Finding Sincerity in CHAOS

Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin has an iconic scene early on where protagonist Jack Garland declares “Bullshit” at a character’s insistence that Chaos is merely a myth and not an actual entity. He then casually whips out his phone and plays a butt-rap tune while exiting the conversation entirely. It’s an incredible scene for a lot of reasons, but the most tantalizing part of it for me is how it’s all executed with complete sincerity.

Let me get the reviewery part out of the way first though: I absolutely adore Stranger of Paradise. It’s a fast, kinetic action game with a ton of depth in the form of its job system and some really great boss encounters that had me on the edge of my seat on higher difficulties. It feels a lot like Nioh in many regards due to its mission structure and comical amounts of loot (plus it’s the same developer, Team Ninja), but it has enough of its own identity to feel distinct, like having a party of homies to accompany meat-man Jack on his quest to kill Chaos.

Obviously it’s not perfect, and there are plenty of things to pick apart about its so-so level design and annoying loot system, but I simply cannot find it in myself to care when the rest of it is so entertaining. The presentation is a bit ramshackle, but I find it endearing in a “lost PS3 game” sort of way. There are lots of neat environments to explore and a lot of them callback to past Final Fantasy games, with one in particular being a reference to the Sunleth Waterscape in FFXIII. It may not feel quite like an all out celebration of Final Fantasy, but it’s in the subtleties, and that’s something I thought I’d never say about this utterly cracked video game.

Stranger of Paradise’s story is unhinged. Beyond the funny “bullshit” scene and Chaos memes lies a story that comes off as disorienting and fragmented but ends with one of the most insane final acts in any video game I’ve ever played. There are like…three in media res scenes at the beginning of this thing and even when the plot gets going in earnest it feels like it’s still missing a lot of pieces. Jack has an insatiable urge to kill Chaos and that’s what you’re gonna try to do! Along the way you meet new companions, fight some kick ass bosses, get the crystals, and that’s it. Right?

But then you keep playing, and slowly, the pieces start falling into place. There’s constant talk of memories throughout and time loop shenanigans to go along with it, but things start clicking in the final hours and it’s genuinely cracked. I’m not going to spoil what exactly happens because I think you should just play this game if you’re even remotely interested, but the way Stranger of Paradise essentially rewrites Final Fantasy history and recontextualizes the events of the very first game is wild, and I genuinely can’t stop thinking about it.

This is my favorite line in the entire game.

There’s a lot more I could talk about, but what’s stuck with me ever since I finished this game is how unabashedly itself it is. Stranger of Paradise isn’t afraid to be a little cringe; in fact it flat out embraces it and has no shame giving Jack the space to say some truly goofy shit in his trademark dead serious tone. And it plays all of this completely straight! There’s never a moment where one of the characters winks at the camera or loudly broadcasts how silly this whole thing is, and it works to the benefit of the game’s story. It’s like in Resident Evil 4 when Leon Kennedy can just drop the worst action movie one-liners ever conceived without shifting the actual tone of the narrative. It’s often funnier than something like Borderlands where it desperately wants you to think it’s a work of comedic genius.

Disregarding the fact that I consider Kingdom Hearts to be peak fiction, sure; I can definitely see how Stranger of Paradise would look really stupid and confounding from the surface. It kind of is! But once you dig deeper in and examine its themes, you’ll find a surprising amount of emotional heft and sincerity tucked away beneath the theatrics. It may seem like there would be some serious tonal dissonance at play, and maybe there is and my brain is broken, but the game allows space for those serious moments without undercutting it with one of Jack’s iconic edgeboy moments. There’s a time and place for both, and I personally think it’s balanced well.

In an interview with Famitsu (via Siliconera), Tetsuya Nomura explained the use of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as “a perfect match to Jack Garland’s story and the game’s final scene”. After finishing the game and hearing the song play once more through the credits, I honestly can’t think of a more perfect song that encapsulates what Stranger of Paradise is all about. Team Ninja made a game that is incredibly true to itself and unlike anything that I’ve played this year. The developers did it their way, regardless of whether it would be “cool” or not. The emotional honesty this game exudes will stick with me much longer than the Chaos memes, and I think that in and of itself is pretty damn cool.

Stray Thoughts:

  • Thanks for reading this somewhat shorter piece! I plan on doing a series of shorter articles over the next few months before I start on the next big boi (which will most assuredly be Castlevania-related).
  • As always, you can support my writing and crippling caffeine addiction through ko-fi! Any amount helps, and there’s never any obligation to do so. Regardless, I super appreciate it and I am indebted to the kind people who have donated in the past. Soon I’d like to run some polls and let supporters decide what I write about next!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s