Final Fantasy XV: Episode Gladiolus – Reinventing and Refining

For all the criticisms it’s possible to level at Final Fantasy XV, post-launch support isn’t one of them.

Square Enix has not only been preparing for the release of character-centric DLC packages focusing on each of protagonist Noctis’ companions, but also refining and expanding the base game into something that the company clearly intends to be a “platform” for substantial added content for some time yet.

The first of these DLC packages, Episode Gladiolus, is now available. Is it worth your time if you, like me, already sunk a hundred or more hours into Final Fantasy XV when it was first launched?

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This is a question for which there isn’t exactly a straightforward answer that will apply to everyone, because everyone has different priorities while they’re playing games. So let’s look at the different elements of Episode Gladiolus, and from there you’ll hopefully be able to reach your own conclusions as to whether or not it’s worth the £3.99 asking price.

The meat of Episode Gladiolus is an interactive side-story to Final Fantasy XV. As you may have already predicted if you’ve played Final Fantasy XV’s main scenario to conclusion, it unfolds during the period in time where Gladio temporarily leaves the party in an attempt to better understand his role as “The King’s Shield”. Despite this, it is played as a separate “game” launched from Final Fantasy XV’s title menu rather than unfolding in context as part of the main scenario; a sensible decision for the sake of those who have already beaten the main game.

Gladio met up with Cor during his time apart from Noctis, and sought his counsel. Cor, in turn, took him to face “the trial of the Blademaster”, an ordeal that he himself faced some thirty years ago. During this past encounter, Cor earned his nickname “The Immortal” due to his being one of the only people in history to survive the trial despite failing it. Gladio aims to follow in his footsteps, confident in his own physical strength but doubting his mental resolve, and thus begins this short adventure, which effectively amounts to a single, linear dungeon with a number of enemy encounters punctuated by boss fights.

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The entire story takes about an hour and a half to play through, along the way offering some insight into Gladio’s character and Cor’s past. The latter of these aspects will be of particular interest to those who found Cor the character interesting but rather underexplored in the main scenario; that said, those who just want to get straight to the killing are free to skip these conversations and progress on their way to the final encounter with a classic Final Fantasy opponent in the depths of the dungeon.

One of the main attractions of playing Episode Gladiolus is the fact that Gladio has substantially different mechanics to Noctis, whom you play for the rest of Final Fantasy XV. The basic methods of balancing attacking and defending — as well as positional attacks — are still present and correct, but Gladio’s lack of Warp-Strike ability as well as the addition of some new systems make it an interesting contrast.

Of particular note in Gladio’s arsenal is his ability to block attacks with his shield. This can be handled by holding down the defend button to automatically block and dodge, much like Noctis can, but Gladio also has the ability to perform an action game-style “perfect block” by tapping the defend button just as an attack connects. This staggers the enemy and opens them up to an immediate counterattack, making it an important technique to master quickly. In the case of bosses, these counterattacks often provide unique cutscenes similar to those Noctis could trigger at various points in the main scenario.

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Gladio’s blocking mechanics also tie in to his “Rage” system. Each successful block increases a meter in the corner of the screen by a small amount, with said meter increasing his overall damage output at various intervals. The increase begins with a modest 1.3x damage, but can increase to double, triple or even quadruple damage if you block skilfully enough. The tradeoff, of course, is that this meter takes a substantial hit if Gladio takes any damage, or if he remains exclusively on defense without attacking.

Gladio’s blocking is also limited somewhat by a “Focus” bar that declines while he has his shield out. Should this expire completely, he will be placed in the “Vulnerable” state and take increased damage from enemy attacks, so in order to play him effectively you’ll need to find a good balance between attack and defense.

Gladio also has the ability to make use of environmental elements to his advantage — specifically, the ability to uproot stone pillars and swing them around for devastating effect. Each stone pillar only survives a few hits, but they’ll usually knock enemies to the floor, allowing you to take advantage of a few free hits if you stay on your toes.

The final addition to Gladio’s arsenal is his ability to trigger techniques by himself, rather than Noct ordering his companions to perform them as in the main game. A meter builds up as Gladio deals damage to opponents, and each boundary on this meter causes a tap of the triangle button to perform a more powerful area-effect move. At the top level of the meter, Gladio can even chain two powerful techniques together once he has unlocked the ability to do so — enough to devastate several of the bosses he faces during his trials.

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There’s a strong emphasis on mastering these mechanics to get the most out of Episode Gladiolus — not necessarily during the main story, but definitely during the unlockable Score Attack mode, which becomes available after you beat the story once. In this, all the cutscenes and conversations are stripped out and you are instead challenged to complete the various stages of the dungeon as quickly and efficiently as possible, with higher scores going to those who finish encounters quickly, with long combos of hits strung together, and with minimal healing item usage.

The main mechanic to be aware of in Score Attack is the multiplier system, which builds up with Gladio’s combo count. The more hits in a row without stopping (or without a pause of too long, it’s more accurate to say, since there’s a bit of leeway for repositioning and suchlike), the higher this multiplier climbs, so it’s in the player’s interest to get as many hits in on a group of enemies before finishing off more powerful foes. In this way, the more substantial “kill bonus” for actually slaying an enemy has the multiplier applied too. It provides an interesting emphasis on technique that just isn’t quite there in the game’s regular combat, and Score Attack as a whole is an enjoyable, addictive challenge that provides considerable incentive to replay what is otherwise a rather short experience.

The main story of Episode Gladiolus and Score Attack is further complemented by “The Final Trial”, in which Gladio squares off against Cor, a powerful and extremely difficult to defeat opponent. You’ll need to make use of all the techniques you’ve practiced to vanquish him — and since Episode Gladiolus features no experience gain or levelling at all, you can’t just outlevel the fight, either; it’s all up to your own skills.

Despite its short length, Episode Gladiolus is given the same lavish audio-visual polish as the main Final Fantasy XV game. Of particular note is the music, which combines heavy but melodic rock themes for battles and boss encounters with Keiichi Okabe’s stunning orchestral remix of a classic Final Fantasy V number for the DLC’s final encounter.

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All in all, Episode Gladiolus is a short but sweet addition to Final Fantasy XV that stands well enough by itself but also complements the main game nicely. Whether or not you will find it good value will largely hinge on how likely you are to challenge the Score Attack mode more than once (or indeed at all) — but if nothing else, it sets a strong precedent for the subsequent character episodes, the next of which is due to be with us in June of 2017.


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