Gladius is set in a world recovering from a terrible war between the nations of Imperia, which echoes ancient Greek and Roman culture, and Nordagh, which similarly echoes Celtic and Viking culture. It was a war that culminated in the release of the Dark god, Mortuus, and both sides had to join forces to save their world. They won, but the Queen of the Valkyries, a group of female fighters from Nordagh that were blessed with Light affinity, had to sacrifice herself to destroy Mortuus, and after the battle, the Valkyries were no more.
Now, a generation after the war, aggression is mostly restricted to fights in magical arenas, where the fallen are immediately restored to health after each battle, and instead of waging wars, people show their combat skills in gladiatorial matches, gathering together in schools and travelling the lands to fight in different arenas. Their goals are to qualify for and defeat the regional championships in order to have a chance at the grand event: the Grand Championships in Imperia's capital, Caltha.
The game follows the story of two heroes, Ursula
, the princess of Nordagh, and Valens
, the son of one of the finest gladiators in Imperia, as they attempt to build the best gladiator school the world has ever seen. They are mentored by Usus, an old friend of both Ursula's father, king Orin, and Valens' father, Munio, as the three of them fought together in the battle against the Dark God.
The player can choose to follow either Ursula's story, or Valens'. Their stories follow fairly similar paths, and no matter which character the player chooses to start with, the other will automatically join fairly early on. In Valens' game, he is accompanied by his childhood friend Ludo, and in both games, Ursula is accompanied by her brother, Urlan. At later stages, the school will also be joined by Eiji, an archer from the Windward Steppes (a Mongol-flavored nation on a grassy plateau), and Gwazi, a secutor from the Southern Expanse (a desert nation, colored by Arabian culture). Other school members are recruited in the different arenas, and if the school is popular enough, high enough level, and can afford their recruitment fee, they will be happy to join you, either for one fight or on a permanent basis.
In the early stages of the game, the main difference is that Ursula starts her quest in Nordagh, and Valens begins his in Imperia. As such, the order in which the player completes these two areas depends on which character he/she is playing as. The rest of the game follows the same pattern either way, with the quest turning towards the Windward Steppes, and finally the Southern Expanse. Along the way, the player must complete the tournaments in each region before advancing.
As the game progresses, the story unfolds into something more than fighting in the games. A group is attempting to resurrect the dark god Mortuus, and is hard at work converting good fighters to their side. After completing the regional games and winning the Grand Championship in Caltha, the school learns of the plan to restore Mortuus, and Ursula and Valens are called upon to take up their destinies and act against him.
Much of Gladius' narrative revolves around racism and nationalism. The world of Gladius is home to very diverse races and nations, and there has been a long history of hostility between them. In particular, it is made very clear that some bad blood exists between the Imperials and the barbarians of Nordagh. This provides the context for much of the game's character development, as well as serves as the central theme for the game. Ursula and Valens are shown to be more tolerant and open-minded than most of their countrymen, especially when contrasted with the attitudes that Urlan and Ludo have towards foreigners, and a love story slowly unfolds as Ursula and Valens grow closer to each other.
Gladius is a strategy RPG, similar to games such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem. During the game you can recruit gladiators to your school. These gladiators fall into many different classes, each with their own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. During each battle, you are allowed a certain number of warriors on the field. This number changes per battle (usually somewhere from 1-5 are allowed), and there will occasionally be restrictions as to what classes are allowed. Battles play out in a turn based fashion, with gladiators from all participating schools taking turns until the victory condition is met (these are described below). Movement is carried out on a simple grid, akin to what is found in Fire Emblem. As your warriors fight, they gain experience and level up. Leveling up provides gladiators with increased stats and Job Points, which are used to buy new abilities. Winning battles also provides the school with gold, which can be used to purchase better equipment, as well as recruit new gladiators. Talking to people in town can also yield side quests with various rewards, including new equipment or warriors for your school.
To progress between regions, players must complete the current region's championship tournament. To qualify to compete in the tournament you must first complete the local tournament in each town in the region, which in turn you qualify for by completing various leagues in each town. The leagues are composed of several battles each, but you often do not need to finish them all to earn enough points to move on. All battles in each town are fought in that town's arena, although environmental changes such as the addition of boxes or statues that attack nearby fighters can occur. Unlike games such as Fire Emblem, there is no penalty for gladiators falling in most battles, they are simply removed from the field and returned to your roster at full health. Some battles occur outside the arenas, however, these are considered "to the death" and warriors can be permanently killed.
The classes in Gladius follow a simple rock-paper-scissors model. Most warriors are considered light, medium, or heavy fighters, and obey this general rule of thumb: Heavy beats Medium, Medium beats Light, and Light beats Heavy. The logic seems to be that the larger, stronger warrior will have an easier time of attacking a slightly smaller warrior, but when the difference becomes too large, the agility and speed of the Light warrior will make it easier to attack the slow, heavyset (literally, in the case of male Samnites and Ogres!) Heavy warrior.
Ursula, Valens, Urlan and Ludo are all considered medium warriors. Ursula and Valens are their own class called Hero, while Urlan is a modified Barbarian and Ludo a modified Legionnaire. Gwazi, as a modified Secutor, is considered as a Light warrior, and Ejii, who is a specialized archer, is considered as Support. Wolves and Plains Cats are considered to be Light warriors, while Bears, Scarabs and Scorpions are Heavy.
The game is fairly egalitarian, with most classes having both male and female warriors. Cyclopses, Minotaurs, Ogres, Mongrels and Mongrel Shamans have a presumably male appearance, Summoners are only males, and Channelers and Amazons are only females. The game requires you to have a mix of male and female gladiators for some battles in Nordagh, and requires you to have a number of female gladiators for some battles in the Windward Steppes. (Oddly enough, a cutscene around that point seems to imply that Ursula and Eiji are the only females in a school full of boys that are afraid of Amazons... when it's just as easy to have a school where Valens and Urlan are the only men!) Light
- Bandit - From Nordagh or Imperia. At their best when attacking from behind, and skilled at incapacitating Heavy classes.
- Berserker - From Nordagh. Their howls may root and confuse opponents, and their berserk rages turn them into Heavy fighters.
- Dervish - From the Expanse. They may gain 100% immunity to Air Affinity, and their whirlwind-type attacks will affect all foes around them.
- Satyr - From Nordagh. They'll sing and drink to entice the crowd or boost their allies, but can also deliver a hefty bonk with their jugs.
- Secutor - From Nordagh or the Steppes. Their Surprise Attacks do serious damage, and the crowd loves their Taunts.
- Mongrel - From Imperia. They hit, they kick, and they work better when around an Ogre.
- Barbarian - From Nordagh. Have innate skills that permanently increase their abilities. May transform into a bear, wolf, or cat.
- Legionnaire - From Imperia. Disciplined fighters that work best in groups, or when commanded by a Centurion.
- Murmillo - From Imperia. Specializes heavily in shieldwork, and may, amongst other things, perform ranged attacks with their shields.
- Dark Legionnaire - From Imperia, unrecruitable. Similar to regular Legionnaires, but use Dark Affinity.
- Undead Legionaire - From Imperia. Use Dark Affinity and have many fear-based attacks. May Shatter Self to harm opponents.
- Centurion - From Imperia. May boost their allies with speeches, either raising abilities or removing detrimental effects.
- Cyclops - Deliver several special attacks with their singular gaze, and specialize in creating fear in their opponents.
- Minotaur - Have several extremely powerful attacks including a long-range charge, and may confuse opponents.
- Ogre - From Imperia. Heavy hitters with some nauseating special skills; may give mongrels bonuses if they're nearby.
- Samnite - From Imperia, the Steppes, or the Expanse. They use powerful attacks, bash opponents aside, and can easily clear an area.
- Yeti - From Nordagh. Has many powerful attacks, including the ability to attack anyone who approaches.
classes depend upon affinity for their most potent attacks.
- Channeler - From Imperia. They steal affiinity from others and use it to attack enemies or boost and heal allies. Can Teleport.
- Summoner - They create their own affinity with which they summon elementals or skeletons, or perform attacks.
- Undead Summoner - They draw Dark affinity from its own health, which they then use to summon skeletons or attack.
- Mongrel Shaman - From Nordagh. They build affinity by striking others. May freeze, poison, or confuse opponents.
- Galdr - From Nordagh, unrecruitable. Their songs boost allies' movement and other abilities, or can confuse or harm opponents.
classes perform ranged attacks and have several other abilities.
- Amazon - From the Steppes. Have many special attacks that target male opponents.
- Archer - From the Steppes. Have several special bow shot attacks.
- Gungnir - From Nordagh. Perform powerful ranged spear attacks, and may transform into a bear.
- Peltast - From Imperia. Have a number of good ranged spear attacks, and are decent at close range as well.
- Wolf - From Nordagh. Light units that work best in a pack of equals. May only use Earth affinity.
- Bear - From Nordagh. Heavy units with a number of defensive skills. May only use Earth affinity.
- Plains Cat - From the Steppes. Excellent climbers with petrifying growls and roars. May only use Air affinity.
- Scarab - From the Expanse. Tough beasts with powerful ranged spittle attacks. May only use Fire affinity.
- Scorpion - From the Expanse. Have many powerful poisoning attacks. May only use Water affinity.
- Dark Wolf - Unrecruitable. Undead wolves that use Dark Affinity. May drain affinity from all opponents.
- Dark Cat - Unrecruitable. Undead plains cats that use Dark Affinity. May drain affinity from all opponents.
In addition to basic attacks, gladiators can learn a variety of different skills to use on the battlefield, including special attacks, support skills, combos and elemental strikes called affinity attacks. Attacks on the battlefield are carried out through a number of swing meters. These meters all require the player to perform some task, and the outcome can either be a miss, a hit, or a critical. The basic meter has a simple slider move across the screen, while prompting the player to hit a button to stop the meter. The miss, hit, and critical areas of the meter are clearly marked, thus the player would try to land the slider in the "hit" zone (or even better, the "critical" zone). Other meters have the player perform tasks such as alternate between pressing two different buttons as fast as you can, imputing a given button sequence as fast as you can, or string together multiple basic meters in a row. Each type of attack uses the same swing meter each time it is used. Players can also turn the meters off and accept a random outcome for attacks, and some attacks, such as spear attack, affinity attacks or Ursula's high kick, do not have a meter at all. The amount of damage, as well as the percentage chance of a successful normal hit, is clearly shown against the opponent's health bar whenever a potential attack is highlighted, making it easier to select the most efficient attack for each character.
Affinity attacks do not use a meter, but must be charged up. Most weapons will have an element assigned to them, and each hit will provide charge that can be used in an affinity attack. Gladiators must still have the appropriate skill to use the built up affinity.
In addition to the types of fighters and skills used, positioning on the battlefield is also important. Attacking from the back yields more damage than attacking from the side, which yields more damage than attacking head on. Characters will usually turn to face their attacker, thus reducing the inflicted damage, but if their attention is engaged by another opponent, they will not turn, nor will they turn to face a surprise attack. Other advantages are gained by attacking from higher ground as it is offered by the field of the arena, or by gaining bonuses to initiative, affinity or critical damage through attaining the crowd's favor. Critical hits have a 100% chance of landing, no matter what, and inflict significant additional damage.
Affinity is the magic power of the Gladius universe. Granted by the Affinity Gods, these powers align with the elements of Fire, Water, Air, or Earth. Aeris holds the Air affinity, and is represented by an eagle. Maritimus holds the Water affinity, and is represented by a turtle. Exuro holds the Fire affinity, and is represented by a dragon. Solum holds the Earth affinity, and is represented by a boar. Mortuus holds the Dark Affinity, which is used by those who fight for him, while the Light Affinity, which was kept by the Valkyries prior to the war, is thought to be lost.
Items such as weapons and armor may be blessed with Affinity abilities. A Fire affinity weapon will gather usable Fire affinity for its wielder with every blow, while a Water affinity breastplate will build Water affinity each time its wearer is struck; this will create a buffer that will absorb damage from any Water affinity attacks, significantly lessening their impact. Dervishes may learn a skill that makes them permanently immune to any Air affinity attacks.
A character who has learned to use affinity attacks may use them as soon as he or she has gathered a certain amount of affinity through other means. Affinity attacks always have a 100% chance of landing, and have no attack meter. The three first affinity attacks are single target, causing damage and, for affinity attack 3, a status effect corresponding to the nature of the affinity type. Affinity attack 4 summons an avatar of the Affinity God which, in addition to creating an impressive display, does damage to every opponent in the arena.
- Defeat the enemy - your basic battle. Kill all opponents to win.
- Points battle - you get 1 point for every point of damage dealt to the enemy. These battles are timed, and the team with the most points at the end wins. Gladiators can't die in points battles.
- King of the Hill - a 'hill' with a single highest point is built in the arena. certain spot(s) of the arena are designated as the "hill". If a gladiator stands on the top of the hill for a few seconds, they get a point. At the ends of the time limit, the team with the most points wins. Alternatively, you can kill all opponents to win.
- Dominance - three elevated spots are placed in the arena. Similarly to King of the Hill, standing on these spots for a few seconds yields a point, and the team with the most points at the end of the time limit wins. Alternatively, you can kill all opponents to win.
- Vandal Battle - barrels litter the arena, and the team that destroys the most barrels within the time limit wins. Alternatively, you can kill all opponents to win.
- Rival Nations - each team has a statue that can be destroyed, and victory is granted by destroying the opponent team's statue. Alternatively, you can kill all opponents to win.
- Series battles - these battle are fought back to back. You are allowed to heal and pick a different team in between each individual battle, but are not allowed to leave the arena, and you must win every battle to win the series.
- Endurance battles - similar to Series battles, except you aren't even allowed to heal or change teams. Damage is carried over between battles, and the same gladiators must be used throughout.
- Wilderness and plot encounters - Outside of the usual protection of the arena, battles can be deadly, especially for non-story characters or certain scenarios. Defeat the enemy as you normally would, but realize you may lose characters permanently if they fall in battle.