By ZombiePie 8 Comments
Before we can appreciate the Final Fantasy manga in all its glory, we must first travel back to 2002. A year after Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within nearly bankrupted the company, Square was on the up and up. Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts strong-armed the studio back to relevancy. This recovery would culminate with them purchasing their leading source of competition (i.e., Enix Corporation). In the following years, Square-Enix saw a Renaissance of sorts. Final Fantasy XII represented a return to form, and Dragon Quest VIII was a critical and financial success.
However, Square's leadership never lost their grand vision of entering the moviemaking industry. To their defense, Square's latest multimedia forays have not been as financially ruinous as The Spirits Within. Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children exists, and we have Square to thank for the release of Fullmetal Alchemist. That said, Square-Enix's attempts to adapt their game franchises for the big screen have been "mixed." I know I haven't reviewed Final Fantasy XV, but the concept of needing to watch a movie to know what the fuck is going on in a video game repulses me.
This point leads me to the incredibly curious story of Square-Enix's anime and manga division. Without a doubt, this branch of Square-Enix is a weird beast to unpack. You see, Enix Corporation was for much of its history a video game AND manga publishing studio. For years, Enix owned a comic and manga shell company called "Gangan Comics," and Square was conscious of this fact when they orchestrated their merger. When the merger went through, Square-Enix left Gangan Comics intact rather than sell it off. Since then, Square-Enix has often employed many of its light novel writers to make godawful audio dramatizations based on the Final Fantasy universe. In a future entry of this new series, I hope to explore the Final Fantasy audio dramas, because HOT DAMN is that a dark rabbit-hole.
Full Disclosure About My Tastes In Manga
Final Fantasy Lost Stranger is a manga first published in 2017. For those wondering, Lost Stranger is a modern-era "Isekai" manga. In case you are not aware, Isekai is a science-fiction sub-genre wherein a protagonist teleports to an alternate reality or multiverse. Sometimes these protagonists die and are reincarnated in video game inspired landscapes, whereas others find themselves "stuck" in a virtual reality. The genre, in general, is best described as a mix of "wish fulfillment" and "comfort food." Most entries are non-confrontational and follow a familiar storytelling format.
If my previous paragraph came across as dower, that's because I am not the biggest fan of the Isekai genre. Ultimately, every Isekai story follows one of two diverging paths. The first option is for the story to be a self-reflective drama wherein the protagonist needs to free themselves from a virtual world (e.g., .hack//Sign). The other option is for the story to be a comedy farce wherein the protagonist uses their video game knowledge to become an omnipotent figure (e.g., KonoSuba). I'm of the controversial opinion the genre is falling into the same trap Moe did ten years ago. That is to say, the genre's best stories have already been told, and everything at this point is a cheap knockoff.
Look, I get there are a lot of KonoSuba fans on Giant Bomb, but you'd be hard-pressed to argue it's "high art." Instead, it's a guilty pleasure through and through, and I'm not saying that as an insult. But at the end of the day, it's no different from your average slice-of-life schoolgirl anime, and if you've seen one slice-of-life school girl anime, you've seen them all. I'd argue that sentiment perfectly summarizes how I feel about Isekai. When I watch KonoSuba, I know what's going to happen even before the episode starts. With that in mind, you should know I approached Lost Stranger with the lowest of expectations, and I don't think it met those expectations, but I'm sure about that.
Did that last sentence not make sense? Well, when I review manga, I usually settle on one of three assessment grades. To me, manga is either good, bad, or weird. Using these categories, Final Fantasy Lost Stranger is WEIRD with a capital "W." I'm not joking when I say Final Fantasy Lost Stranger is probably one of the wildest things I have ever read. Every genre trope or idiom you may associate with Isekai gets thrown out of the fucking window. So, as long as you don't mind spoilers, let's take a bold look at the first volume, which features chapters one through three.
Our protagonist in Lost Stranger is Shogo Sasaki, who is an employee of Square-Enix. While Shogo was excited to join Square-Enix as a long-term fan of Final Fantasy, he quickly comes to hate his job. By the introduction, he's working long hours and endless cycles of "crunch." Additionally, while he joined Square-Enix in hopes of one day working on his beloved JRPG franchise, he is perpetually assigned exploitative mobile gacha games. At Square-Enix, he is joined by his sister, Yuko Sasaki, who is another belabored employee. While Shogo's sister is undoubtedly an inspiration in his life, he is finding both his work schedule and caseload overwhelming.
I cannot preface enough, the initial premise of this story boils down to an employee of Square-Enix losing the will to live because of shitty working conditions at Square. That's the plot! The same company that has honestly burned out two creative directors, openly admits it sucks to work for them. I don't know what's real anymore. If that alone does not have you shaking your head, then you had better buckle up; things are about to get weirder.
After enjoying a good meal with his sister, Shogo and Yuko FUCKING DIE when a truck crashes into them as they cross a street! Yup, it's page thirteen of chapter one, and both of our main characters ARE FUCKING DEAD! After this traumatic event, Shogo is resuscitated by a hooded figure. Upon waking up in an inn, Shogo identifies his new backdrop as being "Final Fantasy." To clarify, Lost Stranger is a weird amalgam of every Final Fantasy game, and you have to take Shogo for his word. More often than not, Final Fantasy mainstays like Moogles or Chocobos are your only reminder this is a Final Fantasy manga.
Shogo explores this world with brimming enthusiasm having recovered from the trauma of his apparent real-world death. Seriously, two panels ago Shogo died, and now he's happily waltzing through a bazaar! Moreover, despite the dark premise, Shogo cannot stop making Final Fantasy-based jokes! I'm not exaggerating, more than half of the first chapter involves him naming the source of inspiration for the items and animals in the world. Eventually, Shogo locates his sister and discovers she has joined a group of adventurers. This motley crew reluctantly accepts Shogo and is populated by your usual suspects. There's a meek white mage who enjoys reading, a level-headed black mage, and a female dark-elf who is the group's tsundere.
For any matter, the party sets off to complete a mission where they must kill a dragon that is plaguing a local village. In what I can only describe as the manga's worst reference, Yuko says "You don't need a reason to help people," when they find out the life of a local girl is at risk. After a bit of fussing about, the company quickly locates the dragon. Unfortunately for them, the beast poses a more significant challenge than they anticipated. The dragon inflicts a mighty blow against Yuko, and everyone else is left scrambling. Of course, Shogo discovers a newfound ability he didn't know about and promptly kills the dragon.
With the dragon dispatched, Shogo locates his sister whose wounds have worsened. After exchanging a few words, YUKO DIES IN HIS ARMS! That's right, we are one chapter in, and When Shogo asks the team's white mage to use the "raise" command, she responds no such ability exists. Then, on cue, Yuko's body lifts into the air and transforms into a crystal. I shit you not, that is a thing that happens. To review, in the span of one chapter, our protagonist works soul-crushing amounts of crunch, is hit by a truck, reborn in a video game, and sees their sister die! I don't even know where to begin. Did a computer algorithm write this manga?
Chapter Two & Chapters Three
Episode two picks up from where the previous section ends. Shogo is in denial his sister is forever gone and seeks a way to bring her back. For whatever reason, he seemingly has forgotten the two of them have died once before. Shogo discovers that neither Phoenix Downs nor Arise exist in this version of Final Fantasy. In response, he sets off to find a legendary Phoenix in a desperate attempt to bring his sister back from the dead.
Worth noting, Final Fantasy Lost Stranger has a tone problem. In the scene before Yuko's death, the characters enjoy a brief break at a local hot spring, and the scene plays out as expected. Worse, Shogo responds to his circumstances with puns and quotes from real-life Final Fantasy games. I get the guy is going through a lot at this point in the story, but quoting Tidus after the death of one's sister isn't a good look. Likewise, his relationship with the female dark-elf, Rei, leads to a rote tsundere comedy routine. These issues are unfortunate because Shogo's original storyline is heart-wrenching and powerful stuff. By the end of chapter two, you feel for him as he sets off to bring his sister back.
If any of this sounds appealing, I need you to know there's a catch. Lost Stranger's lack of a consistent tone is a significant Achilles' heel. For example, after providing an emotional roller coaster for two chapters, the third chapter is mostly a slapstick comedy affair. Here, our motley crew teams up with a local group of mercenaries to dispatch a swarm of Coeurl. Leading the ne'er-do-wells is a bully whose affectations reek of Biff Tannen. Predictably, Shogo proves his worth during a challenge, and the mercenary captain is forced to apologize for his previous grandstanding. In between these moments, the chapter spends SIX PANELS talking about food and paying reference to Final Fantasy XIV's meal system!
Which reminds me, Shogo's interactions with his party run the gamut of standard Isekai schlock and needing to pay reference to Final Fantasy. Often, he will share a tidbit of his video game knowledge, and the other characters challenge the veracity of his claims. Time and time again, the chapter's conclusion proves him correct, and everyone fawns over his abilities. It's a repetitious format especially considering the supporting cast have ostensibly lived in this world their entire lives. Similarly, on several occasions, you watch Shogo disrupt the world's social fabric to no consequence. Admittedly, this problem exists in virtually every Isekai story, but it is compounded in Lost Stranger because the supporting characters all suck.
Rei, the dark elf warrior, is a tsundere. Sadly, she brings nothing else to the table. The white mage is a milquetoast bookworm whom on several occasions, Shogo needs to inspire to have more self-esteem. Then there's the party's black mage who is your typical "straight man." He has all the hallmarks of being a Zeppo Marx figure, but with none of the personality. Hopefully, you can see the supporting cast has the structure of a comedy romp, but with the story's darker undercurrent, they largely feel out of place.
The Other Chapters (DEAR GOD, PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!)
We are technically done with the first volume of this series, but there are a few additional chapters I'd like to discuss. After subjecting us to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, the series' momentum starts to drop off. For one thing, Shogo earns the respect of his party faster than he reasonably should. The supporting characters agree to assist him so long as it does not disrupt their ability to get a paycheck. It's heartwarming, but chapter four does nothing to build upon these character relationships. In fact, for some fucking reason, the first five panels of chapter four are a parody of Peter Jackson's MOTHERFUCKING LORD OF THE GODDAMNED RINGS!
Taking a note from Intel's tick-tock design, the later chapters seemingly alternate between drama and comedy. Worse yet, the story arcs start to drag by chapter ten. In volume three, there's a story arc where the characters are captured by a Gothic Lolita succubus that goes on far longer than it should. She's dressed as you'd guess, and the writing is comically predictable. The tone here is doubly weird because it's written like a hardcore horror manga. I'm not joking; chapter ten ends with the succubus ripping out the eyes of a corrupt baron (i.e., Invader Zim-style). However, to further highlight this manga's tone issues, when the succubus ties the company up and throws them into a basement, the characters spew several bondage jokes while trying to break free.
The series loses so much steam at this point that it eventually plagiarizes Chrono Trigger of all things. In chapter ten, the characters discover a recent addition to their party is secretly a princess. When they enter a local town, the city's leaders brandish them "kidnappers" and place them on trial. Before they are executed, the princess dramatically intervenes. Again, the events here are as predictable as they seem on paper. Also, the only reminder of Shogo's sister comes in the form of the occasional dream sequence. These flashbacks are fucking emotionally devastating and come out of nowhere. Seriously, look at the panel below and tell me how it makes you feel.
Sadly, these flashbacks have little bearing on the course of the story. They happen, and Shogo rarely mentions them outside of silent thought bubbles. As a result, his sister's death becomes a bit of an afterthought. In this regard, I do not blame the writers; I instead blame the genre. A protagonist losing sight of their original objective is an issue that plagues virtually every Isekai anime or manga. It's a problem that plagued Fushigi Yuugi way back in 1992, and it's a problem Lost Stranger does not solve.
Nevertheless, some of the Lost Stranger's shortcomings are self-inflicted. Each chapter starts with Shogo asserting his need to bring back his sister, but the chapter conclusions rarely have anything to do with that. In that regard, let's use the series' godawful Gothic Lolita story arc as a case study. That narrative starts with the party entering the city of Mysidia with the hope of finding a magical tome with information about "Revive." In the next two chapters, they recruit a new party member; their new party member is revealed to be a princess; they get thrown into a basement; and finally, watch someone have their eyes torn from their skull. For , the only reminder of Shogo's sister is one misplaced flashback!
Finally, I would be bereft not to discuss the manga's art and illustrations. I would best describe the art as perfectly serviceable with brief moments of inspiration. That said, the illustrator struggles to draw emotive faces. Unless the characters are shouting at the top of their lungs or weeping, they all look stone-faced. Not to mention, the backgrounds are uninspired. While some of the environments are undoubtedly beautiful, too often the characters are seen having expository dialogue behind an entirely white backdrop.
I usually end these blogs with advice on whether or not you should buy or play the subject in question. In this case, I am going to have to ask you to use your best judgment. If the wackiness of its premise sounds appealing, then, by all means, go ahead and give it a try. Be warned though, I bought the first volume for $7, and don't feel like I got my money's worth. This sentiment is due in large part to Lost Stranger's lack of a consistent tone and message. Honest to goodness, this series cannot decide if it wants to be a comedy or drama. It instead tries to be both with mixed results.
At the same time, it's kind of perfect that the manga adaptation of Final Fantasy is a garbled mess. Let's be honest; tonal inconsistency has been the franchise's modus operandi since its inception. The adventures of Shogo are long and drawn out, similarly to the experiences of several iconic Final Fantasy protagonists. Shit, if the intention was to make a manga that perfectly emulates a Final Fantasy story, warts and all, then they hit it out of the park with Lost Stranger. Are there unneeded exploitations of the male gaze? YUP! Does the manga have sudden plot twists that come out of nowhere? Yes, and yes!
However, I'd be lying if I said Lost Stranger was an "instant buy" for all fans of Final Fantasy. While Lost Stranger certainly has Final Fantasy trappings, it too often feels like another generic fantasy manga. If one were to remove the Moogles or Chocobos, I would predict you would struggle to identify it as based on Final Fantasy. This problem is due in large part to the series' insistence on adapting the franchise in general rather than picking a specific game. As a result, what Final Fantasy iconography exists feels watered down and reserved for cutaway gags or one-off jokes.
Then there's the added issue of Lost Stranger being an Isekai manga, which genuinely curbs its appeal to many prospective buyers. On that note, I want to say that Lost Stranger is not a great story even by Isekai standards. The choice of genre further highlights how inconsequential the series feels. There's no sense of ambition throughout the series, and its myriad of problems are proof of that. It doesn't bring anything new to table nor does it aspire to do so. If anything, it reeks of being design by committee.
In the end, my investment in Lost Stranger wasn't a complete waste of my time, but it assuredly wasn't the best use of it either. It's far from being the worst work of writing bearing the "Final Fantasy" moniker, but I doubt I'll remember it ten years from now. I know that sounds shitty, but it's genuinely the kindest thing I can say about Lost Stranger. Still, and I hate to repeat a generic soundbite from TV Tropes, "your mileage may vary." With that, I'll see you next blog!