Wrapping Up My Final Fantasy XV Journey – The Episode DLC Packs

My last post touched on my experience with the base game of Final Fantasy XV – concluding that I liked it in spite of some questionable execution and design choices.

However, a large part of that post hovered on the way in which DLC for the game was delivered.

To summarize briefly, the main game of FFXV has multiple cutout moments where characters disappear from the main story for a moment, usually a chapter or less, and then return having grown for some journey or suffered some ill fate. These moments are carved out of the main game to make room for the original Season 1 DLC pass, which has 3 episodes focused on each of Noctis’ main companions. There is a fourth episode DLC, Episode Ardyn, which launched much later, in 2019, and was the only of a slate of additional DLC packs that were due in 2019 prior to game director Hajime Tabata leaving the project and Square Enix.

These DLC are interesting, but only in a short post way. The first two are about an hour of gameplay, fairly on-rails, and offer a single story conclusion that feeds back into the main game. The latter two episodes, Ignis and Ardyn, are longer, about 90 minutes and 2 hours respectively, and have multiple endings, of which one is canon with the main game and the others are sort of interesting what-ifs on the story of the main game. What is especially interesting, however, is the way in which the very nature of DLC actually sort of makes these better gameplay experiences. All of them were released far enough post-launch to have incorporated some feedback from the main game’s failings, and they do. Combat gets tighter and more interesting with each episode, changing the strategy elements to make them more interesting. Dodging and blocking become core mechanics, and the weapon switching that suited the theme of the game with Noctis despite not adding much to the gameplay becomes far more interesting with Prompto, Ignis, and Ardyn all having fairly major tweaks that make these systems work better. There is also effort to address the mindlessness of the core game’s combat, focusing in on tweaking enemy attack patterns and player inputs to smooth out the gameplay and make the strategic emphasis actually…kind of work.

Let’s quickly summarize episode by episode and discuss!

Episode Gladiolus: The first DLC chapter, released a few months after the game launched, this episode has the smallest number of changes but the ones it does have make a noticeable difference, in my opinion. Gladio’s combat focuses on raw strength, with him using his signature two-handed sword coupled with a shield for blocking. Blocking and taking damage build Rage, which empowers his damage-dealing, and as he fights, he builds a Glaive Arts meter, which unlocks powerful attacks. Like most of the DLC episodes, the game gives Gladio a companion in Cor, who rejoins from early in the main story to guide Gladio on a trial with the Blademaster, series regular (and my FFXIV server) Gilgamesh. The combat has interesting tweaks that come from the block mechanic, because you cannot just mash block and wait as that depletes a meter, so your goal is to keep fighting smartly and blocking when necessary, reducing the passivity that a block option can bring to such a combat style. The story of this chapter is the least engaging, although not awful (hey everyone, did you know the tall muscle-slab shirtless dude is strong?) since it adds in interesting bits of backstory from Cor, who was originally a member of the party of Versus XIII before being pulled back in emphasis for XV.

Episode Prompto: Somewhat out of order, despite being the last in the story to have his departure, Prompto gets the second DLC story. His story is an interesting one to an extent, and it integrates some of the missing characterization that was only in the Brotherhood anime (fat Prompto!) while also explaining a fairly significant lore hook that is explored further in Chapter 13 of the main game. That reveal is also made in the main game, but it is almost a throwaway there even post-story patch, where here, the reveal and Prompto’s reckoning with it has room to breathe. Plus, it has more Aranea and that’s a good thing. Gameplay-wise, Prompto’s combat focuses in heavily on aiming and fighting at range, so he cycles through different guns from the forces of Niflheim to handle different situations. Like in the main game when AI controlled, though, Prompto sucks in combat and he will suck down consumables left and right to live. Fortunately, without shops, the game gives you a decent number of them, and as you get more used to his playstyle, you can do pretty well with him, although the last fight with Prompto free-roaming is a challenge that can feel a bit excessive. His combat style is more interesting than the main game’s style, with ammunition coming into play for the more effective weapons, the aforementioned aiming mechanics, and the way the game encourages a mix of stealth kills and ranged shooting. I still don’t like Prompto as a character much, but the episode here does a good job making him sympathetic and is probably the second-best story of the episodes.

Episode Ignis: This is the one where I’d argue the FFXV team hit their stride. Ignis has very tactical and interesting combat, focused on imbuing his daggers with one of three elements and then using his perception to identify weaknesses and trigger super attacks. The gameplay feels far more strategic, as each element has different use cases as does heightening each of them, and each set of enemies offers different challenges to face with those powers. There are also stealth kills and some specials that reference Ignis’ other weapon usage in the main game (he gets a Dragoon jump!). There are elements of the overall gameplay that are a little hit or miss (the retaking districts thing really doesn’t mean much of anything for the gameplay of the episode as far as I can tell) but the story actually does a lot of really good backfilling, including explaining what was easily the most egregious “save it for the DLC” thing in the game. Of course, complimenting it for doing something the actual game should have done is…perhaps not great, but it is what it is!

Episode Ardyn: This one was actually the most interesting to me, because as the main villain of the game, Ardyn gets precious little explanation in the main game. It’s enough that he stood out as one of the gems of the game’s main story, but at the same time, fleshing that out with more detail and putting the player through those experiences is something that I think improves his characterization. From a gameplay perspective, Ardyn had the longest gap from the main game’s release to the DLC release, so the gameplay actually gets to a really satisfying place here. Ardyn’s combat actually finally removes the mash and cure paradigm as a strategy altogether, which is also a good integration of Ardyn’s character and the gameplay. Reaching danger HP doesn’t stop Ardyn, instead he gets empowered melee attacks with little else, and provided he can hold on long enough, he sparks back to life. You still have potions, and you can still use them, but the gameplay design doesn’t really make sense with using them, because the incentive is to play strategically and even to use the danger zone (cue Top Gun music) tactically to enhance your ability to knock out enemies. This is also the only DLC to have proper player power progression, as Ardyn has a Decension (ha, get it?) grid that gives him power from AP gained, although due to the 2 hour length of the episode, it’s rather small and easy to fill out should you complete all the combat you can.

Story-wise, this one is actually the most interesting, as it is additive to the main story, instead of subtracting from the main story to give the episode purpose. The DLC here sheds light on how Ardyn came to be, and contextualizes a lot of the way in which he behaves in the main story. I will say that the details on daemonification and the Starscourge, two core elements of the plot, should have probably been in the main game, but there is enough in the main game to get you where you need to go and these details expand and enlighten rather than feeling like the base game was empty so they could be here. Seeing a more chaste and suppressed Ardyn is rather interesting given his flamboyance and overzealousness in the main game, and Darin De Paul’s excellent voice acting shines with him here yet again.

In Closing on the XV Saga

Overall, I’m actually glad I decided to undertake playing this game and the full slate of DLC (minus Comrades). I still believe that a lot of the criticism the game gets is warranted, as there’s still just too much clumsy execution due to poor implementation or aggressive monetization decisions, but we benefit little from ignoring the game for those things. Instead, I would argue that it makes an interesting point in how the current AAA model can fail an otherwise interesting game, how crunch culture can create a clumsy but interesting work, and how no franchise, even the mighty Final Fantasy, can rest on its laurels in today’s gaming ecosystem.

The world of Eos is full of interesting ideas and characters that shone for me in spite of the game’s many, many flaws, and as a result, I’m happy I saw it through, even after two prior failed attempts to do so!

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