3 painful truths I learned after playing Final Fantasy 15's first major DLC expansion

The most common criticism of Final Fantasy 15 is that its story is incomplete. Major characters aren’t properly fleshed out in cutscenes; it’s hard to tell what the villains actually want in the game; the 13th chapter of the story is a torturous slog that introduces major plot elements out of nowhere that aren’t followed up. Truth is, those criticisms are all completely valid, but they’re also not exactly flaws in the system. Whether you thought Final Fantasy 15’s story was terribly told or a complete success, it’s exactly what its creators set out to make; the story isn’t incomplete due to rushed development. The story is almost entirely locked into the main character’s experience, a character who’s in the dark much of the time. “It was for the players to experience the story through Noctis’ eyes,” said Hajime Tabata, the game’s director, in a recent interview. “The world and the events that Noctis sees are merely things that are seen through his eyes. We didn’t want to create a comprehensive and perfectly balanced story in this game.”

So Final Fantasy 15’s story is, warts and all, complete. Anyone who played through to the end knows, though, that it left a few significant gaps to plug in new story that exists outside of Noctis’ experience. The first major Final Fantasy 15 DLC, Episode Gladiolus, slots into one of those gaps. Final Fantasy 15 Season Pass holders will find out where Gladio, Noctis’ burly companion with a penchant for giant swords and heavy attacks, disappears off to two-thirds of the way through the game only to reappear with serious scars on his face. Based on the 30 minute demo of the expansion at PAX East, which I was told represents a huge chunk of the complete episode, Final Fantasy 15’s story openings don’t need to be filled.

Gladiolus is not leading man material.

(Image: © Square-Enix)

Gladio is far less developed than Ignis the gourmand, Prompto the socially desperate, and Noctis the overwhelmed, inexperienced leader in Final Fantasy’s band of brothers. Beyond a noticeably extreme love of Cup Noodles and his tough guy posturing, there’s little to describe him as a fleshed out person until he abruptly disappears from the group and comes back with fresh scars only to become aggressively judgmental of Noctis after their adventure takes a downturn. Episode Gladiolus has the opportunity to clarify his motivations and enhance the story, and things start out promising. The story opens on a campfire scene with the boys, when they finally ask for details on where he went. 

Full of the same warm camaraderie as the camp scenes in the main game, the game shifts to the past as Gladio seeks out Cor Leonis, a briefly seen adviser to the party from 15’s early chapters. What looks like an opportunity to expand on two characters doesn’t amount to much. Turns out Gladio just wants Cor to lead him to a set of Ruins where he can get stronger by undergoing a demigod’s ritual challenge. As you set out to challenge Gilgamesh the Blademaster - Cor deadpans later that, yes, his name just means he’s the master of all blades - it becomes clear that all Gladio is doing is reinforcing what we already know about him. The tough guy is just looking to be tougher guy. Not exactly a story you can sink your teeth into.

Fans looking for more open world adventure, look elsewhere: Episode Gladiolus is primarily a dungeon.

(Image: © Square-Enix)

On sitting down with 15’s DLC, I was excited to step back into its world. I adored the countryside and its wide open plains. Sadly there’s not much world to see. After a brief tutorial on how to control Gladio - more on that in a moment - and a couple of cutscenes, you’re automatically transported to the dungeon ruins where you’ll undergo Gilgamesh’s trials. From there, the dungeon feels like many of the others in 15. Larger areas feature boss encounters like a fight against a giant water snake and those lead into smaller passages littered with weaker enemies as well as campsites to take a brief break (though Gladio and Cor’s respites don’t come with the fun of Ignis’ detailed meals). The dungeon was all there was in my demo. When I asked a Square-Enix representative how much of the entire episode I saw, they said it would go on for a couple of hours total and that this represented a huge swath of it.

Restricting players to just controlling Noctis was the right call in Final Fantasy 15.

While Final Fantasy 15’s battle system has been almost universally praised by critics and fans, the decision to restrict your control purely to the main character remains contentious. The series is known for letting you control a band of adventurers, but 15 only gives you command over Noctis, his array of ghostly, summonable weapons, and his ability to teleport around the field by throwing his sword. Gladio and the others have special abilities that can be used on command in battles, but you never take direct control over them. After steering Gladio in the demo’s fights, you can see why.

Given his nature as the group’s tank, it’s not surprising Gladio is slower than Noctis. He only has his enormous sword and a shield for blocking, and attacking enemies involves laying down heavy four hit combos with the blade before repelling attacks. The shield will soak up hits, but if you press the shield button exactly when an enemy strikes you can also knock them back with it. As you land hits, a meter fills and Gladiolus can do a heavy attack called a Glaive Art; the fancy name is gussying up finishing finishing moves and area attacks.

Without the rest of the party, the theatrical dynamism of Final Fantasy 15’s combat is entirely lost. (Cor does join you, but you can’t command him and he doesn’t do much in fights.) I started the demo on Normal difficulty hoping to test the different battle style’s strategy, but all I ended up doing was holding down the attack button in each encounter until the fight was over. When the Blademaster made his appearance and taunted Gladio by saying he wasn’t ready for the challenge, I wanted to say, “Really, man? Then why am I walking through your legions like they were freaking looseleaf paper?”

If nothing else, playing Episode Gladiolus added new clarity to my playthrough of Final Fantasy 15. I walked away from that game completely satisfied by its story while also recognizing its flaws, and also curious about precisely what the DLC could add. After playing this, it doesn’t seem like it can add much at all.