Final Fantasy 15 has been in a state of development for over half my entire life. What began as Final Fantasy Versus 13, a PlayStation 3 game in 2006, finally released as Final Fantasy 15 in 2016 for PlayStation 4. Now, at long last, it has concluded its journey with the release of Episode Ardyn.
Episode Ardyn was never meant to be the end to this saga. Episode Noctis, Episode Aranea, and Episode Luna were planned for release in 2019, before director Hajime Tabata exited Square Enix, and production was halted. Consequently, ending on Episode Ardyn, the story of Final Fantasy 15's begrudging villain, feels a bit weird, but when has anything about this game's development ever stuck to the script?
In Final Fantasy 15, Ardyn was a jester of a villain. Spurned by the royal bloodline of Lucis, he deceived Noctis and co. throughout the game, murdering Lunafreya after she'd spoken roughly five lines of dialogue, and settling atop the ill-gotten Lucian throne. What Episode Ardyn aims to convey is why and how Ardyn was spurned by the royal throne nearly two millennia before the events of Final Fantasy 15, which I'm not sure was ever a question that needed answering.
The thrust of the DLC is straightforward: paint Ardyn as a sympathetic, and more complex character than he originally appears in Final Fantasy 15. The anime prequel largely accomplished this, showing us Ardyn's fall from grace at the hands of his spiteful brother, and Episode Ardyn picks up after this. We see Ardyn rescued and recruited by the forces of the Empire after being locked away for two millennia, and it's from there that he sets out on his journey of revenge on the Kingdom of Lucis, for a throne that should have rightfully been his.
The only problem is, Ardyn is a bit of a dick. He's a smarmy, mocking villain that dances circles around Noctis, and try as Episode Ardyn may to get you to sympathise with the villain, the hard work and character building of the anime prequel sort of vanishes when Ardyn sets out on a journey to obliterate an entire city's population, and it's then that you remember just how much of a tiresome headache he was in Final Fantasy 15.
Since Episode Ardyn jumps around between time periods so much (from Ardyn's fall two millennia ago to his assault on the Lucian throne today), you're constantly pivoting back and forth between rooting for Ardyn, and then rolling your eyes and sighing as he steps back into the shoes of the archetypal JRPG villain. We're roughly two and a half years removed from the release of Final Fantasy 15, so it feels a little late to be giving us context for a villain we all loathed in 2016.
Perhaps Episode Ardyn's saving grace is, somewhat surprisingly, its gameplay. The first half of the relatively short episode sees Ardyn being recruited by the evil Empire for their assault on the Kingdom of Lucis, and the latter half is Ardyn going to war. You're let loose in the city of Insomnia, when Noctis' father Regis was still a young ruler, and left to wreak havoc. It's a relief to see Square stick to its guns with largely the same combat from the original game. No one really wants a repeat of Episode Prompto after all, which featured the best boy in the entire game, didn't exactly set the world on fire with its clunky and frustrating third-person shooter mechanics.
There's even an entire skill tree for Ardyn to upgrade. AP points return as the upgrade currency from the main portion of Final Fantasy 15, and Ardyn can acquire a few decent abilities for causing chaos in Insomnia. The chief ability of Ardyn is to summon the demonic god of fire Ifrit onto the battlefield to lend a hand, and it's fun to have the two unlikely allies battling Lucian forces through the streets of Insomnia.
It's weird that it took Episode Ardyn for Final Fantasy 15 to finally deliver on one critical thing: exploring Insomnia. I remember wishing we could see Insomnia pre-downfall back when I played through Final Fantasy 15 long ago in 2016; and while it's really nice to see the capital city of Lucis as it once would've looked in the glory days of old, it's a shame it took two and a half years for Square Enix to make it happen.
But with Insomnia finally opening up, it's pleasant to explore, especially when it's not in a state of smouldering rubble. Ardyn zips around from rooftop to lamp posts, assaulting seven total towers around the city in an effort to bring down the formidable protective wall for the Empire forces to invade. We get to see the everyday hustle and bustle of the city before the chaos with Ifrit kicks off, and it's a nice touch to provide context to the kingdom that Noctis and company are actually fighting for.
As the final DLC for Final Fantasy 15, Episode Ardyn is a fun if slightly predictable ride. It provides a backdrop, however redundant it may be, for the villainous Ardyn, and it's a nice surprise to be able to able to run free in Insomnia at long last with a literal god for company.
Episode Ardyn wasn't the planned end for Final Fantasy 15, and you can tell. The infamously lengthy development period is one of the first things that springs to mind when you think about Final Fantasy 15. It's sad that the entire journey, spanning over a decade long in total, has ended on a similar note of untapped potential and troubled development.