‘Stranger in Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin’ is a messy, gory spin on gaming royalty

There were leaks: Square Enix was going to reimagine the first Final Fantasy game as a Dark Souls-esque adventure RPG, with an appropriately moody aesthetic. And that’s what Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is trying to be. Team Ninja, known most recently for its work on the Nioh series, is creating something based on Final Fantasy lore, but with a darker twist.

It didn’t get off to a good start. The trailer was rough, and possibly the most meme-able video at this year’s E3. Sometimes that’s good. Usually, it’s bad. Almost half of the lines uttered in the trailer included the word ‘chaos’, which seems to be some sort of evil antagonist and not the concept of chaos in general. (Then again, this is the Final Fantasy universe, so it could be one, both or neither.) Then there were the characters.

The main character, Jack, was dressed in a tee and looked entirely unprepared for laying siege to a castle filled with magical beasts and crystalline monster mouths. Meanwhile, his allies seemed to fit better with magical armor already equipped. (Now, it might be that all three are from our world / a more modern world, given that images show all three of them wearing contemporary clothing and Converse.)

Square Enix announced that a demo would be available later that day, so you could stomp on goblins and tear apart crystalline wolves for yourself. Then the demo crashed for everyone during its first day of release. So, a couple of days later than scheduled, I’ve finally had time to get to grips with a very different take on the world of Final Fantasy.

Despite the demo setting up a gentle run of enemies and tutorials to get you up to speed with the game’s base (but not basic) controls and fights, Stranger of Paradise is hard at times. I played the demo for a total of about three hours, which included a break before eventually defeating the end boss, Garland. (Or possibly Chaos? I’m still not sure. The demo is available to play until Thursday June 24th.)

My first impression, though, was how rough everything looked. While some attention’s been paid to the environment (the Chaos Shrine, a location from the original Final Fantasy, looks.. OK when you reach the higher levels), but the characters, enemies and battle effects seemed grainy, unremarkable and lazy. Some heavy shadow effects often obscure your moves and finishing blows. While the game may have been made for PS4-era hardware, it’s not a good-looking game even by that standard.

As is the case for most Soulslike titles, the game often boils down to trial and error. As you and your two team-mates battle your way into the castle entrance, you won’t come across anything particularly challenging until you reach a bomb monster gauntlet, which pepper you with high-damage fire spells and — worse still — set fire to the grass you’re stood on, compounding the threat and limiting your movement.

One of your teammates (they’re both largely pointless in battles, mostly serving as bait for bigger monsters as you recover), will suggest dashing to an outside balcony, circumventing these enemies altogether. You really should just do that, instead of dying a lot trying to will your way through the corridor.

Stranger in Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin

Square Enix

Not if, but when you die, Jack, his henley tee and the rest of the team will respawn at save point-styled cubes. These can also be used to restock your health, potions and missing MP (magic points). If you use your soul burst attack on weakened enemies (there’s a stagger bar alongside HP), you can increase your base level of MP, which is a tempting enough reason to kill most enemies, where possible, with the burst attack. At the same time, die in a fight, and you’ll have some of these taken away. The challenge is balancing the risk of more damage by chasing soul burst kills, against more easily killing monsters outright. This magic gauge can be used for more powerful combo attacks, some special moves specific to job roles (the demo includes three), and magic outright while playing as a mage. 

Controlling magic attacks is a good example of how the game’s controls need more refinement. While you can charge your move by holding down the button, you select different elements with a spin-wheel control which is a little over-sensitive. New combos unlocked for your weapons have to be assigned, and can only be unleashed when set combos are used. This means there’s an awful lot of move customization possible, but as Soulslike games often do, there’s minimal exposition and hand-holding to it all. And like Dark Souls, Bloodborne and the rest, the bosses seem to be the biggest hurdles — especially in this demo when you feel you’re not really utilizing all the moves and equipment available to your hero. And yes, Jack soon decks himself out in armor and shields pretty soon into the demo. He even gets a bandana!

The parts I do like are those that remind me of the Final Fantasy universe. The original game is very old, but the character design of antagonist Garland still works well — it’s a character that’s already been resurrected in Dissidia games and other FF spin-offs. The Chaos Shrine melody is also imposed onto the soundtrack at points of the demo, while most of the monsters (barring demonic monster-spawning holes) will be familiar to most gamers that played a Final Fantasy game. It’s still jarring that Jack stomps in skulls and tears demons apart with his hands, though.

Despite the laundry list of things that need improving and addressing, I like the idea that Stranger of Paradise might subvert Final Fantasy as we know it. There’s minimal story in this demo — and Jack only says the four times throughout the entire thing. 

We don’t know exactly how these supposed “warriors of light” and the world of Garland and Chaos fit in with each other. I’m hoping that the awkward trailer is a portent of a game that’s almost camp in tone — think Bayonetta — one that willfully throws angry contemporary men at the lore and monsters of Final Fantasy. I want to see which side wins. 

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Lip-syncing app Wombo shows the messy, meme-laden potential of deepfakes

You’ve probably already seen a Wombo video floating around your social media. Maybe it was Ryu from Street Fighter singing the “Witch Doctor” or the last three heads of the US Federal Reserve miming in unison to Rick Astley’s “Never Going to Give You Up.” Each clip features exaggerated facial expressions and uncanny, sometimes nightmarish animation. They’re stupid, fun, and offer a useful look at the current state of deepfakes.

It’s certainly getting quicker and easier to make AI-generated fakes, but the more convincing they are, the more work is needed. The realistic Tom Cruise deepfakes that went viral on TikTok, for example, required an experienced VFX artist, a top-flight impersonator, and weeks of preparation to pull off. One-click fakes that can be created with zero effort and expertise, by comparison, still look like those made by the Wombo app and will continue to do so for the immediate future. In the short term, at least, deepfakes are going to be obviously fabricated and instant meme-bait.

The Wombo app launched late last month from Canada after a short development process. “Back in August 2020 I had the idea for Wombo while smoking a joint with my roommate on the roof,” app creator and Wombo CEO Ben-Zion Benkhin tells The Verge. Releasing the product was “an enormous joy,” he says. “I’ve been following the AI space, following the meme space, following the deepfake space, and just saw the opportunity to do something cool.” In just a few weeks, Benkhin estimates the app has seen some 2 million downloads.

Wombo is free and easy to use. Just snap a picture of your face or upload an image from your camera roll, and push a button to have the image lip-sync to one of a handful of meme-adjacent songs. The app’s software will work its magic on anything that even vaguely resembles a face and many things that don’t. Although similar apps in the past have been dogged by privacy fears, Benkhin is adamant users’ data is safe. “We take privacy really seriously,” he says. “All the data gets deleted and we don’t share it or send it to anyone else.”

The app’s name comes from esports slang, specifically Super Smash Bros. Melee. “If a player lands like a crazy combination then the casters will start yelling ‘Wombo Combo! Wombo Combo!’” says Benkhin. True to these origins, Wombo has proved particularly popular with gamers who’ve used it to animate characters from titles like League of Legends, Fallout: New Vegas, and Dragon Age. “I did some digging into [the origins of the slang],” says Benkhin, “and apparently there was some pizza place that started all this, where they would put a shit-ton of toppings on all their pizza and call it a Wombo Combo.”

Benkhin says the app works by morphing faces using predefined choreography. He and his team shot the base video for each song in his studio (“which is really just a room in my apartment”) and then use these to animate each image. “We steal the motions from their face and apply it to your photo,” he says. The app is also an example of the fast-paced world of AI research, where new techniques can become consumer products in a matter of weeks. Benkhin notes that the software is built “on top of existing work” but with subsequent tweaks and improvements that make it “our own proprietary model.”

Currently, Wombo offers just 14 short clips of songs to lip-sync with, but Benkhin says he plans to expand these options soon. When asked whether the app has the proper licenses for the music it uses, he demures to answer but says the team is working on it.

As with TikTok, though, it seems the reach offered by Wombo could help ameliorate license-holders’ worries about rights. Wombo has already been approached by artists wanting to get their music on the app, says Benkhin, and it’s likely this could offer a revenue stream in addition to the current premium tier (which pays for priority processing and no in-app ads). “It’s going to give [artists] a completely new way of engaging audiences,” he says. “It gives them this new viral marketing tool.”

Wombo is far from the first app to use machine learning to create quick and fun deepfakes. Others include ReFace and FaceApp. But it’s the latest example of what will be an ever-more prominent trend, as deepfake apps become the latest meme templates, allowing users to mash together favorite characters, trending songs, choreographed dances, public figures, and so much more. The future of deepfakes will definitely be memeified.

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