Final Fantasy XV, which launched in 2016, is gorgeous and in many ways fantastic, but feels inexplicably rushed during certain segments and has a baffling overarching plot. To address these issues, Square Enix has supported the game through a feature-length film, short anime series and DLC episodes. Following the departure of the game’s director, Hajime Tabata, “Episode Ardyn” is the unexpected final piece of post-game content surrounding Final Fantasy XV.
If any character from Final Fantasy XV is deserving of a dedicated DLC episode, it is Ardyn. The tragic villain is among the few compelling characters outside of the core cast, with English voice actor Darin De Paul’s dulcet voice and debonair style giving him flair and intrigue not present in many other recent Final Fantasy villains. Sadly, the base game only mentions the villain’s backstory in passing.
Set 30 years before the events of Final Fantasy XV, “Episode Ardyn” begins with the titular character being dragged out of his long slumber, abducted by the antagonistic empire. There he awakens, slowly learning of what happened in the past two thousand years. At first hesitant to aid the empire, Ardyn’s tune changes when he learns of his brother’s seeming betrayal and the death of his love interest. The news leads him to vowing to destroy everything his brother built. It’s an intense moment, giving Ardyn more raw emotion than seen in the original game.
Combat doesn’t become a key component of the episode until its latter half, when Ardyn invades the city of Insomnia. The invasion releases Ardyn’s pent-up fury in an extremely cathartic, if somewhat effortless, series of battles on the way to fight Somnus’ heir, King Regis. It makes sense no one poses a challenge to Ardyn given his near-unstoppable power, and while it may prove tiring for a full game, the lack of challenge is relieving for the episode’s two-hour length.
The music in “Episode Ardyn” is a treat to listen to across the board. With genuinely beautiful pieces and one rap track that’s so laughably corny and horrible that it’s actually somehow perfect, the music adds another level of the game for fans to enjoy.
Much like the other DLC episodes, there is optional content, but they mean very little in the grand scheme of the game. Ardyn can buy himself new hats, but none of them look as cool or fitting as the fedora he normally wears. In fact, it’s a little goofy to see “the fallen king, prisoner of fate” beat up his enemies with a cowboy or pirate hat. One of the most bizarre unlockable abilities is one where Ardyn can pull out a sniper rifle.
“Episode Ardyn” encapsulates much of Final Fantasy XV’s best parts: Crazy action scenes with fun combat, emotional resonance surrounded by a theme of loss and Ardyn himself. In and of itself, Episode Ardyn is nothing short of a treat, given of course that you’ve done the required reading to understand what in the world is going on.
But the fact that “Episode Ardyn” even has to exist points to the key problem with Final Fantasy XV — it doesn’t stand on its own. After watching the movie and anime, playing the DLC and maybe taking a few trips to Wikipedia, Final Fantasy XV’s story and character motivations start to make sense, but that much backstory shouldn’t be required of a player in an already 40-to-60-hour game.
Barring an upcoming novel, Final Fantasy XV’s story seems to have finally been told. It’s a good one, and very importantly, a consistently fun one, but much of the emotional resonance and meaning is only clear in hindsight. Ardyn already stands as a good villain, but if “Episode Ardyn” was released earlier in the game’s lifespan Ardyn could have become a great villain. If the movie, anime and DLC episodes were baked into the game’s plot at launch, Final Fantasy XV could have been spectacular. Instead, it’s a mess: A beautiful, fun mess, but a mess nonetheless.