"Ardyn was always one of XV's most compelling characters, and getting to spend more time with him is a treat."
Who would have thought that, over two years after it initially released, we would still be reviewing DLC for Final Fantasy XV? Square Enix really committed themselves to the long game with the latest numbered installment of their flagship series, releasing patches and content updates even beyond 2017's Episode Ignis. Director Hajime Tabata and his team at Luminous Productions initially pitched a follow-up slate of DLC, entitled "Dawn of the Future," that would further expand on XV's universe and offer an alternate conclusion to the tale, but unfortunately, fate (or more likely finances) had other plans. Tabata wound up departing Square Enix, and all of the additional add-on episodes were cancelled... except for one. Episode Ardyn lets players don the oversized sleeves of XV's villain and offers further context for his madness. But is it worth the wait?
As one might expect, Episode Ardyn is a prequel focused on the titular villain, shedding a light on his past and exploring the path that eventually led him to seek revenge on Lucis. It begins in medias res, with Ardyn infiltrating the city of Insomnia to wreak havoc on behalf of his imperial masters, before flashing back to his millenia-long imprisonment. At this point, Ardyn is a broken man, branded "Adagium" by the Lucians and kept chained up in the darkness of Angelgard, where he is discovered by the Niflheim Empire. What follows is an extended sequence wherein we learn what Ardyn was like before his descent into madness, then witness that descent firsthand from within the tortured confines of his fractured mind. After that, it's back to Lucis, with the newly ordained Chancellor of Niflheim out for the blood of those who wronged him. It's pretty heavy stuff, but it mostly succeeds at telling an emotionally compelling tale, largely thanks to Darin De Paul's excellent voice performance. Ardyn was always one of XV's most compelling characters, and getting to spend more time with him is a treat.
There's also a tremendous amount of lore present in Episode Ardyn: Square Enix apparently realized that they only had one more DLC episode to get XV's world of Eos out of their systems, so they decided to offer a whole bunch of audio logs and optional archive files to fill in any missing gaps in the narrative. We even get a canonical explanation for why Mr. Izunia has to wear so many layers of clothing, which is amusing (and no, it's not because he breathes through his fedora). If there's one serious gripe I have with Episode Ardyn's storytelling approach, it's the portrayal of Aera Mils Fleuret, Ardyn's love interest who appears to him in visions. If you didn't like Final Fantasy XV's handling of female characters, this isn't going to change your mind: Aera is brutally murdered on no less than three
occasions in the DLC's two-hour runtime. I'm starting to think that poor Luna might have the real cursed bloodline in this franchise, because good gravy! It feels like they were trying to make Ardyn even more of a twisted foil to Noctis by giving him a love interest who meets a tragic end, but it's just overkill: the guy's backstory is tragic enough without having the "dead-girlfriend-o-mometer" go off every thirty minutes. There's also a binary "choice" at the end of the episode that seems to imply further developments that would have been explored in the Dawn of the Future content, which of course is no longer the case (outside of book form, that is). Still, if only for the closure, Episode Ardyn is worth experiencing for anyone who has stuck with Final Fantasy XV this long.
Like Episode Ignis before it, Episode Ardyn takes place in a miniature sandbox level, with the player able to unlock more of the map by liberating different segments of it from enemy forces. This time, Ardyn is waging a one-man war against the forces of Lucis while also taking out generators that power Insomnia's protective outer Wall. To be frank, the Lucians don't really stand a chance, as Ardyn is grossly overpowered. He has the same warp-strike ability as Noctis, a very generous dodge move, and an arsenal of Royal Arms at his disposal that grow in power as he lands more successful attacks. By holding down a button, Ardyn can turn into a cloud of smoke and zip to a highlighted point in the player's field of vision like an evil version of Spider-Man, which feels a lot more gratifying than Noctis' point-warping from the base game. I actually booted up my old save file to compare the two and found myself missing Ardyn's enhanced mobility when compared to Noct and the gang.
Once a successful combo has been dealt, Ardyn can "daemonify" a stunned foe, which instantly kills weaker enemies and does a large amount of damage to the various bosses and minibosses scattered throughout the level. The daemonification ability is really satisfying to use, but it's far from the only trick up Ardyn's sleeves: he can also summon Ifrit in battle for a devastating fire attack, and the Astral lingers for a while to do even more damage. Ardyn also has a version of Noctis' Armiger ability called "Royal Retribution," which is a devastating AOE attack that makes mincemeat of whatever is directly in front of you. Players can unlock even more abilities from the "Descension" grid (which is a hilarious play on the main game's Ascension system), giving Ardyn an incredibly versatile moveset that tops any of the other playable characters in XV's extended universe. Basically, if you're looking for a power trip, you'll get it in Episode Ardyn, as you'll be cutting through normal enemies like a hot Ultima Weapon through butter. The bosses do put up a bit more of a fight, particularly the one-on-one duel with King Regis that was prominently featured in the trailers, although the actual final battle is a little bit janky. XV's camera has never quite known what to do with giant foes, and this remains a point of contention in Episode Ardyn. As with the previous DLC content, there is an optional challenge fight that essentially flips the script on the main game's final boss fight, with Ardyn taking on Noctis and company in a brutal battle. It's a fun extra but nothing to write home about. The same applies to the many hats you can purchase for Ardyn: while it's amusing to see Niflheim's chancellor running around with a Santa Claus hat, the caps offer little more than minute stat upgrades that aren't necessary for finishing the episode.
Episode Ardyn finally allows players to explore the city of Insomnia in the daytime, and it is a sight to behold. The development team seems to have finally come to grips with the Luminous engine, and the meticulously detailed cityscape is a testament to their efforts. The soundscape of this episode is also... interesting, with stirring choral arrangements accompanied by Persona 3's Lotus Juice, of all things. It seems jarring at first, but the music grew on me as time went on: I didn't know I needed to hear a hard rock remix of "Dawn," but now I have it and my life has been moderately enriched. There's also a truly epic rendition of "Somnus" that plays during the final boss encounter, which is the most appropriate send-off for Final Fantasy XV I can think of. Really, the only complaint I have from a technical perspective is that the audio mixing is somewhat poor, with dialogue often drowned out amidst all of the chaos and bombast. I did also run into a glitch where a cutscene wouldn't trigger once a fight concluded, leaving me to run around an empty combat arena until I reset the game. Fortunately, this appears to have been a fluke, but it's worth pointing out.
More concerning is the episode's pricing. Episode Ardyn runs for $9.99 USD as of this writing, while past DLC episodes for XV ran for $4.99. When you consider that you're largely getting the same amount of content here (one central level with a few deviations and a challenge fight), this seems rather steep. Episode Ardyn is also not included as part of the game's Season Pass or the Royal Edition, so no matter what, you're going to be shelling out that ten bucks to play this. Whether or not it's worth the money largely depends on how invested you are in seeing XV's story through to its conclusion. If you're a diehard fan who has played every piece of DLC and is eagerly awaiting the Dawn of the Future tie-in novel, Episode Ardyn has my unequivocal recommendation. More casual players or those who held out on playing XV until all of the DLC came out, on the other hand, may want to wait for another "complete edition" before taking this walk on the dark side.