about what to do and how to do it.
The way characters level up is a bit bothersome. The game is broken up into four areas, and each area (you'll progress in order from one area to the next) has a level cap associated with it. If you're fighting in that area and your characters are at the level cap, not only is it impossible for them to level up but they stop accumulating XP from fights altogether. Part of me thinks this is good because it keeps the fights interesting and it keeps me from creating a team of unstoppable gods. The SRPG addict in me, however, really wants to make that team of unstoppable gods. This could easily have been remedied by offering a New Game+ with the level caps removed. The challenge would remain intact on the first playthough, and characters could be maxed out on the second.
Also, you are constantly limited as to how many characters you can have on your team. I'm not sure why this is. It's not as though you ever go back to an actual school. It's implied that your gladiatorial school is just your entire party. If I want one of each class and one of each animal walking through the woods with me, I should be able to do that. I'm fine with class and number restrictions in battles, but why show me the Yeti if I have to give up my Centurion to have him?
Overall: If you're a fan of SRPGs, I suggest picking this game up. It has a couple of flaws (what game doesn't?), but they can be easily overlooked. Replay value on this game is huge as you're almost certain to have skipped some battles the first time around due to class restrictions. It's nice to see an SRPG with passable graphics. Gameplay may be what makes a good SRPG, but it doesn't hurt to have something pretty to look at, too.