I think I might have accidentally oversold Final Fantasy XV's new DLC. In playing Episode Gladiolus, I referred to it on Twitter as an "interactive heavy metal video," which seemed to pique a bunch of people's interest. But what I should have said was that it was a cheap heavy metal video.
It has all the trappings: Demons, reaper skeletons, a soundtrack that sits somewhere between butt rock and metal, and a heavily tatooed protagonist with a giant sword. It's perfectly in keeping with the personality of Gladio, who is the big, muscled, taciturn member of the group, but also pretty cheesy. For better or worse, it reflects on Final Fantasy XV's ability to take on literally whatever tone it desires, whether that's western, tech fantasy, or in this case, metal video.
On that rather damning note, let's talk about Episode Gladio. In this bit of standalone DLC, you get to play as Gladiolus, who briefly leaves the group in Chapter 6 and picks up a scar in the process. As we discover in Episode Gladio, he feels the need to embark on a test of strength against Gilgamesh, who is less the lethal joke character he is in other games and more of a grim god of blades. What follows is a very straightforward battle of attrition as you work your way through Gilgamesh's dungeon alongside Cor—the group's square-jawed mentor.
In essence, it's kind of a boss rush. You have a certain number of Potions and Phoenix Downs to work with ahead of your ultimate fight with Gilgamesh, so you have to be careful about how you use them. In that, it's quite a bit harder than the base game, where you can mostly spam healing items to get you through encounters.
Gladio, for his part, is much more of a tank than Noctis, relying heavily on his shield and hard counters to get him through. He's a meatshield through and through, which means no flashy sidestepping or warping around the stage. It makes for a rather different experience, and it was probably the aspect that I enjoyed the most about Episode Gladio.
Aside from his more defensive posture, Gladio brings with him heavy attacks like Tempest, which is a whirlwind strike that will clear out a chunk of the room. These attacks are unlocked by steadily building up a meter, and they are the key to inflicting large amounts of damage. You will definitely need them during some of the encounters in the latter half of the DLC.
The full dungeon takes about an hour, splitting time between time around the campfire reminiscing about Cor's run through the trials, and the actual combat. The increasingly difficult encounters finally culminates in a battle with Gilgamesh—probably the game's hardest boss battle this side of the Adamantoise. Gilgamesh is a two part boss battle, and beating him demands a mastery of all of Gladio's moves, particularly his parrying abilities. If you haven't kept enough healing items on hand, he's kind of a handful.
The Gilgamesh fight makes Episode Gladio kind of an interesting challenge, but maybe not one that's worth undertaking unless you're desperately keen to know more about the lore. The problem with it is that it's not fully implemented in the game, making it feel decidedly disconnected from everything else, though you do get a new outfit and a sword for your trouble. It's too bad, because sidequests can be a nice change of pace during the story. At their best, they can be like Mass Effect's Loyalty Missions. Instead, Episode Gladio isn't much more than a curiosity.
But hey, it does have one nice little bonus: A remix of the classic Battle on the Big Bridge theme from Final Fantasy V—yet another reminder that the Final Fantasy XV devs are keen to play up their connections to the rest of the series.
I should mention that I was a fan of the base game, warts and all, and that Episode Gladio did remind me a bit of why I liked it in the first place. It's still a very pretty game, the combat is still reasonably smooth and fun, and I have a bit of emotional attachment to the characters, even if Gladio is probably my least favorite of the bunch. I actually really enjoy being in Final Fantasy XV's world, and Episode Gladio reflects a little bit of that, even if it lacks its single best part—the exploration loop that ends with a huddle around a campfire and a look at some photos.
Alas, its disconnection from the main story makes it kind of a no-go, and the lore that it adds will appeal to only the most diehard of FFXV fans. In other words, look up the Battle of the Big Bridge remix on Youtube, then keep walking.