At this point, I couldn’t tell you the defining features of a Final Fantasy game. Early on in the franchise’s long history, I would have said it’s a high-fantasy RPG filled with wizards and warring nations. That descriptor began to bend with each entry, as games like Final Fantasy VII completely shook up the tone and setting of the series. For a while, the only thing that really united them was their commitment to turn-based combat, but that’s faded away in recent years as well. What does the Final Fantasy brand really mean in 2022?
It’s fitting that Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, the series’ latest spinoff, is a game about an identity crisis. It stars Jack Garland, a short-tempered hero who doesn’t remember anything about his past. All he knows is that he needs to kill Chaos. That motivation turned the game into an instant meme when it debuted at E3 2021 with a bizarre trailer showcasing Jack’s one-track mind. Since then, players have been laughing along with what’s been widely described as a “video game shitpost.”
As dumb as the game seems — and trust me, it is very dumb — it’s not just an ironic romp. Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is a deliberate deconstruction of the series it’s spun off from, satirizing its goofiest instincts and reclaiming a franchise that spins further away from its past with each entry.
By now, you’ve probably seen a few clips of Final Fantasy Origin being shared around. Perhaps the most infamous is one where a character gives an expositional speech, to which Jack replies “bullshit” before tossing in some earbuds and blasting Limp Bizkit-esque nu metal. For fans craving more bizarre moments like that, the final game delivers. I laughed so hard I nearly cried the first time I died and Jack whined, “This sucks!”
The game’s humor isn’t an accident, though — or I don’t think it is, at least. Jack’s lack of social skills makes him a perfect foil to the Final Fantasy series as a whole. He’s a stand-in for the kind of player who might find the series, and RPGs like it, tiresome. When characters try to explain their backstory in a long monologue, Jack uncaringly cuts them off. One boss launches into a classic villain monologue that’s cut short when Jack yells “shut the fuck up!” and pounces. At one point, a party member starts conveniently thinking aloud about the current objective while walking, and he’s mocked for it. Who the hell talks like that?
Jack isn’t just a “stranger” to the game’s world; he’s a stranger to Final Fantasy as a whole. He’s like an impatient player who’s bored to tears by long-winded lore dumps and just wants to get to the action (I could relate to that, as it’s exactly how I felt recently playing the Final Fantasy Tactics-esque Triangle Strategy).
Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to see the absurdity in the things we love.
Final Fantasy Origin isn’t just an act of self-parody, though. The deeper the story gets, the more its metacommentary begins to reveal itself. Chaos isn’t just some big monster to punch; it’s the franchise itself. From level to level, the game’s reality is seemingly always changing. What starts as a typical high-fantasy game set in a kingdom weaves in and out of other genres, both in terms of the story and art design. One minute, Jack is battling through a lush forest filled with creatures. The next, he’s in a Final Fantasy 7-reminiscent dimension filled with high-tech machinery.
It’s even reflected in the game’s armor. Jack constantly acquires gear in the game, with seemingly no consistency between clothing. At the start of the game, he’s simply dressed in a black T-shirt and slacks, as if he’s from Final Fantasy XV. I gain more gear and hit “optimize” to auto-assign my best pieces. Suddenly, I’m wearing metal knight armor with a fedora. It’s as if gear sets from every disparate series entry were plopped into one game, adding to that sense of identity crisis.
Really, what does a Final Fantasy game even look like anymore?
That’s the kind of question the series has been grappling with at large recently. Final Fantasy VII Remake is secretly a metacommentary about its creators feeling bound by fate due to the original game’s legacy. Even the recent Chocobo GP is constantly breaking the fourth wall, gleefully poking fun at the series’ past.
Final Fantasy has reached its postmodern phase. Like Jack, Square Enix is desperately searching for clarity and purpose, but constantly trying to distance itself from the past. What does the series name mean anymore? Where does it fit in with a now-overcrowded sea of RPGs? What does a modern Final Fantasy game look like? That last question might explain why the game is a Dark Souls-inspired action game instead of a traditional RPG. It’s secretly a pseudo-remake of the first Final Fantasy game, but one that’s been drenched in modern design tropes like punishing combat and headache-inducing loot drops. Is this what Final Fantasy should look like in 2022? It’s almost a design joke.
Without going too deep into the story (which is much more thoughtful than you’re expecting), Final Fantasy Origin is explicitly a game about taking back a disorganized series. There’s an air of self-awareness around Jack’s twisty search for purpose. Digital Trends’ writer Tomas Franzese reads the game as producer Tetsuya Nomura (who directed the equally meta Final Fantasy VII Remake) quite literally trying to reclaim the series from Square Enix, and I buy that take. After all, it does feel symbolic that it goes to the long-ignored source of the series to retcon the very first Final Fantasy game.
If you’re coming to the game for the laughs, you’ll find plenty during your adventure. But be prepared for a surprisingly serious existential crisis that battles with creative chaos.
Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is out now on Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, and PC.
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