A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
There was a time when a game coming from LucasArts didn’t have to be a Star Wars game. It was a time of variety. It was a time of Armed and Dangerous, a quirky shooter that poked fun at Star Wars and included a shark launcher in its ridiculous arsenal of available weapons. It was a time of Wrath Unleashed, a tabletop-esque game that shifted from strategy to fighting game when two pieces occupied the same space. It was a time of Gladius, one of my favorite games of all time.
Gladius is a turn-based strategy game originally released in 2003 for Xbox, Gamecube, and PS2. Set in some sort of fantasy realm loosely based off of ancient Rome, the player was tasked with reviving a gladiator “school” and competing in tournaments of combat across four different regions for fame, glory, and a quick bit of saving the world crammed in at the end. Starting with two basic heroes depending on where you choose to start, your school’s numbers could be increased by recruiting gladiators of various weight classes. There is a simple rock-paper-scissors mechanic at play with light, medium, and heavy gladiators each having advantages over one another. Ranged, arcane, and beast classes are also thrown in to provide a few wild cards. Battles came in plenty of varieties, but they all came down to choosing the best gladiators for the job based on win conditions and the composition of the enemy team. The battlefield was divided into a grid with characters taking turns moving around and performing attacks.
As of now, I’ve pretty much described the gameplay of Final Fantasy Tactics or Ogre Battle. What set Gladius apart, aside from the Roman mythological setting, was the addition of swing meters that accompanied each attack. Yes, I’m talking about the kind you’d see in golf games. This was the player’s opportunity to give the behind-the-scenes dice rolls a big middle finger since proper timing allowed the player to get a critical and guaranteed hit. It also guaranteed success with buff skills and other beneficial abilities. This feature set Gladius apart from its turn-based strategy brethren and gave it a more hands-on feeling as opposed to just selecting options and watching them happen.
This was especially important because, unfortunately, Gladius was not pretty to look at. The visuals were poor even for the original Xbox and riddled with audio glitches and missing effects on PS2 and Gamecube. The divide between the character art drawn by amazing artist James Zhang in the game’s menus and the hideous character models was wider than the gaping maw of a sarlacc. I actually spoke with James briefly by email a few years ago to get his thoughts on this great divide directly. He explained to me that he was just happy to see his artwork in the game. I also had asked him about the rumors that had been popping up at the time about a possible sequel to Gladius. Sadly the mere listing of Gladius 2 in his project list only confirms that he did some concept art.
This does prove that at one point LucasArts was thinking about it, right? Well, think about it more, Star Wars peddalers! Turn-based strategy games are making a comback on mobile platforms with games like Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions being re-released for the iPad. Like I said, the only parts of the game that don’t hold up are the visuals. Clean it up a bit and pump out an HD remake as a downloadable title. If it sells well, give us a sequel! The original was extremely well received by critics, but lacked any real marketing I can remember. It even earned one of those “best game no one played” awards from OXM.
Gladius 2 would have an amazing framework to expand upon thanks to the original. Although updated visuals would be the most important aspect of the game to work on, rebalancing useless classes and other gameplay improvements would be necessary. It would be amazing to see the swing meters better integrated with the game’s visuals instead of just appearing as a colored bar. Their timing could also be reworked. Instead of a character ambling over to his target, waiting for the player to operate the swing meter, then the “running attack” animation playing, the meter could appear right away and take long enough to use for the character to actually sprint at his target and perform the attack based on the player’s timing.
I don’t say this often, by toning down the story would actually expand the game’s potential greatly. The player could choose to start in any region, customize their first gladiator, and conquer the tournaments and challenges of the other regions. This would enhance replayability by giving players the chance to see how their schools develop based on which gladiators they have access to at the beginning of the game. There’s nothing wrong with the player’s sole motivation being to be the very best, like no one ever was.
If Beyond Good and Evil has a sequel on the horizon, Gladius can too!