Final Fantasy XV’s first big add-on isn’t very fun

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Midway through Final Fantasy XV, Gladio — the brawny bodyguard of Prince Noctis — abruptly leaves his group of friends only to come back a few chapters later with a fresh scar on his forehead. What exactly happened while he was gone is never explained during the game. That changed this week, though, with the release of FFXV’s first major add-on, “Episode Gladiolus,” a new chapter that lets you play as Gladio during his prolonged absence. Unfortunately, it turns out he wasn’t doing anything very interesting.

The episode opens with FFXV’s boy band-like crew relaxing around a campfire. Prompto is babbling away like usual, while Noctis sits quietly, tapping away at his phone. As someone who has been looking for an excuse to jump back in the game since I finished it last year, it was a welcome site — I really missed these guys, and just seeing them hanging out together brought back fond memories. The camaraderie between the four friends is arguably the best part of FFXV, but sadly outside of a few brief moments, it’s mostly absent from “Episode Gladiolus.” Instead, you play as Gladio, accompanied by Cor, an ageless warrior from early on in the main game.

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It turns out that Gladio left the group in order to get stronger and become more worthy of his role as the king’s shield. To do this he went through the trial of Gilgamesh (a long-recurring Final Fantasy character). The episode consists of one small dungeon that offers up little more than combat; it’s a series of entirely linear corridors filled with monsters, punctuated by the occasional boss battles, culminating in a surprisingly challenging fight with Gilgamesh himself. The whole thing takes around an hour and a half to complete, during which time Gladio will eat multiple cups of instant ramen.

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Combat is far from the best part of FFXV, and it turns out that it’s much less interesting when you’re controlling Gladio. Noctis — who you play as in the main game — has a lot of fun abilities to play around with, most notably his warp strike, which lets him zip around the battlefield. Gladio, on the other hand, is a much more straightforward fighter. Battles in “Episode Gladiolus” are mostly a matter of spamming the attack button and occasionally dodging incoming blows. Gladio can also pick up stone columns and swing them like a baseball bat, because he is very big and very strong. It’s fun the first time you do it, but that feeling doesn’t last long.

“If we don’t do it this time, there won’t be a next time.” – director Hajime Tabata on creating Final Fantasy XV

In its short runtime, “Episode Gladiolus” never manages to be interesting from either a narrative perspective or a gameplay one. The reason for Gladio’s absence adds nothing to the character (I’m still not sure why he had to keep it a secret), and playing as him is largely a slog. It’s also important to note that “Episode Gladiolus” is almost entirely separate from the main game. You access it from a different part of the menu, and you control a level 24 version of Gladio no matter how far you are in FFXV. You do unlock a few items and abilities that carry over — including the very important option to play as a shirtless Gladio in the main game — but for the most part the new episode is standalone. This isn’t a Fallout-style expansion.

It’s a disappointing start for FFXV’s expansion plans. This is a huge game with a cast of fascinating characters, yet its first new episode mostly gets away from what made the main game so interesting. “Episode Gladiolus” is short, repetitive, and not much fun to play. In fact, the best part of the add-on has nothing to do with the episode at all. Instead, the highlight is an intense teaser for the next episode — starring blonde gunslinger Prompto — which looks to be a much more memorable experience.

“Episode Gladiolus” is available now for $4.99.

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