Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories. But of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
We all like a little trash from time to time, right?
After all, there’s a whole industry (several industries, really) built around the cultivation of “trash” culture—ironic venerations of Real Housewives, celebrations of the gloriously squandered ambitions of a god-awful B-movie. It’s junk food, sure—but to deny the artistry inherent in junk food is to deny the sublime perfection of, say, the pizza-flavored Pringle, a “potato snack” (never a chip) designed to taste almost entirely unlike a different junk food that you could just be eating instead. Glorious.
Trash gaming is a harder concept to grok. For one thing, the basic bar for competency is a lot higher: Fucking up a film shot can often just add to the appeal of the dumpster dive, but a game that feels awful in the hands is hard to appreciate, no matter how much over-the-top silliness it has going for it. Which is to say that really making a garbage video game takes money.
Cue Stranger Of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origins!
Now, to be fair: I’ve only played the (undeniably beefy) demo for Square’s attempt to milk a new action-RPG out of the very first Final Fantasy. That is, I’ve only played enough of it to hear protagonist Jack scream about how he wants to “KILL CHAOS” about two dozen times, in between some of the worst inter-party quips I’ve ever heard, and the bit where Jack yells “This sucks!” every time he dies.
Stranger Of Paradise, in other words, has all the hallmarks of glorious gaming trash: It plays surprisingly well, with a combat system that sits in between the fluidity of the Final Fantasy VII Remake, and developer Team Ninja’s own Nioh games. It features a plot that was barebones way back in 1987, lightly sprinkled with the melodramatic sci-fi nonsense that’s been Square-Enix’s stock in trade for years. It even has a solid implementation of the franchise’s beloved job system, making it as addictive as ever to mix and match abilities to craft a workable build.
Credit, then, to Squenix and Team Ninja for not slapping a generic fantasy protagonist into this thing. Instead we get Jack, one of the dumbest characters I’ve ever had the joy of controlling in a video game. Crew cut, snarling, and clad in only the hottest Tight Fashion T-Shirts, Jack has a hard-on for killing Chaos like you wouldn’t believe. (Who or what is Chaos? No one knows! But Jack wants to rip its jugular out.) Other characters will say some normal action movie horseshit, and then the camera will pan back to Jack’s weird, seething, bloodshot eyes. Did someone say something about Chaos? God damn, this guy hates Chaos!
The (inadvertent?) genius of this character choice is in how it takes something rote and simple and transforms it into the first great comedy game of 2022. (Other than the inherent joke of Square-Enix releasing their last game, Babylon’s Fall, directly into Elden Ring’s waiting maw.) It’s enough to make me genuinely curious about picking up Stranger Of Paradise, a game I’d previously dismissed, largely on account of it having a title that sounds like a Jimmy Buffet greatest hits compilation.
But I have to admit to some genuine curiosity now, both for how the game might manage to build on the systems on display in the demo, and on how many more neck veins the animators can work into Jack’s muscled frame. There’s something genuinely refreshing about taking a very basic fantasy framework, and then sending this big dumb oaf barreling through it like The Doom Guy with a sword. It’s the good-bad kind of gaming trash.