SPOILER WARNING – I will be going into detail about a few of the story beats in Final Fantasy XV and it’s downloadable content (DLC). Since the DLC mostly takes place toward the end of the game’s timeline, some of these reveals are pretty important to the story, such as it is.
Let’s start with this: Final Fantasy XV is a perfectly acceptable game. It has gorgeous visuals, fun protagonists, and a cheerful, dapper villain who ranks among the most entertaining the series has ever produced. It has it’s flaws, to be sure – and those flaws do keep it from being great – but it’s still a perfectly acceptable game worth spending a bit of time with.
So how did Square Enix fail so incredibly badly with their story DLC?
Before the game even came out Square announced that there would be at least 4 story DLC releases: The Holiday Pack and an episode titled and featuring each of Noctis’ three traveling companions. There was also announced an “Expansion Pack” but it’s unclear if that will contain more than the ability for on-line co-op play if and when it ever comes out. So far three of these DLC have come out: The Holiday pack plus Episode Gladiolus and Episode Prompto. While the main game is, again, perfectly acceptable and improving all the time with patches that add content the DLC is pretty much garbage. How did this happen?
Cut content or bad storytelling
For many people the first question about story DLC is whether that DLC was actually cut from the main game due to time constraints or simple greed. This is a very important question for the Final Fantasy XV DLC because probably the biggest flaw with the DLC is how it fits into the timeline of the story.
The Holiday Pack takes place in some time that is both undefined and seems impossible. During the course of this DLC Noctis roams the city of Altissia with only Carbuncle for a companion. Players of the game will recall that the city is destroyed very shortly after Noctis arrives and that he is never both conscious and without his companions except for when he is participating in a particularly boring and sloppy boss fight. So it doesn’t seem to fit into the timeline at all and is perhaps some pointless fever dream of Noctis’ sometime after Chapter XIII.
The companion episodes take place during clearly defined times – Episode Gladiolus takes place during Gladio’s departure from the party in the main story and Episode Ignis takes place after Noctis accidentally throws the titular hero from a moving train – but that doesn’t really improve much because while they have timing in-universe their story timing is abysmal.
We learn from his DLC that during Gladio’s departure from the party he went into a deadly cave to prove his strength and/or to earn some more. (Which is a dumb idea to begin with, but if you want to hear more about that, check out my YouTube video on the subject.) At the end of the DLC he returns to his friends and claims to have found that strength along with a new katana. Anyone who has played through the game, however, knows that he didn’t have that katana with him and never really talks about or displays this new strength again.
In Prompto’s DLC we learn the dark truth about his past. He is not a natural citizen of Insomnia or even Lucis. He was originally born in Niffleheim but raised in Lucis without telling anyone else. As it turns out a general/scientist of Niffleheim experimented with babies and demons to create the Magitek Troopers our heroes face throughout the story. And Prompto was one of those babies who was kidnapped/rescued by some Lucian spies, though they never told him. This prompts – no pun intended – an existential crisis in Prompto who now believes himself to be a threat to his friends. That is until Aranea shows up and convinces him to suck it up and choose to be a hero anyway.
Two “timing” problems here: most obviously is that Prompto is thrown from a train and somehow ends up in a snowy, mountainous landscape that I don’t recall ever being seen from the train. He then manages to not only catch up to his friends but pass them so he can be captured and tortured for some period of time. Before his final capture he somehow finds some cold weather gear, tromps through the snowy wilderness on foot for some undefined amount of time, passes out, gets captured, escapes, hides out in a cave, optionally wanders around the wilderness with a companion and a snowmobile for some period of time that can be lengthy, invades an enemy stronghold, and then finally sets off for Niffleheim on his snowmobile. There doesn’t seem to be enough time for all of those things to happen while Noctis and company make 2 quick train stops.
The other problem is that the “big reveal” of this DLC has already been told to anyone who completed the game. In the main story of Final Fantasy XV toward the end of Chapter XIII Noctis finally finds Prompto strapped to a chair and Prompto, from the perspective of anyone who has not played the DLC, confesses to being bred in a lab to become a Magitek Trooper seemingly out of nowhere. This reveal didn’t work in the original game because there was absolutely no foreshadowing to it and it doesn’t change how anyone acts outside of Prompto becoming a bit more subdued after the revelation – something that might have been expected given everything else that’s happened and will happen, anyway. It further doesn’t work in the DLC because anyone who has beaten the game – which are the vast majority of the players who are going to try out this DLC since, like its fellows, it is locked away in a separate sub menu and so can’t be seen through the normal course of events – already knows what he is going to find out about his past and the emotional impact is completely drained from it.
If you’re looking for a good example of how to fit new story elements into your game through story DLC look no further than Mass Effect 2. In that game BioWare added multiple characters and story missions after the game had been released, but the elements they added were both time and gameplay independent. There was also more to the DLC than the new characters and gameplay elements, they added on small bits of interactions in original areas and quests for the new characters throughout the game to make them feel like they were integrated into the story all along. It also helped that you played the story DLC the exact same way as the main game instead of hiding it in an extra menu option as Square Enix did.
Square Enix doesn’t know or understand the strengths of their game
Few would argue that the game’s biggest strengths are the relationships between the four main characters and the fun of the fast-paced combat – especially teleporting across the battlefield and destroying your enemies with a variety of weapons and magics as Noctis. It’s also called a role-playing game for a reason: it features all of the components of an RPG. Most notably for the purposes of this discussion characters gain experience, items, and equipment from quests and battling enemies that allow them to grow stronger and expands the gameplay.
Each of the DLC stars only one of the four main characters – Noctis, Gladiolus, and Prompto respectively – which means they lack the charm the game gets from the party interactions and the obvious affection they all share for each other.
They also lack the quick combat featured in the main game – The Holiday Pack is mostly a series of mini-games and only two of them feature any sort of combat whatsoever, while those moments are still pretty fun, it’s probably too little. Episode Gladiolus features the hulking bodyguard and thus features slow combat with a focus on massive sword swings. Episode Prompto attempts to jerk the game into being a third-person shooter and fails miserably with clunky mechanics and poor design choices.
The DLC also lack a lot of primary RPG staples. There is no experience to be gained, no skills to learn, and no new equipment to find and use – unless you count the small variety of guns Prompto picks up and misuses as he flails about his story. Even then you find all the possible weapons fairly early and the rest of the content is just spent picking up whatever weapon you come across as it will likely be the one most suited for the next area.
Episode Prompto also appears to have been shipped out the door in an extremely unfinished state. As previously mentioned the lynch pin of this DLC – third-person shooter combat – was both clunky and unsatisfying. But beyond even that it was a bug riddled mess. There were tons of graphics clipping issues, enemies frequently became stuck for no apparent reason allowing them to be killed with no effort, and on more than one occasion an enemy would simply fall through the ground leaving no way for Prompto to escape combat to interact with his environment. This was eventuall resolved by running far, far away so that the enemy would despawn and allow the story to continue.
Given that the DLC ignores the few things that saved the main game from it’s problems is it any wonder that it’s rated so poorly? While the main game features a solid 81 rating on Metacritic Episode Gladiolus managed only a very disappointing 51. The Episode Prompto DLC reached an uninspiring but surprising 70. It would seem some reviewers were favorably impressed enough by the amount of content that was available with the inclusion of a lot more space and side quests than was available in Episode Gladiolus to ignore it’s other shortcomings.
Square Enix can bring back more of the charm of the character relationships, tell a story that players don’t already know the ending to in an interesting way, and return to the high-quality combat of the main title in their future DLC. If they do so, they can still salvage some fun and send Final Fantasy XV players off with some hope for the next full-game installment.