Final Fantasy XV: One Year (and Change) Later

Are we there yet?

Final Fantasy XV is a mess—often a beautiful one, I think, but some of its flaws are more glaring than others. In the 13 months since release, Square Enix has done its damnedest to patch the leaky ship’s plot holes and otherwise expand the game into an odd platform for experimental DLC.

While the game itself came out in late 2016, it was 2017 that saw most of these sidelong improvements. The studio has made good on its promised season pass items, mostly with side stories focused on the supporting cast. Episodes Gladiolus, Prompto, and Ignis in particular fill in the blanks left by those characters’ heading off on solo adventures during the main campaign. A multiplayer expansion, Comrades, also gave background characters like Cid and Iris somewhere to be after they disappeared from the plot altogether.

The developers still aren’t done, however, as Square recently promised at least three more expansions for Final Fantasy XV in 2018. So before this uncharted DLC hits the game, and before the new year kicks off in earnest, I wanted to take a look back on what we’ve gotten so far. Just what does this flawed gem look like now that we’ve had a full year of updates to polish it?

The “Episodes”

Episode Prompto

Easily the most interesting updates to Final Fantasy XV came in the form of its “Episodes,” focused on the player’s three main companions from the main game. Instead of playing as party leader and would-be king Noctis, you play as beef boy Gladiolus, gunslinger Prompto, and the spellcasting Ignis. “Interesting” doesn’t necessarily mean good, of course, and that’s especially true of this trio of experiments.

Episode Gladiolus is the worst offender. While each of the expansions lasts just one to two hours, Gladio makes even that run time feel overlong. The entire DLC is nothing but him and his mentor/idol, Cor, slapping their way through repetitive fights. You wield the same block-and-slash combat, fighting the same couple of enemies, spelunking through very similar rooms in the same single dungeon until a fairly easy boss fight signals the end of the story. It feels like precisely the kind of story beat that wasn’t included in Final Fantasy XV because it wasn’t necessary.

Episode Prompto fares a good deal better. It’s is a pseudo-open-world affair with side quests of its own. Prompto and the criminally underutilized dragoon Aranea Highwind (here’s hoping she’s playable in some of the 2018 DLC) zip around a frosty valley via snowmobile. And unlike Cor and Gladio, they actually have some loose ends to tie up—specifically regarding the main game’s unexplored reveal that Prompto is an escaped robot clone… thing. The emotional beats that follow lean into FFXV’s strengths, too, even if the snowmobile stuff is stretched way too thin.

Episode Ignis Episode Ignis

Speaking of added traversal mechanics: Episode Ignis gives its namesake a dang grappling hook. Iggy looks awfully cool, too, zipping between the rooftops of Altissia against the backdrop of airships battling a 50-story giant. The hook is also a fine fit for more of the open-world antics introduced in Episode Prompto. There’s an almost Far Cry 2-like element of capturing, losing, and recapturing city districts from imperial foot soldiers. I just wish it lasted longer, since Episode Ignis drops all of that in favor of some ultra-light stealth and a couple of boss fights as it progresses.

Each episode—and Ignis in particular—feels like the result of an internal game jam at Square Enix. None of the new mechanics they introduce feel sturdy or polished enough to be fun, exactly, but they do stretch the limits of what you’d expect from FFXV more than a year after launch. Episode Prompto introduces over-the-shoulder shooting, for crying out loud.

That’s not enough to make me say I enjoyed each episode. The novelty was enough to justify the handful of emotional beats that hit the same heights as baseline FFXV’s, though. It’s also plenty to get me excited for what Square Enix plans to add across 2018, when those ideas may have more room to breathe. Here’s hoping.

The Multiplayer

Speaking of hope, I was strangely excited for Comrades when it was announced. The cooperative expansion sounded like just the thing to capitalize on Final Fantasy XV’s diet Monster Hunter vibes. That element of the base game sadly falls apart halfway through the campaign. So I was all the way ready for Comrades to revive that feeling of hunting my way across the countryside.

Sadly, the openness of both the main game’s first half and most of the story episodes is nowhere to be found in FFXV’s multiplayer. Instead we have another series of preset battles with some light upgrade mechanics and the option to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with friends.

It’s not an awful combination. FFXV’s combat, while not as nuanced as I’d like, is plenty flashy. When you multiply that teleporting, time-stopping, nonstop-spark-erupting sensory overload by one-to-three fellow players (or AI companions), it’s really flashy. There’s fun to be had just holding the square button and watching your avatar do an exploding backflip kick into a giant spider’s face over and over again. There’s an invisible cameraman periodically snapping screenshots of moments like these for posterity, too, which is a plus.

I only wish that such a mechanically driven mode used the mechanics I really loved from FFXV. There’s no driving between rest stops and campgrounds, or scraping together enough cash to afford ramen noodles. There is, in fact, very little sense of camaraderie in Comrades—which is precisely what the base game does best. We get to see what the supporting cast was up to while Noctis and company were off saving the world. It’s a static representation in a game that’s best in motion.

The Story So Far

Final Fantasy XV is as much a mess as it ever was. But now it’s a much more complete mess. Between the DLC episodes, the added context of Comrades, and a couple of info dump cutscenes Square Enix has patched into existing chapters, I actually understand what the hell was happening in that original campaign.

But while the nature of the world of Eos and its inhabitants make more sense, I’m not sure the story is that much more fulfilling. The plot holes aren’t paved over in any order besides the one the player chooses themselves. So all our answered questions—as to what the Astrals were, why Ardyn is such a dick, where Prompto comes from, or just why Ignis went blind—come with all the dramatic tension and timing of a Wikipedia page. A story that once had the benefit of plausibly intentional mystery is now just a string of facts that make sense, but don’t have much weight.

Final Fantasy’s mechanical additions, on the other hand, are still in the sweet spot. Iggy’s magic, Prompto’s shooting, the new approach to XV’s open-world: they all have untapped potential and an avenue to deliver on it. 2018 could deliver on that promise. 2018 could ring in new stories in the FFXV universe that are both coherent from the jump and emotionally rewarding.

This could also be the year that I finally get over my weird obsession with this glittering, colorful wreckage of a game. I want my favorite fantasy boy band to live up to its aptitude. But sooner or later, potential has to cross over into reality. Even now, more than a year after Final Fantasy XV’s release, we’re not there yet.