Mike did his usual great job covering the nuts and bolts of Gladius, and I agree with most of his observations. However, there was one line of his that caught my attention: "While Gladius doesn't do anything to redefine the strategy RPG subgenre, it does do just enough things well to keep players interested for the duration." This is where Mike and I part ways. In a nutshell, it would take nothing short of a miracle for Gladius to remain fresh and interesting from start to finish. Needless to say, a miracle has not been performed here.
Right off the bat, I want to state for the record that I did not complete the game. It's ungodly long, and when I say long, I mean long. After twelve hours I hadn't even cleared the first chapter yet, and by that time my will to keep playing had been exhausted. I could easily imagine the game stretching out to more than a hundred hours if a person was so inclined, though it's doubtful that anyone would want to devote that much time unless they were stranded at an arctic research station or something.
Part of the reason is that Gladius gets off to a bad start by failing to properly set up the long road ahead of the player. After picking a main character, you're free to walk around a large area and basically do whatever you want. But at that early point in the game, it's a bit overwhelming and confusing. Rather than use the plot to ease you into the world and how it works, the developers immediately open the deep technical elements they've created. Without much of an introduction period or any dramatic weight, it was quite hard for me to get immersed or excited by Gladius' tedious, dry experience.
To be fair, Gladius's combat (and especially the "swing meter") is interesting, but the events where you use the system are both too drab and too plentiful. This is a problem since the game can't fall back on its story to keep you tuned in.
As an example, my "favorite" scenario was the "points battle" where every gladiator on the board is suddenly invulnerable, and the goal is to get the highest numeric damage total through combos and heavy attacks. I fail to see what the point of such an event is, since such a contrived "videogame-like" goal is completely at odds with the setting. The frequent repetition of that battle and others like it (king of the hill, some requiring specific warrior types, etc) all feel completely artificial and never blend in with the plot in a believable, organic way. Rather than crafting these clashes to build on the narrative or and illustrate your champions' struggle to the top, Gladius relies far too heavily on repetition of abstract technical situations for hours and hours and hours. Gamers who crave nothing but a deep combat system might find enough to sink their teeth into, but those who like more rounded titles might find themselves left hungry.
It's a shame, since as Mike noted, the whole gladiator theme hasn't ever been done very often, let alone done well. Quality strategy role-playing games are equally rare, and I had hoped that Gladius would score a meaty two-in-one. However, Gladius hamstrings itself from the start by not bothering to tie its story and combat together, each part having almost nothing to do with the other. On top of that already-significant hurdle to overcome, the insane amount of busywork tournaments you have to enter only magnifies the feeling of spinning the world's dullest grindstone. By all rights Gladius should have been a champion, but this round goes to the lions instead.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the GameCube version of the game.