Episode Ardyn marks the abrupt end of FFXV’s DLC, with plans of future content for the game being cut short due to the departure of former director Hajime Tabata. That also means that this is the first “game” released by the newly formed Luminous Productions, which still has many of the same developers that worked on FFXV, just sans Tabata. It kind of shows, as well, since while the other episodes weren’t as good as the main game itself, they were still (except for Comrades) fun and unique mini-games that stood apart from anything else related to XV. Ardyn’s gameplay and design feel like they’re just rehashing parts of the other episodes, while also muddying the timeline and story further rather than clarifying anything. That doesn’t mean it’s strictly terrible, just not as good as it could have been and very much on the bottom-rung of the DLC content.
Except for Comrades. Seriously. No amount of updates are going to fix that thing.
The story of FFXV is something of a mess, with plot holes and lore gaps present throughout. Just about every Final Fantasy game is prone to a certain amount of mystically-powered “what the f—?” toward the end of their storylines, but this was especially true of XV. Many of its revelations lacked impact because their basis had either been glossed over by the game’s events or not covered at all. The DLC episodes have mostly aimed to fill these gaps for the main characters, but there is a lot that’s missing when it comes to the game’s main antagonist, Ardyn. Now, after this episode, I’m left with more questions than I started with.
For a start, the events of this game are shrouded in the trope of “Was it all a dream?” It messes with the timeline of events to a huge degree, introducing events that are significant enough that, if they did actually happen, probably should have been mentioned in the main game. Ardyn’s character arc could also be defined as “Is one God-forsaken man’s revenge empathetic, even forgivable if it’s truly warranted?” This kind of gets blown out of the water by implying Ardyn was always pretty evil… Or possibly not. It would be one thing to leave the question dangling as an uncertainty, but that doesn’t feel like it was intended that way. It feels more like the writers contradicted themselves in an attempt to introduce a twist, leaving things even more confused than before.
The Hexatheon are absolutely a pile of God-sized astral dongs, though. I’m more on Ardyn’s side than ever before after this episode.
Gameplay wise, this is the most disappointing of the character-specific DLC. Prompto, Gladio and Ignis all attempted to make the experience unique in some way, specific to their respective protagonists, by changing up the gameplay from what you’d have seen in the main game. Instead of following suit, Episode Ardyn just borrows elements from the other episodes to create a mish-mash, ill-fitting vessel for the story. There are a few disjointed sequences that introduce you to the combat mechanics, and otherwise set up what’s to come, but the bulk of the episode is the invasion of Insomnia. But not the one you’re thinking of – like I said before, it gets confusing.
It uses Ignis’ open-battlefield stage design, in the form of Insomnia city. There’s a number of objectives to take out, of which only about three are essential and will take you about fifteen minutes to blast through. It borrows from Episode Gladio’s arcade-like design by allowing you to destroy celebratory banners and erections in the city, which increases your score but otherwise doesn’t effect gameplay. It also gives you a sniper rifle, similar to the one that could be used in Episode Prompto, which isn’t particularly useful despite being one of the top-tier tech tree unlocks. There are even parts that just feel like they don’t gel with what we’ve seen of Ardyn before. For instance, you can “daemonify” enemies, but it only gives you AP – you’re not actually creating daemons. In essence, sending Ardyn on a hate-fueled rampage through Insomnia sounds excellent on paper; however, what’s actually present is really under-done.
But it does come with a selection of hats!
It should be said that at no point does Ardyn ever feel more powerful than Noctis does during any stage of the main game, which is a problem. This is the guy that’s meant to be bringing literal Darkness as a physical thing, not just a nebulous concept, to the entire planet. A world-threatening villain should feel incredibly powerful, especially so if you’re actually controlling them. This is also the last bit of content to be made for XV, as far as we know, so it should have been far more grandiose in how it played. And sweet fancy Moses, the cringey pop-rock song they decided to loop ad-infinitum throughout the Insomnia section is the absolute worst. If you were going to have only one song on loop the whole time, why something so noticeable whenever it restarts, and also – why this song?
I know a director isn’t the be-all end-all of a development project, and the idea of videogame “auteurs” has been romanticised to a ridiculous degree in this industry. That said, given that this is the first (and last) major release for the game without Tabata on board, his absence was notable. At no point was the game ever broken, it’s execution was definitely “competent,” it just felt incredibly uninspired. Even the story, arguably the biggest draw-card given the overall mysteriousness of Ardyn in the main game, was cryptically conveyed. Maybe it could be put down to a “B-team” in the studio working on this last piece while their new IP is in the works, or a new director trying to find their groove in the wake of their predecessor. It’s certainly not a knock-out, however, and I’d only really recommend playing this for the sake of completion.