“Bullshit,” is what I would say if you told me earlier this year that Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin would get me in my feelings. Yet here we are. Having recently finished it, I’m fresh off of the surprises and connections that truly make it a Final Fantasy game. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still campy as hell with narrative leaps that will leave you shaking your head. But once it started showing its hand towards the end and brought it all together, I couldn’t help but love this absurd ass game.
Final Fantasy XIV, along with its stack of expansions, is possibly my favorite thing ever. I believe it’s the best-playing MMORPG to date, but more importantly, it’s a home I constantly come back to. I love it dearly for its storytelling, worldbuilding, and characters — wonderfully written and told through years of thoughtful narrative design. And those little “several cutscenes are about to play, set aside time to watch them” warnings get me so hyped.
Having finished Endwalker a few months ago, I needed a good breather from the wave of emotions that came along with it. FFXIV often feels heavy — at least as someone who has been emotionally invested in it for years now. Even while just walking the pristine cobblestone paths of Old Sharlayan to check the market board, I feel wistful as I reflect on the long journey that had led my Warrior of Light to this place. Everywhere I go in FFXIV has a deep history, reminding me of the thoughts and feelings I had when I discovered these places and the stories within, captured by the lovely, evocative soundtrack. FFXIV is the quintessential Final Fantasy experience.
Now, let’s venture to the complete opposite end of the spectrum with Stranger of Paradise. Through the wave of Chaos memes and clips of incoherent cutscenes, I was oddly drawn to how goofy and nonsensical it looked. Just dudes being bros, and gals being pals, killing Chaos and shit. The impression was that this was a gameplay-first action RPG that flexed the prowess of developer Team Ninja. It seemed intentionally detached from the story-focused ethos of the franchise — a Final Fantasy only in name.
I mean, that’s exactly what it presents itself as. Stranger of Paradise does lean into the ridiculousness to create this exceedingly irreverent tone. At the same time, it doesn’t excuse some of the objectively bad presentation I can’t help but laugh my ass off at (especially the few scant beginning cutscenes that leave you scratching your head). At least, it makes its core characters seem cool in battle with their quirky quips and mannerisms amid the bombastic battles against Chaos. It also helps that it comes with a satisfying interpretation of the series’ Job system.
However, the game also leverages its tone to slowly build toward something surprisingly earnest that still remains consistent with its silly attitude. The last handful of missions are unexpected because the game spends over half its time barely providing any narrative threads. When Stranger of Paradise began showing its hand, my perception slowly shifted as well. There was something honest beneath the surface — aimless banter in dungeons turned into pieces to the narrative puzzle, and the obsession with Chaos became indicative of a larger problem. And once the story’s flood gates opened, the once-threadbare plot was recontextualized.
Figuring out just what the hell this game was trying to do was one of the motivations pushing me through Stranger of Paradise. Its storytelling is brash and inelegant but has heart. It’s sincere in its bullshit, exemplified by Jack’s tendency to hilariously cut off monologues in order to cut to the chase and scream obscenities in battle. I bought into its personality early on, genuinely liking its characterizations, designs, and voice acting from the start.
Through the course of the story, each interaction Jack has with his teammates Ash, Jed, Neon, and Sophia, and even the mysterious Dark Elf Astos, chips away at his hardened exterior as everything reaches a tipping point. When it was time for it all to come together, it cashed in on that persona, flipping the script to unravel something much stronger than the initial premise. It’s a risky approach, but one I truly believe it’s better for.
Think of this as a chart of exponential growth (see below).
I imagine many folks will probably see the story of Stranger of Paradise and think I must be trippin’ — and I get it. They’re probably not wrong. You still spend a lot of time clinging onto any crumb of story. There are aspects that feel crude or underdeveloped by the end. However, I do appreciate the dedication to silly nonsense when it serves a purpose, whether explicitly stated or otherwise. And I’m especially weak for a dramatic showcase of the power of friendship. Fighting together, and for each other, in a video game goes a long way in creating the foundation for a powerful story centering on that theme.
Do I fully understand every piece of lore in Stranger of Paradise? Haha, no. I don’t think anyone is supposed to. Sometimes, you gotta chalk it up to crystals and magic! And I’m not sure I’d go as far to say Stranger of Paradise is a genius work in storytelling. But it is certainly effective and solidifies its place in the Final Fantasy pantheon by making good on that Origin subtitle.
As I return to FFXIV, I’ve thought about why these two wildly contrasting games grab me for somewhat similar reasons. And honestly, I just gotta repeat myself and say I’m a sucker for the power of friendship and the sacrifices characters make, even if misguided or tragic, especially when the gameplay is inextricably tied to the communication of those themes. While they aren’t the only themes present, they’re the ones I tend to remember most fondly.
There is nothing like G’raha Tia’s poetic expressions of admiration for the Warrior of Light and a hero’s journey in FFXIV. Or like the deep sorrow that turned Emet-Selch into a monster you’d end up caring about. Then there’s a fist bump from Jack Chaos in Stranger of Paradise, barely speaking a word, yet communicating so much — his way of showing respect and appreciation for his friends who try just as hard.
In many ways, Stranger of Paradise is the anti-FFXIV in that it doesn’t care about water-tight lore or deep character development but still uses good ol’ Final Fantasy melodrama to win your heart. They’re two points on opposite ends that converge in the same general area. Am I trying to say Stranger of Paradise compares to the magnificent storytelling of FFXIV? Absolutely not. But sometimes you’re in the mood for campiness, like fast food that still tastes good and is still fulfilling. That’s what this game is, and I love it for that.