Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is that deliberately silly Final Fantasy spinoff that is just about a dude who doesn’t really care about saving the world wanting to destroy Chaos, right?
Wrong; as ever, the Internet’s habit of latching on to a single word or phrase (“I’m going to kill Chaos”) and then repeating it as a “meme” until it stops being amusing (if it was ever amusing in the first place) has struck bad here, because Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is actually a thoroughly interesting entry in the grand scheme of the whole series.
And regardless of whether or not it’s “canonical” — if indeed anything is truly “canonical” in Final Fantasy as it exists in 2022 — Stranger of Paradise presents a plausible explanation for some of the more glaring plot holes in the back-of-a-napkin lore of the first game in the storied franchise, making it well worth exploration for longstanding series fans. There will be spoilers ahead, so be warned!
For the unfamiliar, the original Final Fantasy’s narrative runs thus. Darkness runs rampant throughout the land, darkening the crystals that help maintain the balance of the elements in the world, and while the crystals are “darkened”, everything is all a bit messed up. But there’s a prophecy: when said Darkness shrouds the world, four Warriors of Light will come, kick the shit out of the Fiends who are causing said Darkness and sort everything out once and for all. Probably.
Except there’s an issue in the plan: the primordial force of Chaos, which has taken up residence in the body of a formidable warrior named Garland, ensconced itself comfortably several thousand years in the past and ensured that this whole process repeats into perpetuity for the rest of time by regularly ingratiating itself to the royal family as a noble knight, then kidnapping the beautiful Princess Sarah and thus triggering the appearance of the aforementioned Warriors of Light. Also there are some near-extinct bird people who might have been into robots and stuff, but don’t think too hard about that.
The thread of “don’t think too hard about that” runs through most of the original Final Fantasy and means that when you stop to analyse it in detail, it 1) doesn’t take very long and 2) doesn’t make a ton of sense. What Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin does is attempt to actually think about all those bits that we were previously invited to not think too hard about. And in doing so, it presents, as the name suggests, a plausible “origin” for the narrative of the first game in the series.
In your early hours with Stranger of Paradise, the game initially appears to simply be retelling the story of the first Final Fantasy. Protagonist Jack and his friends turn up at Cornelia, hear that bad shit is going down at the Chaos Shrine, fight a fearsome foe in formidable-looking armour, are hailed as Warriors of Light, cross a bridge and then go beat up some pirates. Yes, the fact that some of the locales in Final Fantasy’s world appear to be overlapping with iconic places from other installments in the series might seem a little odd, but for the most part, it’s business as usual right up until you beat up Bikke the pirate captain.
Things change a bit when you encounter Astos, king of the Dark Elves. In the original Final Fantasy, Astos was a fairly throwaway villain who tricks you into retrieving a magic crown for him, and who was responsible for cursing the prince of Elfheim. But in Stranger of Paradise, Astos is an altogether more enigmatic figure, who at least partly appears like he might actually be on the side of Jack and company. He certainly seems to know a lot about the situation, anyway, and seems keen to guide them on their way to restore the crystals.
So that’s a bit weird. But then we get back on track as Astos sends the supposed Warriors of Light off on their quest to fix the four crystals and beat up the four Fiends who are causing the problems. Along the way, Jack and his companions appear to keep having flashes of memory any time they come into contact with the Darkness released by the major enemies they defeat — though at the same time, the curious darkened crystal orbs they carry also seem to be protecting them from these memories to a certain degree.
You also find a bunch of notes in a couple of different “series”: the “Fool’s Missive” notes are written from the perspective of someone who knows exactly what is going on, and even understands the existence of the other “Dimensions” (i.e. the other Final Fantasy games) while the “Lufenian Reports” suggest that, at the time of Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, the near-extinct bird people who might have been into robots or something from the original game are, in fact, far from near-extinct, and indeed appear to be playing a key role in what is going on.
The further you go in Stranger of Paradise, the more “wrong” things seem to get, right up until the point where Jack and company have restored all the crystals to their full glory, but the world appears to have become even more screwed up as a result. Evidently something is going quite, quite wrong with the supposedly delicate balance between Light and Darkness that is so often explored in Final Fantasy games — and the more Jack and company look into it, the more they start to recognise that the Lufenians are causing the problem.
This is, of course, why Jack and company have repeatedly had their memories wiped as they are sent around and around in a seemingly endless cycle: if they remembered what they were doing, rather than having to continually start afresh as “Strangers”, they would doubtless start to question what was going on. Because what is actually going on is not altogether pleasant: the Lufenians, being the meddling sort, are essentially dumping all their excess Darkness — and even going so far as to manufacture it if they deem it necessary — into the world of Cornelia, and then sending in the “Strangers” as a balancing force to set things right.
Good for the Lufenians, bad for the Cornelians, who have to put up with an endless cycle of suffering as their world is repeatedly reset, beset by Darkness and then supposedly saved by people who may or may not actually be making things worse every time they do this.
There’s definitely a kind of environmental message buried in Stranger of Paradise; the Lufenians embody the concept of technological progress at any and all cost without consideration of the true consequences, and the “Darkness” they pump into Cornelia reflects the pollution such a pursuit causes, and how such heavily industrialised efforts can often end up affecting people who have nothing to do with or no interest in said technological progress. Cornelia is a garbage dump for the Lufenians, little more, and it’s through the Lufenians’ tight control on the situation that the Cornelians continue to be blissfully unaware of what’s going on, unable to progress for themselves.
Jack, initially resistant to remembering anything about the truth of the situation, eventually reaches a point where he is unable to hold back the flow of memories any longer, and he understands exactly what it is the Lufenians are doing. And he’s furious. It’s at this point he recognises that the one thing the Lufenians fear is the thing that he has been essentially hard-coded to believe from the outset: that chaos is the enemy of progress, and it must be eliminated at all cost. The Lufenians fear chaos; its unpredictability is the one thing that they really don’t know how to deal with, what with how well-ordered their society is.
And thus there’s only one option open to Jack if he wants to do something about this and break the cycle: actually become a force of chaos, or rather, become the force of chaos. Capital-C Chaos. It’s only through introducing chaos to the Cornelian situation that he’ll be able to break the Lufenians’ hold over that world and allow them to develop on their own terms. And while his own plan includes a certain cyclical element to it, it at least doesn’t require that the world be reset every time things get a bit hairy.
But Jack is hesitant. He’s been hardwired to believe that the very concept of chaos is the enemy for so long that he’s not sure whether that’s the right thing to do. And thus he’s presented with the ultimate in unpredictability: in the process of what appears to be a successful rescue attempt, the woman he loves is cut down, and his friends turn against him, seemingly baiting him to give in to his rage. Each of them knows that Jack has the potential to become capital-C Chaos, and that the only way to break the cycle they’re all caught in is to help him achieve that — even if it means giving their lives to do so.
So they do. Giving himself over fully to Darkness, Jack kills all his friends, breaks his way back into the pocket dimension the Lufenians are hanging out in, forces them to reset the world to a time when the woman he loves is once again alive, then single-handedly kicks the absolute shit out of literal Darkness Incarnate in order to absorb its power and become the ultimate form of Chaos.
He then sends himself back a couple of thousand years in the past, reunites with his four friends — who have willingly taken on the mantles of the Four Fiends — and prepares for the long process of gradually introducing his own uniquely chaotic and unpredictable brand of Darkness into the world, which will ultimately culminate in he and his friends training the real Warriors of Light, who will, in turn, re-establish the balance between Light and Darkness that the world of Cornelia has so desperately needed for so long. And that last bit is what you do in Final Fantasy I.
Essentially Jack’s plan is to allow Cornelia to become self-sufficient, by using himself and his friends — including Astos — as a means of introducing unpredictability to the world. The Lufenians fell — and became the near-extinct society they’re depicted as in Final Fantasy I — because they were unable to deal with the unpredictability of chaos, but Jack’s intention is to gradually train the people of Cornelia to be able to deal with unpredictable adversity, whatever form it might take. Because that, to him, is the core of true strength.
Chaos itself isn’t a force of evil, though it can have negative effects on the world if not dealt with accordingly. But it can also be a driving force for change and improvement. If you find yourself continually battered by unexpected things happening, the only thing you can really do is better prepare yourself for the worst in the hope it might not happen — and in the process, everything else will improve, too. That, at heart, is what Jack believes — and that is the reason why, having lost his drive to kill Chaos upon learning the truth behind the whole situation, he knows that becoming Chaos will actually end up being a net positive.
Oh, and if you were wondering — Jack’s last name is Garland. Who’d have thought it?
Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is out now for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5, Xbox and Windows PC via Epic Games Store. There are also physical PS4 and PS5 versions with the PS4 edition offering a free upgrade to a digital PS5 copy on disc-based models.
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