A bittersweet closure
When I set down the controller and watched the closing credits of Episode Ardyn, the final DLC of the decade-long experience that turned out to be Final Fantasy XV, I felt sad. I felt sad, partially because the story illustrated the downfall of a villain whose origins had been told but not shown to us back in 2017 with the main release. Mainly, though, I felt sad because the telling of that story may as well have happened two years ago as well. While Episode Ardyn shares some of the things that made Final Fantasy XV great, what stood out most to me was how exactly it replicated the flaws of the whole game.
It hardly bears repeating that this entry in the series had a troubled development, so in the interests of brevity, I won’t. One of the effects of that development, combined with the stated goal of telling the story across multiple platforms, was a deep fragmentation of the central plot of the game. It was spread across not just the main release, but the “Final Fantasy XV Universe.” While I certainly can’t blame Square Enix for putting out media in the run-up to the game’s release, and for making that media canonical, it tended to step beyond its role of world-building or story fleshing-out and into more central explanations of events and contexts.
A troubled path
A connection between Ravus, who joins Niflheim against his sister Lunafreya, and King Regis exists almost totally within the film Kingsglaive. To outsiders, his motivations as a character are foggy, as is the presence of a mechanical arm the (in my opinion) quite relevant nature of which is, you guessed it, explained only in Kingsglaive. This is one example among many, and it illustrates how the pre-release releases (as it were) nowadays serve less as bonuses and more like homework. With a feature-length film, an anime series, two demos, five spin-off games, four DLC episodes on top of the original game, Final Fantasy XV finds itself a sprawling beast to tackle if one hasn’t been hanging around for a decade.
This is not the same as requiring someone to have played the first game in a series in order to understand the sequels. In fact, this fragmentation comes specifically because director Hajime Tabata didn’t want to make a series a la FFXIII. While a sequel often doesn’t hide the fact it’s part of a series, it’s possible that someone could play through Final Fantasy XV with nothing more than the disappointingly short and vague opening cinematic to suggest that something might have come beforehand. At least the gaps filled by the DLC are, albeit ham-fistedly, marked out to the player, though we’ll come back to those in a moment.
Which brings us to Episode Ardyn. On my first playthrough, I found myself somewhat lost. For a game ostensibly about Ardyn’s origins and transformation from True Chosen King to maniacal immortal daemon, we are treated to three flashbacks. One was definitely a dream sequence. One probably was. The other… maybe? They all involved cornfields and flowing robes. The main characters of the past, Ardyn’s brother Somnus (who gets on to become the first king of Lucis), and Ardyn’s beloved, Aera, seemed awfully flat for a game that, if nothing else, succeeded in excellent characterization for its four protagonists.
So, off to the internet I went, to discover that, as part of the game’s announcement, a “prologue” had been shown. Naturally, this wasn’t a trailer for the DLC, but rather a 15-minute animated film that, also naturally, is fundamental to our understanding of the story and its players. No, Somnus doesn’t appear in the middle of the first cornfield and randomly slash Aera to death, nor does he force Ardyn’s hand in delivering the killing blow. Dream sequences, all of them. Somnus is driven flatly by ambition and jealousy of his brother, who with all his flowing robes and sermons under desert trees strikes an awfully Christ-like figure against his awfully Roman brother. At the end of the game, Somnus for a while suggests that he knew about Ardyn’s growing corruption all along, and was simply doing the right thing. I suppose we can chalk this utterly un-supported tidbit down to the first king’s weaselly character, then.
Where do we go from here?
To be clear: I’m not writing a whole salty article because I had to watch 15 minutes of well-animated storytelling. The issue is that not watching those 15 minutes leads to exactly the same problem as if one didn’t watch the 115 minutes of well-animated storytelling that was Kingslaive, or the anime series: one’s understanding of the main game would be severely stunted.
A related problem is that Final Fantasy XV still seems unsure about what, exactly, the whole story was in the first place. We know that the first ideas were reworked significantly during development, but that reworking doesn’t seem to have ever finished. Ardyn suffers a similar fate to the main game: outside of the main protagonist (four main protagonists here), side characters have next to no characterization. Even with the Prologue, Somnus and Aera are paper-thin. Verstael remains little more than a wall off of which Ardyn can bounce droll dialogue, then a catalyst to make him perform the about-turn from Ancient Jesus to Daemon King in record time.
Unlike the other three Episodes, Ardyn wasn’t always part of the release schedule. Perhaps accordingly, it doesn’t fill a gap so much as pile more on top of this already confusing story. In the main game, Ardyn’s story and motivation are revealed simply, but enough that we can get on with the flashy final chapter in good time. Episode Ardyn adds to this a generally unnecessary layer of detail that complicates, rather than expands upon, his existence and motivation.
Just as Final Fantasy XV changes pace suddenly in the linear second half and rushes to get all the story told before the end, Ardyn rushes through its introduction to get to the flashy fighting at the end: it takes about two minutes for Ardyn to reverse his apparent acceptance of fate, and swear vengeance on the whole royal line, Heath Ledger’s Joker makeup and all. Just as updates were needed to add an explanation about the nature of the gods, the history of Eos and of the ongoing conflict, so too must Ardyn present the player with a room full of text boxes that explain how we got to where we are now.
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Piecemeal storytelling is very difficult to get right. There’s a reason why first drafts exist, and why they aren’t usually the ones that get published. If Final Fantasy XV is an essay, Ardyn is a tortured final paragraph, circling the point they’ve been trying to cinch for 5000 words already and only succeeding in adding more sideshow. The cinematic climax can’t fully mask the fact that we don’t truly know what to feel when we come to the end of the DLC, because we still don’t truly understand the characters and the world they inhabit. This is the real tragedy of Ardyn: not the downfall of a holy man, but that the game repeats the sins that necessitated its development in the first place.