WARNING: This review contains heavy spoilers for Final Fantasy XV, Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV, and Episode: Prompto.
Characterisation can be a fickle device, and it is seldom that weak narratives beget naught but weak characters. Nonetheless, in spite of this rationale, Final Fantasy XV’s tenuously written plot had some absolute gems helping to drive the narrative. Managing to be compelling with his effervescent personality and relatable neuroses, Noctis’ best friend and designated black sheep, Prompto Argentum, was once such diamond in the rough that players came to adore. Therefore, it is apt that his eponymous DLC chapter, Episode Prompto, serve as the vehicle that aids in attempting to rectify the flimsier elements of FF XV’s wider story, and further details the milieu of Prompto himself.
Chronologically taking place just after Noctis has been tricked into throwing Prompto off the train to Tenebrae, at its nucleus, Episode Prompto is an abridged Bildungsroman, of sorts, as Prompto struggles to accommodate the facets of his identity. Having acquired some sick threads in the aftermath of the incident, Prompto is plucked from the snowstorm by an unseen benefactor, and awakens in a Nifelheim laboratory, discovering that he is not the only one aware of his true birth. Indeed, his saviour turns out to be none other than Ardyn Izunia, who sets him on a path to a family reunion with his biological father, Verstael Besithia, Nifelheim’s chief researcher, responsible for the odious magitek infantry and Prompto’s creation. Conflicted by his status a foreigner and an experimental abomination, Prompto is forced to confront his past directly and resolve his identity dispute, once and for all.
The difference between Episode: Gladiolus and Episode: Prompto is as stark as if they were completely disparate games. Whereas Gladio’s internal conflict, whilst somewhat engaging, was relatively myopic in scope, Prompto’s has repercussions that threaten on a significantly wider scale. In reflection of this, the episode is much more expansive, offering a wider variety of things to see and do, despite its relative linearity and its initial tendency to mimic the much-reviled Zegnautus Keep. Weapons are again assigned to the D-Pad, but offer a lot more variety and connected mechanics. Alongside a baton for melee combat, Prompto retains his signature pistol, which has, blessedly, been given infinite ammunition and fires from the regular third-person perspective. However, other guns acquired over the course of the game are aimed manually, switching to an over-the-shoulder perspective that is ameliorated by distinctive reticles. Prompto seems to have taken notes from Reaper, as he discards guns as soon as the ammunition clip has been exhausted, able to simply retrieve a new gun from on of Nifelheim’s infinite caches. Mechanically, it’s smart, as it saves players the tedium of scavenging for ammunition or constantly reloading, but it’s still amusing in practice.
Despite the limitless weapons scattered around, rushing headlong into combat is folly, as Prompto retains his abysmal health pool and tendency to fall whenever an enemy so much as farts in his general direction. However, the ability to switch between equipping a Rapidus SMG, a Sagitta Rifle, and an Alea Bazooka means he has myriad means to keep enemies at a healthy distance. Furthermore, Prompto’s techniques have been rechristened as Bullet Arts, which retain certain skills from the main game, but also enable him to Overkill, or shoot a Crackshot at vulnerable enemies. Stealth is also an option in parts, as Prompto can instantly kill unaware soldiers, and steal their weapons, but, thankfully, such a tactic is not dogmatically enforced. Between being able to maintain sustained fire, snipe, or decimate them with the choice of firepower, Prompto also can utilise Lumen Flares, which act as the game’s grenades. Unlike Gladiolus, who chugged potions like Red Bull in the previous DLC, Prompto regenerates health between battles, only needing the occasional Elixir. More frequent rest stops have also returned, although this time they assume the form of Ebony coffee vending machines, save for one campsite that will make players sorely miss Ignis’ meals. Prompto can also gain access to a snowmobile, and whilst it makes for some adrenaline-filled action sequences, at times it felt like I was driving a slice of cheese.
Whilst dealing with some heavy subject matter at times, Prompto’s composure never veers into being excessively lachrymal or morose, which, despite the oppressive circumstances, is a refreshing reflection of his resilience. Furthermore, the fast-paced nature of the game doesn’t lend itself well to prolonged cogitation, although the infrequency with which vending machines appear enables a brief glimpse at Prompto’s turmoil. However, the profundity of certain scenarios, particularly the repercussions of Prompto being coerced into committing patricide, is somewhat subverted by their brevity. Ephialtes revolving around Noctis attempting to pursue and kill Prompto as a magitek trooper convey the alienated horror involved in transformation, but beg more questions owing to the Messenger dog Pryna’s sudden presence. The choice to continuing conveying narrative details regarding the development of Nifelheim’s monsters via optional notes would have benefited from more compulsion, more visually-oriented story telling.
Furthermore, the game is jarring nonsensical at times, as Prompto can express horror at the implications that he’s been killing his own flesh and blood one second, and pose for selfies with them the next. Whilst Prompto’s quips play well against his comrades in the original, they feel superfluous at times, and often discordant. I stumbled across a set of goggles that were intended to match Prompto’s alpine attire, and equipped them, only to regret my decision in the proceeding cutscene. This may not have mattered, had this particular vignette not featured Prompto attempting to sear off the magitek barcode on his wrist. Alas, the harrowing nature of the ordeal was diminished by the inability to see the agony on his face (although, admittedly, it was still very audible). Whilst I’m grateful to be feeling less anguish at Prompto’s ordeal than I initially anticipated, I can’t help but feel conflicted over what emotions are meant to be evoked as a whole.
Although it was admittedly to be expected, Episode: Prompto also hardly offers anything challenging or thought-provoking that could be attempted from portraying Verstael, like Ardyn, as a complex antagonist deserving of equal derision and sympathy. Even as he hears a recording of Verstael musing if his research was morally sound despite the grief from losing innumerable colleagues, Prompto himself barely deviates from being polemic. At the very least, there are somewhat resonant moments that grapple with the ethics and morality of such practices employed for the common good, albeit very briefly. It will, without a doubt, enrage some that Prompto’s adoptive parents go without mention, as Prompto demonstrates a preference for contemplating the love and acceptance of his friends. However, if anything, their absence maintains the core themes of Final Fantasy XV, as it emphasises and solidifies brotherhood above all else.
Speaking of brotherhood, it was wonderful to see an in-game representation of Prompto’s childhood self brought to life, encapsulating the incessant vulnerability and fear of rejection Prompto experiences. Furthermore, it managed to add more emotional complexity, in that Prompto has evidently been aware of his true origins for almost his entire life, and sought to placate the emotional turmoil with vices. The seemingly innocuous sweatband around his right wrist as a boy has more weight; the fact that guns, not only allude to his heritage as a magitek trooper, but keep people at a convenient distance. In addition, Lunafreya’s letter to Prompto, sent after he rescued Pryna and requesting that he look after Noctis on her behalf, is utilised nicely as a reminder that Prompto is a treasured confidante of the prince, whose life has more meaning beyond the machinations of the Nifelheim Empire. Even before the DLC, Prompto was much-loved for his acute representation, for being player fears embodied. He is a commoner because the player is also a commoner; afraid of inadequacy, mediocrity, rejection and loss because the player, too, fears them. However, more significantly, Prompto rises above such his insecurities and fears because the player has the same capacity.
Aside from Ardyn and Verstael, Aranea Highwind makes a return as a guest party member, although I found myself loving and loathing her inclusion in the game in varying measure. She’s a welcome asset in combat, considering her slick fighting style, commendable damage tanking abilities and fantastic damage output, but her presence almost eclipses Prompto’s own. I was perfectly fine with Cor as his presence in the wider plot felt cursory, and, like Gladiolus, he was
boring an underutilised element in the overall game. Aranea, on the other hand, with her recurring appearances, her poise, her no-nonsense attitude and her tongue as sharp as her spear, leaves markedly more of an impression. She is such a fearsome force in the face of Prompto’s impuissance that her demeanour nearly imperils Prompto’s mentality further, at times, and her battle tactics can actually imperil him by using him as trampoline. Still, with her affection for Noctis and his companions pervading her actions, she serves as an indispensable source of logical wisdom, and she’s admittedly a lot better at steering a snowmobile than me/Prompto.
Although not overly complex, and largely restricted to the same tundra, the intricacies behind the side quests encourage more prolonged gameplay. The snowmobile used to escape the laboratory can be upgraded using CPUs earned from these side quests, which can facilitate improved speed, damage, jump height and control. In turn, this serves as leverage in timed races down the mountain, with a trophy serving as a nice, shiny impetus. In a manner similar to Cor from Episode: Gladiolus, Aranea serves as a bonus boss to spar with. Whilst, at level 52, she’s theoretically easier to defeat than the hardest side quest monsters, especially considering that Prompto uses a ranged weapon, Aranea is still relentless. Despite the opportunity to use more weapons against her, and the combat area being littered with flammable barrels, all other weapons barring Prompto’s default gun are useless as there’s seldom an opening to utilise them.
The primary strategy with which to best her will revolve around near constant roll-dodging with the odd shots in between, utilising Bullet Arts and Crackshots when she’s vulnerable, but Aranea still won’t be felled easily. When her health has been depleted down to its last third, Aranea will become even more aggressive, and her attacks even more devastating. Necessitating a balance between distance in order to avoid her attacks, whilst maintaining some proximity in order to mitigate the handgun’s damage falloff is crucial to defeating Aranea. Unless patience and a capacity for recognising the correct moment in which to strike are exercised, the lone potion, two elixirs and phoenix down that Prompto faces her with will not last long. When all is said and done, in spite of her tentative allegiance to Noctis and company, Aranea isn’t known as a legendary Dragoon for nothing.
The one element in Episode: Prompto that manages to transcend everything else is actually the music. Continuing the precedent established in the previous DLC episode, Mizuta Naoshi (Final Fantasy XI, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII) was brought in to compose for this installment, bringing a ponderous leitmotif to life through prevalent cello and woodwind. The rest of the soundtrack is the complete opposite; an energetic, techno-laden, synth-and-bass driven affair that pervades in the frozen surrounds of Nifelheim, and intensifies the action that unfolds. I don’t usually have a penchant for this sort of soundtrack, but it speaks volumes that it’s still an indelible presence in my brain, and will remain, eons later. It’s so unlike anything in the main game, and its difference, blending the technological and the traditional, much like Prompto himself, makes it perfect.
Despite still having some of FFXV’s narrative problems, in comparison to its predecessor, Episode: Prompto comes with an adamantine recommendation, as it earnestly strives to rectify the game’s latter half. Despite the ongoing debacle regarding Final Fantasy narrative and downloadable content as a whole, $7.55 AUD ($4.99 USD) is substantially better value than Episode: Gladiolus, as it easily sustains itself for twice as long. Even if it’s a tonally inconsistent experience, at times, and it continues to elicit even more questions, it’s still rather engaging and satisfying to play.
Just make sure you don’t dash off and make a cup of coffee during the credits!
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