Long, long ago, there was an idea for an RPGFan feature series that centered around books. Absolute cheese novel adaptations of games, game/novel pairings…basically the intersection of interactive fiction and print fiction. Multiple writers expressed interest and the idea grew. What you see before you is the latest chapter in that venture, and what you take away from it is up to you. The joy of reading is in the interpretation, after all. Today, Peter Triezenberg recounts his thoughts and experiences reading the recent Final Fantasy XV DLC-turned-novel, The Dawn of the Future.
A Fragmented Tale
When Final Fantasy XV finally hit store shelves in late 2016, it was generally well-received, but it was definitely lacking in key areas. While fans and critics praised the lush soundscape, gorgeous visuals, and the genuine sense of camaraderie between the main party of characters, the journey Noctis and his retinue embarked on was filled with holes from a rushed conclusion to lack of information on Eos itself. When you factor in a bloated marketing campaign that further fragments XV‘s story between a CGI film, several animated shorts, and bizarre mobile spin-offs, you have a recipe for a wildly inconsistent and inconclusive tale.
Fans, rightly, had hoped for more content from a mainline Final Fantasy, and Square Enix was more than eager to sell it to them with additional character-oriented episodes for the three main party members. Additionally, several free patches were released for the base game, adding new features and cutscenes to further flesh out the lore. There was even the “Royal Edition,” a definitive release that included all of the aforementioned DLC alongside even more all-new content. By the end of 2017, Final Fantasy XV was about as close to “complete” as it was ever going to be, but the development team had even bigger ambitions. Based on fan feedback, the developers planned a second wave of DLC content dubbed “The Dawn of the Future” under a new subsidiary called Luminous Productions. This second wave would consist of four more character episodes to offer an alternate, and presumably more satisfying, conclusion to the tale.
Due to circumstances we aren’t 100% privy to, Final Fantasy XV‘s director, Hajime Tabata, would wind up departing Luminous and Square Enix, and the plans were scrapped. It’s a shame, because if rumors are to be believed, development on “The Dawn of the Future” had already progressed significantly. The content that was finished (Episode Ardyn, focused on the game’s core antagonist) wound up getting a standalone release, which was nice and all, but it’s not nearly the resolution that fans were hoping for. Still, the development team wanted to tell the story in some form, and so it was that, with the help of writer Emi Nagashima (pen name Jun Eishima), we wound up getting Final Fantasy XV: The Dawn of the Future as a novel instead of a game. Released in English in July, The Dawn of the Future brings us at last to the end of the road for Final Fantasy XV. Like the scrapped DLC content, The Dawn of the Future novel is split into four segments, one for each highlighted character. Indeed, this could be considered more of a short story collection than a full-on novel. But does it live up to fan expectations?
Part 1: Screen vs. Page
We begin with Chapter 1, A Savior Lost, which covers the story content already released in Episode Ardyn. When I say that A Savior Lost is the plot of Episode Ardyn, I don’t mean only that the dialogue and story beats are exactly the same, which they are. Beyond that, reading this chapter is like reading a dramatized version of a Let’s Play. I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to include the Ubisoft-esque tower scaling and functioning minimap of the game as a literary plot device, but surely there had to be a better way to describe Ardyn’s attack on Insomnia: it doesn’t make for engaging action at all. Here’s an example:
“I’ve marked the location of all the devices they’re using to amplify the Wall.” The transceiver’s screen displayed an aerial view of the city. Several red dots dotted the map. “They seem to be positioned on rooftops around the city. Find them and destroy them.”
Gripes with the adaptation aside, I’m just not a fan of this portrayal of Ardyn. I reviewed Episode Ardyn for the site when it came out, and there I was a little kinder to the experience, as I found it fun to play. Devoid of that experience, when the material is a narrative with no bells and whistles, I find Ardyn’s fleshed-out backstory to be something of a betrayal to his character, a true travesty when you consider that he’s one of my all-time favorite Final Fantasy villains. Ardyn’s fall to darkness loses a lot of its intrigue now that we know it had more to do with the death of his love interest, Aera Mils Fleuret, than it does with the usurpation of the throne by Noctis’s ancestors. Trying to make Ardyn a more sympathetic foil to Noctis by portraying him as a sad incel is one of the laziest tropes invoked by The Dawn of the Future and does nothing to salvage Final Fantasy XV‘s treatment of its female characters. This chapter’s events also clash slightly with pre-established lore in the base game, especially in regards to Ifrit and the Starscourge. I know that The Dawn of the Future is essentially a massive retcon, but with this, I think it’s safe to declare Episode Ardyn as non-canon, or at least canon-adjacent, lest our brains break from trying to figure out the timeline.
Part 2: What Could Have Been
Moving on, though, we have Chapter 2, The Beginning of the End, starring Aranea Highwind, AKA XV‘s only good female character. And indeed, this chapter is the highlight of the book. It covers the fall of the Niflheim Empire’s capital of Gralea, which occurred off screen in the main game. I think what I like about this chapter, aside from its brevity, is that you can really envision how this DLC episode would have played, conceptually: since we don’t already have a finished product to compare it to, this part doesn’t read quite as much like a design doc and lets the reader’s imagination run wild. The description of Aranea’s combat style, using her explosive spear to propel her through the air, is visceral and exciting, and really makes me wish I could pick up a controller and engage the hordes of daemons myself. It even ends on a large-scale battle against Diamond Weapon, which featured prominently in the Kingsglaive film but was sorely missing from the game proper. This feels like a big missed opportunity and is probably the only time I wholeheartedly regretted that I was merely reading this in book form.
Part 3: That’s a Choice
Chapter 3, Choosing Freedom, is all about Lunafreya, and… oh, Luna, they never figured out what to do with you, did they. This is where The Dawn of the Future truly begins its alternate timeline storyline, wherein Bahamut (who, up until this point in the game’s universe has been a largely benevolent entity) takes a hard turn into principle villain territory. Luna, who has been revived by Bahamut because that’s a thing he can do, finds herself in the post-Chapter 13 timeskip with the same Starscourge-absorbing powers that Ardyn has. There, she intercepts a new character named Solara (who was first introduced in Aranea’s chapter as the secret heir to the Niflheim empire) and the two of them embark on a sort of microcosm version of XV‘s bro journey across Eos.
This is another plot development that sounds interesting in theory, giving Luna something to do that mirrors Noctis’s journey in the main game, only with a motorbike instead of a sports car. As a note in a design doc, on paper, this could have been engaging. Unfortunately, neither Luna nor Solara are interesting enough as characters to make their travels seem meaningful. Introducing a new character this late into the proceedings is a tall order anyway, but Solara is a paper-thin ball of teen angst that really only seems to exist so Luna has someone to talk to. While I appreciate getting more insight into Luna’s backstory, and some descriptions of her brother Ravus that may clarify his role in the main game, Luna is just so appallingly written that the developer’s attempts to make her “badass” by dressing her in black and giving her superpowers fall flat. Her naivete about the state of the world is almost comical at points: it’s bad enough that she apparently doesn’t know what cell phones are, but it’s also revealed that she had no idea that using the Ring of the Lucii to dispel the darkness would kill Noctis. That’s right: King Regis knew his son would perish by fulfilling his destiny, but the priestess whose literal job involves communing with the gods didn’t know.
Part 4: Fragments…joined?
Lastly, we have Chapter 4, The Final Glaive. This is where the stories coalesce and provide the alternate ending we were promised, and fortunately, it does succeed in what it set out to do… sort of. It begins during Noctis’s ten-year slumber inside the crystal, presented as — and I promise I am not making this up — the trailer for Final Fantasy Versus XIII, the game announced back in 2006 that would eventually morph into Final Fantasy XV. Noctis descending the steps of the Citadel, fighting hordes of faceless enemies, sitting on a throne, even commenting on how “different” it looks… this is an astonishing bit of fanservice and only heightens my speculation that The Dawn of the Future is, at least in some fashion, based on Fabula Nova Crystallis in some form. Everything about the way this final chapter progresses, from Bahamut behaving similarly to Bhunvelze and wanting to eradicate humanity to Luna’s transformation into a kind of “Goddess of Darkness” akin to Etro (with a design based on XV‘s logo, which was indeed originally meant to be Final Fantasy XIII‘s death goddess), absolutely reeks of the FNC mythos. One has to wonder if, somewhere down the line, this was what the development team had hoped to accomplish with Versus XIII. We may never know, but as it stands, it’s a bizarre and fascinating glimpse into what could have been.
The portion focused on Noctis in the crystal is actually my favorite part of the book, despite the ridiculous framing. We finally get a reunion scene between Noctis and his father, which was something I always wanted in the base game. Since it all happens during the crystal slumber before any timeskip shenanigans, I’m gonna pretend that this part is canon because it’s a really sweet scene. Noctis also has a moment of realization concerning his immaturity toward Luna and why Ravus resented him so much: again, an epiphany that should have been in the game proper, but at least it does show Noctis growing as a character. Despite the uneven character writing in its expanded universe, Noctis remains one of my favorite Final Fantasy protagonists, and I enjoyed seeing this perspective from him.
From there, Noctis rendezvous with Sol instead of reuniting with his retinue and heads straight for Insomnia to contend with Ardyn and find Luna. Unfortunately, he is too late: Bahamut has begun his plan to use Teraflare to destroy Eos, Luna has become a daemon, and all seems lost. This all culminates in a big final battle between the entire cast and Bahamut and “Scourge Goddess” Luna: Noctis forges a pact with Ifrit, the chocobros show up to help out (although their role is weirdly subdued considering how important they are to the overall arc of the game), Aranea and Sol crash in an airship, Ardyn gets a little bit of redemption (as a treat), and in general it’s a very exciting, climactic encounter that probably would have made for an excellent boss fight. While your mileage may vary on how much “better” this new final battle is compared to the base game’s, it’s certainly robust. I also enjoyed the not at all subtle Judeo-Christian imagery used to describe Bahamut, when it’s revealed that the face under his mask looks like Noctis’. “Man was created in His image,” etc., etc. It’s very “old-school JRPG” and I dig it.
For my money, while I appreciate the additional closure Chapter 4 seeks to give its heroes, I feel as though it somewhat dilutes the tragic ending of the original game. It portrays Noctis’ sacrifice as the de facto “bad ending” and instead presents a more… traditional Final Fantasy ending, for lack of a better term. It’s definitely cool and fanservicey, but lacking in substance. I also found the epilogue to be slightly rushed: it’s Regis monologuing about the state of Eos after the final battle and before Noctis and Luna’s wedding, which is certainly a happy enough ending for these characters, but hardly the most graceful send-off.
I wasn’t the biggest fan of The Dawn of the Future. While it has its fair share of bright spots, the story’s overall content failed to grab me, and as RPGFan’s resident Final Fantasy XV apologist, I’m definitely the mark for this sort of thing. Beyond the plot, it’s the quality of the writing itself where The Dawn of the Future suffers. Jun Eishima worked on Final Fantasy properties before, specifically on the Final Fantasy XIII tie-in novellas (she even had a story credit on Final Fantasy XIII-2). The prose in this novel certainly reads like something out of the XIII trilogy’s Data Logs. I’m not fluent in Japanese, so I can’t readily compare Stephen Kohler’s translation to the original text, but the English language version of the book comes across as stilted and uneven. Certain phrases are repeated ad nauseam (take a drink every time they describe the Scourge as “some manner of parasite”), action sequences are largely rote and banal, and objects in the story are over-described to the point of absurdity, such as the aforementioned description of what a cell phone is. This book really does read like an overly florid design doc, and while it’s interesting to read sections like Aranea’s and imagine what it would have looked like as a game, segments like Ardyn’s make me wonder why I shelled out $10 for that DLC in the first place.
Nevertheless, I would recommend giving this book a look if you’re a fan of Final Fantasy XV: if not for the story itself, then for a glimpse into what could have been. The concept art section alone is really something, showing off tons of scenes that would never be fully realized, such as a funeral for Ardyn or Luna’s daemonic form. This book is like a portal into an alternate timeline all its own, not just for Noctis and his friends, but for the players who bought Final Fantasy XV and wanted something different than what they got. Whether this alternate scenario is satisfying largely depends on how you felt about the original game, though. For what it’s worth, The Dawn of the Future is a frustrating and uneven experience that largely fails to impress, but for diehard Final Fantasy fans, there may be something worthwhile in this what-if scenario.
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