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As far as the latest numbered addition to the historic fantasy JRPG franchise is concerned, revolutionary gameplay is the name of the game… figuratively speaking. Following Final Fantasy XV’s dramatic arrival, older entries to the series are left to age gracefully in their place by XV’s brand spanking new features; features like day and night cycles, real-time in-and-out combat and heavily customizable vehicles; even the conventional expectations of the most high-rolling RPGs on the market are blown inexorably out of the water by XV’s bold and beautiful technical exploration. These new gameplay ventures transform the first two thirds of the game into an immersive road trip simulator, lovingly weaved together by the exceptionally compelling storyline, mind-blowing graphical achievements and the occasional moment taken to admire Cindy’s.... graphics. Satisfying as it may be, reaching the summit of this titanic fantasy escapade leaves you wrestling keenly with a hunger for more pseudo-realistic fantasy goodness, and so loyal fans waited patiently with bated breath for the arrival of Final Fantasy XV’s first DLC. And now, much to the dismay of reviewers everywhere, Squ-enix’s first post-release add-on to the game falls short of the mountainous standards set by its father package in almost every way possible.
The add-on starts off reasonably well; lovable brute father-figure Gladio has taken temporary hiatus from the band to work out some niggling doubts about his ability to fulfil his duties as Noctis’ mentor and shield. The plot even affords its audience a satisfying return from fan-favourite Cor as Gladio is guided through a series of trials to prove himself worthy of his destiny, revealing the slightest supplementary insight into Cor’s character whilst assimilating him tentatively back into the limelight. Sadly, this is essentially where the plot abandons us, as emergent Demon Souls-style gameplay is dragged kicking and screaming through a series of narrow linear corridors, offering little to do therein beyond grudgingly cutting through wave after wave of repetitive enemies and occasionally taking the time to fight a marginally larger-than-normal mini-boss. To make the experience even saltier, the combat itself is far more restrictive than in the main game due being limited to a single weapon with an agonisingly slow action. Whilst there are one or two new abilities like improvising makeshift weapons out of structural pillars and the presence of a new “rage meter,” Gladio’s sword’s apparent reluctance to do any work reduces the combat experience to little more than a repetitive chore.
Even with a single-digit price tag, Episode Gladiolus boasts a disappointingly short lifespan; I clocked my own first runthrough in under an hour, of which I spent my time desperately searching for some hidden easter egg or side quest that might satisfy the unsated hunger lingering from the climax of the main game. Sadly, this also means there’s no real new contribution to XV’s story, which is an especially poor show considering an entire section of the main game’s narrative was set aside to make room for this chapter of Gladio’s personal storyline, elucidated by the mysterious appearance of a new scar on his face forever afterwards; a scar that now carries a relatively mundane and honestly underwhelming explanation.
For me, the most compelling promise offered during the DLC’s announcement was the return of Gilgamesh; I immediately envisioned an add-on rich with Final Fantasy V references, bumbling comic dialogue and perhaps even a brief voyage to the “Void” which Gilgamesh uses to portal his way into different Final Fantasy universes besides his own. But the “Blademaster” that was hastily shoe-horned into Episode Gladiolus is little more than a stock RPG bad guy with more “come at me, bro” dialogue than meaningful personality, without even the slightest hint of comic relief. The anti-climactic boss battle with Darth Gilgamesh requires no more strategy than a basic encounter, and can be easily beaten by perpetually smothering the Attack button, occasionally breaking the chain of attacks to dodge an incoming lunge or crack open a potion. Even in conventional linear games, at least ultimately defeating the final boss is enough to award the player a certain satisfaction in overcoming a genuine challenge, but this time around there is nothing to reward your feat other than a brief series of cutscenes, one or two minor unlocks and a daunting trip back to the main menu. At this point (presumably to maximise the limited play time the DLC brings to the game) Square Enix included an additional time trial mode; this speed run challenge runs utterly parallel to a standard playthough, save for the exclusion of cutscenes and a timer in the corner of the screen to provide a slightly more arcade-like challenge.
As brutal as I may be in my reflection of this first DLC, there are one or two elements of the package that did actually win my approval. One the cooler things about it is the soundtrack, which at least is a reference to the Gilgamesh experience I was so hoping for. The main theme for the adventure is a new orchestral remix of Battle at the Big Bridge, which is Gilgamesh’s theme from his original appearance in FFV. The rest of the tuneage also feels fresh, with a dramatic and heartfelt ambience, and a collection of refreshingly heavy guitar-based battle music which perfectly matches Gladio’s aggressive motivation to prove himself a badass. And, of course, the visuals are as staggering as those of the main game; sluggish as the experience may be, the game at least alleviates the slow trudge through Gilgamesh’s rocky underground tomb with a luscious visual feast of luminous colours, painstaking detail and a shoulder-to-shoulder exhibit of Gladio’s exotic eagle tattoos.
As a committed devotee who racked up over 200 hours of playtime in the main game, I walked away from Episode Gladiolus feeling quite unsubtly violated by a lazy, and frankly offensive addition to an otherwise awesome JRPG experience. I mean, I am only one type of gamer—the DLC would obviously be better suited to a player who frequents linear button-mashers like Dark Souls or Devil May Cry, but as tag-along content to an open-world camping trip simulator, it seems almost entirely alien when compared to the meat of XV’s main content, as all that wonderfully immersive RPG gameplay is removed and the player is left with little motivation to endure more than a couple of playthroughs.
My verdict? The price tag is a fair forecast of what you’re getting for your buck; apart from a pumped-up soundtrack, a helping of pretty visuals, and the chance to sample Gladio’s body art, it’s a fiver you will never see again.