While this does not involve my dewy-eyed Noctis and Prompo ship, this book is definitely worth reading for a fan of Final Fantasy XV.
Like any entry in a multimedia story, there are two questions: does it stand on it’s own and what is it’s relationship with the rest of the material.
Simple answer to the first one is: mostly yes. Someone with no prior context would have questions, but the story that opens at the beginning is effectively closed at the end. It even keeps it concise: four stories, all about characters with close relationships (either personal or associative) with one another.
Each of the four stories has a neat simplicity of scope: each narrative rarely goes further than the perspective of a single character. Two protagonists, Ardyn and Noctis, have experiences that afford panoramic views of their home world Eos. While this works like broad-spectrum explication, it is still rooted in a specific character’s perspective. To the credit of author Jun Eishima, this complication is accommodated by the novel’s internal context.
Speaking of context- the answer to our second question is lopsided. The novel The Dawn of the Future contextualizes the rest of Final Fantasy XV better than the game contextualizes the book. The weakness on one side and the strength on the other both relate to the narrative use of alternate timelines.
Players of FFXV may remember that alternate timelines were suggested in Episode Ignis, at the end of the first DLC season. This suggestion was followed up at the end of Episode Ardyn, which was projected to be the beginning of a second DLC season.
Final Fantasy XV: The Dawn of the Future chronicles the story that the second season would have told. When read as a single frame story, divorced from the rest of FFXV, multiple timelines are a more central part of the story than in the base game. In retrospect, the rest of the expanded universe needs this book more than the book needs the expanded universe.
Obviously, this is a consequence of Square Enix canceling the second season of DLC. In the normal course of things, the “hint” from Episode Ignis would rise closer to the surface in Episode Ardyn. This would enable the multiple timelines to be revealed through a “slow burn” of DLC chapters spaced months apart.
Instead, whatever happened at Square Enix happened, and we now have a novel. Instead of the episodic format, the whole thing is wrapped up in a single book. There were small insinuations indicating time travel, like revisiting memories in a visionary state in the “post game” material. But the importance of manipulating timelines and the forces of destiny just isn’t talked about very much in the base game. For a reader concerned with continuity with the rest of FFXV, this can feel like a sudden change (even if Episode Ardyn and Ignis could potentially soften the blow).
As it’s own book, it works wonderfully. Then again this might be something of a haunting difficulty with the FFXV dev team. The film, Final Fantasy XV: Kingsglaive also had world-building that wasn’t present in the base game. Also like Dawn of the Future, the film Kingsglaive created a deeper world than the base game.
As I type this, it occurs to me that Kingsglaive may be a more intuitive next step for someone who appreciates this book rather than the game Final Fantasy XV. To be fair, though, a fan of Dawn of the Future would still find the game worth playing. Much of the book (particularly the stories of Lunafreya and Aranea) are set against backdrops of travel across great distances. Distances in both time and space are detailed in the stories of Noctis and Ardyn. Eishima writes vividly of the shifting landscapes and how relationships may grow and change on the road. The travel-centered gameplay of Final Fantasy XV and the chemistry of Noctis and his retainers would feel natural after Dawn of the Future.
Appropriately enough, the novel starts with an intense confrontation between Noctis and Ardyn. Our setting, Zegnautus Keep above the city of Gralea, has been reduced to an undead playground by Ardyn, whose demonic nature was not fully appreciated by his enablers until it was too late. Placing Ardyn and Noctis on opposite sides establishes the importance of their rivalry in the uniting frame story. The familial relationship and physical resemblance between Ardyn’s brother and Noctis makes this opening “flash forward” an appropriate set-up for the story of Ardyn’s human lifetime.
This early framing also sets up one of the distinguishing story developments of Dawn of the Future. This is a huge spoiler for the original game so consider yourself warned. And it’s something we’ve seen before in Final Fantasy. Once in IV and indirectly by association in X.
Those two games tell stories that experiment with redemption. A while ago, a friend and I were discussing what we saw as the lack of a coherent direction in the new Star Wars films. The prequels cover the fall of Anakin and the original series cover the rise of Luke. I said that the sequels don’t seem interested in continuing this theme.
This doesn’t have to be a deal breaker if it’s completely original material that can stand on its own and needs no contextual validation. It is a high qualitative bar to meet, but it is not impossible. Both of us agreed that the sequel movies did not meet it. But if one half is a “rise” story and the other half is a “fall” story, what would a thematically consistent third story consist of?
My friend said it should be a redemption story, containing both. This would introduce the pressure of balance. A “fallen” state at the beginning would have to be believable and substantial enough for this character to look like a tragic hero or a villain protagonist. At the same time, the “rising” process would also have to be believable.
The easy way to meet the first requirement would be to go hard on the evil. Something like Anakin butchering children in Revenge of The Sith. But that kind of obvious solution could paint you into a corner when you attempt the “credible redemption” later.
For the sake of covering our bases, let’s also own that you absolutely can go hard on both. The original Star Wars trilogy did, but mitigated the risk of audience expectation by only allowing Darth Vader to survive a few moments in his redeemed state. I have a lot of respect for George R.R. Martin for ignoring this fine line, just so current pop culture has at least one visible example of it. In Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Sandor Clegane, aka The Hound, chopped off a child’s head in the first book simply because he was ordered to. But after a few books, he is clearly portrayed with sympathy.
I’ve wondered if this was something that made the creators of the TV show anxious. Perhaps this was the reason they decided to portray Jamie and Cersei Lannister with more darkness, so a casual viewer wouldn’t feel too deprived of morally laundered sadism.
Final Fantasy IV and X explored different expressions of these extremes. With X this is a little less obvious but an experiment is still at work: Jecht’s human failings as a father and a bully are always in the foreground. Jecht’s role as the human vessel for the being Sin is revealed afterward. In one of our first glimpses of Tidus, venting his fury to his mother, he is told that if he never sees his father again he will never have the chance to tell him how much he hates him. Before the final battle, Tidus does tell him. In the mind of Tidus, the human failings of Jecht haunt him more than Jecht turning into a supernatural, apocalyptic monster. If Jecht is damned, it is because of what he did before he transformed.
Final Fantasy IV does not defy the expectation of reconciliation, but exceeds expectations with reconciliation. Golbez, it is revealed, was fathered by the same alien that fathered Cecil. Before that moment, Golbez committed a series of atrocities that would have been at home in one of the first two world wars. The depth of suffering Golbez has engineered cannot be avoided, since Cecil has to go through a painful expiation process because of something he did under Golbez’ authority. At the end of the game, we learn that Golbez was effectively “possessed” when he did those things.
This is weird because the expiation of Cecil has already shown us that “the devil made me do it” is no excuse. Cecil had to personally face the survivors of his victims, endure their hatred and nearly pay with his life. Cecil had doubts about Golbez when he delivered the “ring” to Mysidia and he wasn’t even aware that the “ring” carried a nuke-level destructive spell. Cecil is morally evaluated strictly according to the outward consequences of his actions, with no attention paid to his thoughts and intentions.
It is possible that this expiation may have been intended to soften the player toward Golbez. But a casual player could not be faulted for wondering if Golbez’ last minute redemption is a bit of a double-standard.
Final Fantasy XV: Dawn of the Future explores similar moral extremes. Is there anything like Final Fantasy IV’s inconsistency that might get in the way? No, but the simplicity of the experiment itself creates its own questions.
This novel plays it straight. You know how I used the words “undead playground” earlier? This ain’t news to anyone who played the game but Ardyn basically had ten years to kill the majority of people on Eos and turn them into daemons. Another one of the viewpoint characters, Lunafreya, was herself killed by Ardyn before she is resurrected at the beginning of Dawn of the Future.
Lunafreya is also the first major character in the book to solicit Ardyn’s assistance. The apparent forgiveness of a viewpoint character who once died by his hand helps establish Ardyn’s positive arc before the last story, The Final Glaive.
Some of the best moments in the whole book are in this story. The first paragraph on the page above engages the philosophical dimensions of this story directly. The two female perspective stories are about road trips and the two male perspective stories feature long, visionary or altered state segments.
With this kind of thematic division, there is one half with people literally doing things. The other half needs to be written in a way that holds its own by contrast or comparison. Ardyn’s story features an eventful flashback and a brief period of action and travel to an ethereal plane.
The beginning of The Final Glaive starts the contrast in the right way. There is an exchange between the physical travel of the female protagonists and the astral travel of the male protagonists. Both place experience front and center, which is all that lasts between transient states. This lends gravity to the early meditations of Noctis during his ten year slumber within the Crystal.
Noctis does not immediately let go of the hatred that Ardyn provoked. At the same time, the simple existence of innumerable lifetimes conveying innumerable experiences is marked by Noctis within the Crystal. If each subjectivity is at least a little bit “objectively real”, than thoughts and emotions are empowered. If subjectivity is accepted as “real” then an internal process- like the changing of Ardyn’s heart -is empowered.
This is a careful attempt to substantiate Ardyn’s positive character arc. In the context of the novel, it works. But since I’ve played FFXV, it is hard for me to reconcile this with what I felt was a relative disinterest in narrative continuity in the base game.
Absent narrative continuity has haunted the FFXV project for years. It’s the reason why I never bought the thematic comparison between Ardyn and Kefka that appear throughout FFXV. It’s why I found the visionary afterlife in FFXV with the reunion of Luna and Noctis so unbelievable. We see Noctis go from a boy to a man and learn the wisdom of acceptance in the face of disaster, only to find his ultimate refuge in a fantasy of a woman he met briefly in childhood with whom he corresponded from a distance.
I emphasize that the narrative treatment of Lunafreya within The Dawn of the Future is satisfying. In fact, she and Aranea probably have a few of the more entertaining moments in the book even if The Final Glaive is my favorite. Giving Luna both depth and a spine was sorely needed. The appearance of a new character, Sol, in three of the stories also builds up the continuity of the book. But it would have been nice to have something like this in the base game.
And here we are, back with the problem of a part of a story building the world better than the whole, like the Kingsglaive film. As a stand-alone “frame story”, this book carries its own weight just fine. But in the bigger FFXV multimedia project, it’s hard not to think something like “Why can’t all the good ideas make it into one specific story?”