The Wild Arms 3 LP will be back and continuing next week. Right now I need to talk about Stranger of Paradise for reasons that are likely related to brain damage. Also, this article contains spoilers for Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. The plot is vaguely incomprehensible anyway, but, ya know, if you don’t want to be spoiled on a game that came out like a month ago, just go ahead and read one of the 600 other articles on the site. Thank you for listening.
Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin has finally refined the genre with one simple trick: the perfect protagonist for a JRPG is a complete idiot.
Alright, this humble blogger must admit that is not quite right. For one thing, SoP:FFO is not a JRPG. It is an action game with significant JRPG elements. If you attempt to play this game with a typical JRPG mindset, you will watch your not-so-humble protagonist die. A lot. You cannot simply “trade blows” when you are facing a mad ogre in this Final Fantasy universe, and you must dodge, parry, and properly back-attack if you want to stand a chance. Learning exactly how to utilize your weapons is a must, and it is pretty clear early on why magic as we know it is a limited resource. Here’s a hint: if you can lob fireballs from a great distance away from your opponent, you are less a wizard, and more of a sniper. Gotta tape those superpowers down in an action game! And, to be clear, this is a departure from Final Fantasy 15, Final Fantasy 7 Remake, or even Kingdom Hearts. Those are more action-JRPG affairs, a storied tradition that traces back to waiting for 100%s on your action gauge in Secret of Mana. This is an action title, where “using a potion” is less of an inevitability, and more of a sign that you are choking in your battle duties. You should have been able to take down those wolves without getting hit, Jack! Are you sure you’re cut out to be a Warrior of Light?
But, as much as SoP:FFO is an action game, the plot and general framing is definitely a JRPG. That is as it should be, as this whole story is a loose adaption of Final Fantasy (1), the granddaddy of all JRPGs that do not involve compulsive gambling. This is the world that involves Cornelia, a dark elf prince, and exactly one named pirate. The ultimate threat is that same as in 1987, too, as the Four Fiends are menacing the primal elements of the planet, and, if four (or so) Light Warriors don’t get off their collective duffs immediately, the whole world is going to rot and/or burn. So world travel is on the menu, and every monster has to be stomped from here to the Sunken Shrine. Save us all, person with four letters in their name!
But Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is no mere HD remake of Final Fantasy. In fact, one could make the argument that SoP:FFO has dramatically less of a world compared to its decades-old forefather. A lot of the joyful worldbuilding of FF is gone now. The Circle of Sages are referenced, but never seen. The mermaids are seemingly extinct, and their be-legged former member is nowhere to be found. There is not a single dwarf in sight, and shifty oasis merchants are just as absent as their kidnapped fairies. And the delightful Dr. Unne is MIA, even though he would have fit right into this plot. No, all these friendly (and not so friendly, as we don’t see a vampire around here, either) faces are nonexistent, and the relevant population of this world is limited to the Cornellian Royal Family, Bikke the Pirate, and Astos, the Prince of RUB. That’s like… six people? Some major depopulation went on between dimensions here…
But that is okay (for everybody but a blind witch and her talking brooms), as Stranger of Paradise has replaced its world populace with lore for days. This is the not the World of Final Fantasy you once knew! This is a world manipulated by another dimension, and, for reasons that are not entirely obvious, these Sliders decided to weld “close enough” locations from other dimensions onto established sites in this poor world. What does that mean? Well, it means the iconic Gurgu Volcano of Final Fantasy 1 is now secretly the Fire Cavern of Final Fantasy 8. The Sea Shrine is now a Mako Reactor that sends energy nowhere (on this planet). And it is not just fiend lairs! What was once the Marsh Cave is now a Final Fantasy 13 swamp, and other spots are similarly modified to match slightly-less-but-still-pretty classic locales. Look, we all know what is happening here: it’s an excuse to smoosh a bunch of archetypal Final Fantasy locations all into one game, and give the player an excellent excuse to see what iconic places would look like outside of ancient pixels. But there is a plot reason for all this chicanery, and it is something that theoretically enhances this Final Fantasy story. You should care about what is happening in this world comprised of worlds.
But if you do not care, do not worry about it. Jack Garland, your main character, does not give the tiniest damn about any of this. And he seems pretty content! And by “content”, I mean “angry all the time”!
Jack is everything you saw in those preview trailers, and nothing more. He wants to destroy Chaos. He will actively swear at Fiends, and tell them he does not give a [darn] about their identities. He actively shouts at party members that encourage him to remember his own past. Jack is a surly, dogged slab of beef that has exactly one goal, and will not tolerate any one or thing that stands in the way of that goal. When Jack orders a chili dog at the local Cornellia Con Carne stand, he spends most of his time in line shouting about how this is taking too long, he needs to go kill Chaos, dammit! And extra relish! Chaos hates relish!
And, to be frank, that kind character is usually an anathema to me. Under normal circumstances, I quickly grow bored with a surly angry dude. I do not care if he is avenging his dead family or simply has an unstoppable drive to succeed in the lucrative field of axe throwing: it gets old fast. And Jack is definitely a generic angry dude that seems to be exclusively defined by how much he wants to fight the inevitable final boss. There is little difference between Jack and the countless other “American action videogame hero” archetypes out there that have collectively been responsible for more bloodshed than every shark that has ever swum. Jack is destined to become a villain, and that is appropriate, as he is the conventional level of shallow of countless other villains and anti-heroes that try to hang on to one redeeming trait as they focus exclusively on murder.
But! There is so much ridiculous nonsense going on that it seems like an amnesiac vengeance machine is the only possible protagonist here. Anyone else would ask questions! Anyone else wouldn’t get past the first dungeon without stopping and investigating the why of these things. But not Jack! He just wants to kill Chaos! So when, say, there’s a giant monster that clearly has a “helpless” human half merged with her chest, Jack isn’t like “Oh, wow, this half-human monster claims to be a servant of Chaos, and the last guy we talked to said we might have to barter and give up our lives to Chaos, I wonder if this poor soul is another person that, like my friend Neon, made a deal with the devil in an effort to save the world, and now we are punishing someone that is just like us.” No. Jack’s reaction is “Monster? Kill!” In short, Jack works perfectly for this world, as he has no problem looking at all the incongruent garbage in his universe, and saying “Nope, not today. Gotta kill Chaos.”
And this is significant, as it is difficult to remember the last time a thinking player could “forgive” a protagonist for keeping the plot mysterious when they didn’t have to. Any other protagonist in Jack’s situation earns a, “dude, why didn’t you ask a simple question just then, it would have saved us venturing through four unnecessary dungeons”. With Jack, you just have to be happy he didn’t accidentally murder a helpful elf the minute he said “chaos”. And never mind that Jack lives in a modern videogame storytelling universe, which means that he finds cryptic “lore dumps” every ten minutes, and, since their discovery is optional, he isn’t allowed to remember that big twists were subtly explained seven datalogs back. When Sora is surprised to find out the main villain is Ansem, you call him an idiot, because he has been collecting Ansem’s journal pages for the last twenty hours. When Jack finds the people that have scattered about a series of orbs that all read “Our Nefarious Plan for Genocide #4,271” are actually the source of all his misery, you cannot help but be okay with Jack’s shock, because you know he didn’t pay attention the first time. He was too busy getting ready to kill Chaos!
Jack should not work, but he absolutely works phenomenally in this world/plot. He is the secret best JRPG protagonist I never knew I wanted. Like so many other Square Enix heroes and heroines, Jack is trapped in a situation that would drive any mundane man absolutely insane. There is absurdity everywhere, and the baddies that are carefully disguising their machinations are also leaving their notes all over the place. How does one live in such a place? How do you make any progress when you know you are undoubtedly being tricked into following the villains’ master plan? How can the player get behind a protagonist that is clearly making terrible decisions? Simple answer to all questions: KESS. Keep ‘em stupid, simpleton. As long as Jack is as dumb as a rock, none of this nonsense matters. You are here to murder Chaos, he is here to murder Chaos, and it all works out. The end.
Jack Garland has proven to be the perfect JRPG protagonist. In a world where nothing is going to make sense, choose the hero that has zero sense.
FGC #627.1 Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin
- System: Playstation 4, Playstation 5, and various Xboxes. Note that the Playstation 4 is simultaneously the system I played this on, and the absolute worst choice.
- Number of players: Online play is available! I think that technically makes this a 3-player game. There are at least three party members!
- Marketing Fail: Given the biggest appeal here is that you get to fight familiar Final Fantasy monsters in familiar Final Fantasy locales, I have no idea why this game wasn’t marketed as “Kingdom Hearts: Just Final Fantasy” or “Final Fantasy Dissidia: But Probably What You Wanted the First Time” or “World of Final Fantasy, but not whatever was happening there”… Oh, I get it. It was because this concept fails every time. Except that one time! Regardless, so many of my favorite action titles are my favorites despite the fact that their level design is generally “a series of hallways… sometimes there’s a lava level”. Final Fantasy is all about interesting environments! And that’s a lot more interesting to this audience than “Jack is angry”.
- Marketing Fail Part 2: This has to be the “elevator pitch” answer to Nintendo and other companies turning their franchises into (successful) Warriors titles. This is not a Warriors game, but it is clearly trying for that piece of the nostalgia/branding pie. And this is definitely better and more complex than those games, but conversely seems less popular. People don’t know gold when they see it. … Or at least pyrite.
- Favorite Job: Void Knight should be called something closer to Magitek Knight, as the ability is evocative of Final Fantasy 6’s Celes and her Runic ability. But terrible naming aside, it is just plain fun to be staring down a tornado, death beam, or whatever the hell a Tonberry is tossing out, and then just turn it into an instant counter with the power of pressing R2. Something deeply empowering about burning a dragon to ash with its own fireballs.
- Fashion Faux Pas: You acquire new equipment constantly, often an entirely new (and better!) wardrobe from just one encounter with three enemies. And the optimize command redresses your entire party, so this leads to odd situations wherein you are getting decked out for the next level and…
… Is Sophia wearing a fedora? Where did you get that? Weren’t you dressed like a ninja five minutes ago? What is even happening!?
- Did you know? Nomura was responsible for character designs and the overarching plot, and he claims the concepts came to him while he was working on Dissidia 012: Duodecim Final Fantasy. And to that I say: duh. Like, seriously, it’s the same damn world, and very close to being the exact same plot. It’s so similar, I half expected Neon to be Lightning in disguise…
- Would I play again: Speaking of it being the same damn world, we’re going to look at said damn world in much more detail in a second article on this strange little game on Friday. So please look… wait. Crap.
What’s next? That thing I just said! Friday! Now, please look forward to it!