Only a few days ago Square Enix dropped what is supposed to be the very last piece of DLC for Final Fantasy XV and it was…well…something. It was something, anyway.
Not altogether bad, but severely flawed in certain ways. Unfortunately, the flaws of this DLC echo many of the flaws in the base game so maybe that shouldn’t count too hard against it. One of the weaknesses echoed here is that it’s just too easy. I get that it’s short and episodic like all the other character chapter DLCs and not meant to last too long, but you can still pack a decent challenge into a small space. Again, though, the base game is almost startlingly easy compared to any other Final Fantasy game I’ve played so far.
I remember when I got to the point where Noctis wakes up in a daemon-covered Eos I was like “oh cool, now we’re starting the second half of the game”. That part does resemble how a lot of Final Fantasy games mark the middle of the story: FFVI is divided between the World of Balance for the first half and the World of Ruin for the second (I’ll try not to dwell on FFXV’s botched references to VI…). The middle of FFVII is marked by the appearance of Meteor in the sky, etc. While this isn’t exactly consistent with the pattern, FFXIII has you get kicked down to Pulse.
Soooo given the established precedents, night-covered daemon-ravaged Eos seriously looks like the second half is about to start. And then you get that notice saying that once you enter Insomnia the final battle is afoot. It was kind of a facepalm moment for me. I had barely been playing the game a few weeks by that point and I was seriously taking my time, trying to absorb as much as I could and do every side-quest I could find.
There were two reasons for this design choice: one of them is that the majority of the content is post-game. The second is that Square Enix was seriously considering a move toward a different business model focusing on MMO’s and mobile apps, with Final Fantasy XV being something of a transitional device. Square evidently planned on developing a ton of DLC for the game, to be released over the next few years, and how that would go would be guided somewhat by player feedback.
So it pretty much was an incomplete game upon its initial release. Maybe some of the super-easy, loosely-structured gameplay in the main storyline was supposed to afford wiggle room for other DLC and update doo-dads. Evidently the unfolding of the central storyline was also supposed to be guided by reactions from fans. The unfolding definitely was, but I guess there’s also room to infer that some of the actual plot details could have been governed by fans as well. The Ignis DLC, with its multiple endings that would impact the story going forward, may have opened up a door for multiple timelines. So who knows what that would have yielded if they hadn’t decided to stop at Episode Ardyn and put the rest of the planned story revelations into an upcoming novel or story collection.
Interestingly, though, out of the fan reactions that made it to the ears of Square Enix, no one had mentioned the super-easy difficulty as a problem. In fact, they thought the part where Noctis is stripped of his powers in Gralea was too hard. Sooo the game started shockingly easy and stayed shockingly easy throughout the exchange between Square and the players. So Episode Ardyn can’t be singled out for that, exactly. And I’m sorry if I seem like I’m spending a lot of time dwelling on a weakness that’s fundamental to the IP itself and not the specific fault of this DLC, but it messes with me. Because it’s so ubiquitous, in almost every facet of FFXV. The Pitioss Dungeon was the one clear exception. Costlemark Tower requires some persistence and grinding but isn’t really hard.
It also reflects badly on how Square Enix has developed other parts of the digital supplements, like the multiplayer expansion. It seems like quotas of monsters to hunt is something that gets plugged in a lot. I mean it’s most of what happens with the multiplayer expansion and the majority of things to do in Episode Ardyn involve wandering around and getting in fights. It’s like they want to do an “open sandbox” design but don’t really have a good idea as to how to flesh out the gameplay in the “open sandbox”. The multiplayer expansion consists entirely of kill quotas and the dungeons that get unlocked post-game from Ezma’s key are just successive subterranean rooms with monsters to kill. If Episode Ardyn was the last DLC for this game, they evidently decided to end with what they did the most of.
The biggest map in the DLC is the city of Insomnia during your raid, with items scattered all over that become visible when you knock out a shield generator, and gimme points for destroying signs and cars and balloons and megaphones along with push-over battles with Insomnia’s military (the Kingsglaive, maybe?). A few decades ago, there was a game called Rampage on the Nintendo 64, where you play as a claymation monster causing random havoc in a city, Godzilla-style. In elementary school there was only one other person in my sixth grade class who was as annoyingly hyper-active as me and we spent a loud, cackling evening once on that game. That was what Episode Ardyn reminded me of. Which is to say I had a little bit of fun. It was easy to the point where I only got KO’d once and it was a simple planning mistake, but I had fun. The music they used for the orgy of destruction also got a smile out of me: it’s this rap-like thing that reminds me of nu-metal, a late-childhood / early teens throwback for me.
But it’s simplistic, and after spending much of FFXV not being challenged at all, it’s just sort of…like…having another bowl of ice cream for dessert, after your ice cream dinner which was smothered with hot fudge, caramel and pieces of Oreo and Heath bar. Ice cream is nice and I pretty much always like ice cream, but there is such a thing as being overloaded on it.
That being said, the story complications weren’t s’bad. It was cool to see Ardyn get pulled out of the Angelguard prison after two millennia of somnolent captivity. By a young Verstael Besithia, no less, when he was young enough to have the features we’d see on the Magitek troops once they started cloning them from him…which is to say a face quite like our lil blonde friend Prompto in the base game. It seemed like a neat, subtle thing to do- seeing Verstael and Ardyn interact with each other was almost like a villainous mirror of Prompto and Noctis (what with Ardyn’s connection to the Caelum family).
Next, we have some follow-up to some other revelations from the prologue anime that got released back in February which set part of the stage of the DLC. When the crystal flashed and gave it’s choice for the throne, there were wing and blade-like shapes flaring out from it that looked like Bahamut. Implying that Bahamut chose Somnis and shafted Ardyn and causing people on YouTube to make theory videos about how Bahamut might be the real villain of FFXV.
Early in the DLC, we get a sort of convoluted reversal of that which I didn’t fully understand. At the end, though, there is a conversation between Bahamut and Ardyn that goes back to supporting the idea of Bahamut orchestrating Ardyn’s journey. Ardyn learns that his death will carry the daemons with it, and when they’re gone, the need for a divine steward (such as the Caelum family) will go away- essentially, that Ardyn and the kings of Lucis will perish together in the end, satisfying his desire for revenge.
Bahamut has a similar talk with Noctis near the end of the base game about accepting his destiny graciously, which creates a really nice parallel that links us back to the brotherly enmity we witnessed between Ardyn and Somnis and the role that destiny played between them. It’s a neat way of characterizing the Caelum family as a group with a light and a dark half that are both equally dependent on each other.
There were still a lot of glaring omissions, though. The Starscourge began with Ifrit’s rebellion and the Starscourge was the whole motivation for Ardyn becoming an Oracle. Late in the game, Bahamut and Ifrit continue to be big players. Has this all been about human proxies in a war between the gods? It’s definitely implied. Prolly not stated to maintain the impression that the human characters are still centrally important, though.
The possibility that the whole plot of FFXV is built around a proxy war between Bahamut and Ifrit also supports the presented narrative of the Caelum family, of it’s light and dark nature that are divided by enmity and united by mutual dependence. Noctis, Ardyn and Luna are all martyrs to a superhuman cause.
While Episode Ardyn may have aptly tied together a bunch of the themes thus far, I also think it supported one of the worst narrative qualities of FFXV. Most Final Fantasy games have a halfway point where the world is in danger and the priorities of every character are either turned on their head or otherwise re-evaluated. FFXV stops at the point where this would have happened- not just in terms of Final Fantasy‘s typical plot structuring, but they also truncate the main character arcs where, in older FF games, they would only just be taking off.
The characters of FFXV are barely required to re-examine or take ownership of themselves. Sure enough, one of our last images in the game is Noctis and Luna holding court in the afterlife. He seems to be sharing a happy ghostly existence with a woman he pined over but has not spoken to since childhood, so evidently the plot requirement that Noctis die has rewarded him for not growing up. All the pathos of tragic love rewarded with total indulgence, culminating in the most saccharine portrayal of tragic love I may have ever seen.
Just on it’s face, this is lazy and possibly repugnant storytelling that glorifies an unrealistic picture of romance. That’s bad enough. Especially with stuff like 13 Reasons Why and the Twilight books fresh in our memories. But it’s worse when so many of the older Final Fantasy stories have done better than that, often with love stories. In VII, Cloud found validation for his sublimated identification with Zach through Aerith, which is a kind of morbid fantasy ideal, but in the end he was nurtured by his friendship with Tifa, whom he had known since childhood. In FFVI, Locke gets wrapped up in a white knight complex over his failure to protect his dead girlfriend, Rachel, and during the World of Ruin segment, he can be found attempting to track down an Esper that he believes can revive the dead, which turns out not to be possible.
Even without keeping our focus on romantic subplots, a lot of similar things happen. FFIX involves the search for a soul, which both Zidane and Vivi have idealized as an unobtainable seal of approval entitling you to your existence, and both of them learn that you don’t need any deeper validation than your own subjectivity and lived experiences. I could go on.
I’m not saying old Final Fantasy games are Shakespeare or anything, but a few of these character arcs show genuine attention to detail and there’s no reason not to give credit where credit is due. And like I said, FFXV breaks the pattern of something that was (at least) admissibly pulled off in a lot of the older FF titles.
Another reason why I’m dwelling on the botched portrayal of tragic love between Noctis and Luna is that, in one of the polls Square Enix took among gamers, many reported that they would have liked to have seen Noctis and Luna get their “happy ending”. None of the fan responses brought up the issue that the relationship was over-romanticized and that it was based on A. a marriage contract between two nations and B. a childhood encounter between the two affianced. There are ways to deal with political marriages in narratively compelling ways, but trying to make the two marriage pawns “true lovers” on the strength of a childhood meeting years ago, and nothing else, is not the way to do it. I also feel like Episode Ardyn was meant to leave wiggle room for the “happy ending” with Bahamut placing Ardyn, fully clothed and with his social standing in Niflheim intact, at Angelguard again. And we hear no mention of the raid on Insomnia with the younger Regis in the base game, so presumably it was purged from the historical record, implying that Bahamut can manipulate time. That’s two DLC’s (counting Episode Ignis) that suggest multiple timelines.
I would maintain that everything I’ve written in this post so far is defensible but I’m about to get into territory that departs from actual sources and is total speculation on my part, or fix-it fic-ing.
What if FFXV actually had a second half after the global disaster, like every other FF game, and Noctis had the chance to make his own choices free of family obligation and unrealistic fantasies?
Who has been at Noctis’ side throughout the whole journey, expresses concern and regard for his emotions, treats him like an equal without pulling any paternal moralizing crap, and has a truly upsetting falling out with him that they bounce back from?
Prompto. You read that right. I think Prompto should be Noctis’ canonical love interest. I’m not saying this trait is always a telltale signs of closeted homosexuality in and of itself, but just think about it: Prompto is really vocal about thinking this or that girl is cute, way more vocal than any other character. The other guys in the brotherhood even rip on him over it, albeit gently. For all of his chauvinistic noisemaking, though, he never does anything chauvinistic, toward a female or anyone else. Prompto even seems to easily make platonic friendships with female characters (Iris and, in his own DLC, Aranea Highwind). You could rebut this by saying no other male character makes any romantic or sexual moves on any female character, but Prompto is the one who sounds off about it. Therefore, it is only in his case that the question is begged. Prompto makes a lot of noise about how straight he is, but when do you ever see him truly bent out of shape over a girl? Who is the only person whom he ever gets bent out of shape over? That would be Noctis.
Another rebuttal could be that Noctis shows no visible signs of being anything other than straight. I think this was a commonly voiced objection when Gotham briefly entertained a ship between Penguin and the Riddler. Viewers would complain that Edward Nygma, aka the Riddler, never frankly expressed attraction for a man. However, a lot of bisexuals can attest to the fact that it’s possible to cling to the illusion that you’re straight, regardless of feelings, if you only ever act on feelings for the opposite sex. This could just as easily be true of Noctis if the writers cared to take it in that direction.
If the game continued past the first glimpse of the World of Ruin, we also may have seen a different and more compelling story about demanding to live in spite of a prophecy requiring you to die. That, as a central theme, would have gone nicely with a new love interest once Luna was ruled out as a possibility. And by new love interest I mean Prompto. C’mon, Square, one unambiguous same-sex couple wouldn’t kill you. They sort of went there with Fang and Vanille in FFXIII, but it wasn’t frankly stated.
Is this me airing a fan-fic thought bubble? Totally, but I think it’s defensible by the standards of fan-fic thought bubbles. If that’s too wonky, then I guess I’m just saying FFXV has a story that’s abruptly short and compares badly to many of the older installments. Boom. Ended on an objectively arguable note.