The world has been destroyed and twisted due to the actions of one man—at least, that's what Dextera has been told. With grotesque monsters roaming everywhere, he is ordered by the Archangel of the Church of Melct to purify the mad god who dwells in the Neuro Tower; only then can Dextera atone for his sins...
"Baroque" is a video game originally released on the Sega Saturn in 1998, and it was later ported to the Sony PlayStation in 1999. Only Japan saw this truly unique, and unsettling, rougelike horror RPG. Luckily, North America and Europe did get to see the faithful remake, which was released for the PlayStation 2 and the Nintendo Wii in 2008. This manga, "Baroque: Ketsuraku no Paradigm", or its English translation, "Baroque: Missing Paradigm", was published between 2000 and 2002, which would mean that its source material is the original "Baroque" video game, though the remake's story is almost identical to its predecessor.
Long story short, this
manga is based off a video game. Keep that in mind as you read through my review.
"Baroque: Ketsuraku no Paradigm" treats you like a rock, and, yet, at the same time, it expects you to swim. Without any explanation, the story takes you by the sides and hurls you into a swimming pool. It watches you struggle as you sink to the very bottom, likely to never rise back to the surface. Worst of all, it doesn't bother with helping you.
Meet the protagonist, a character whose name is only mentioned once halfway through the manga (which is only 17 chapters long, so don't worry about having to wait a long time to find out what that name would be). He'd tell you his name, but he doesn't seem to remember what it is. In fact, he doesn't remember anything at all. To top it all off with a rotten cherry of sorts, the boy can't speak either. He awakes in a nightmarish world where the sky is red and every living being is distorted into the shape of a frightening monster. Some are friendly, most are not. Early into his desperate attempt to understand what the hell is happening, the protagonist, whose name turns out to be Dextera, runs into a strange man. The man is dressed in a pure white robe with a religious insignia that's just as red as his eyes. What denotes the man the most, however, are the two large wings attached to his back. This man is simply known as the Archangel, and he hands Dextera a weapon named the Angelic Rifle. According to this mysterious Archangel, the world is in such a state of ruin thanks to none other than Dextera himself, who receives the news with bewilderment. Before Dextera can interrogate the man, the man brings attention to a tower that stands in the midst of the wasteland. This tower is called the Neuro Tower, and its very bottom floor holds Dextera's opportunity at salvation. With no other choice, Dextera takes the rifle and pursues the answers he seeks.
Well, that's the very start of this utterly strange tale, but the real meat and potatoes of "Baroque: Ketsuraku no Paradigm" is in the story that is slowly, but surely, revealed to both you and Dextera as things progress. But, before we begin unpacking everything, there is something you must know: this story is confusing. As in, very confusing. Flashbacks come out of nowhere, Dextera repeatedly and randomly ends up at the front of the Neuro Tower for some reason, characters speak cryptically as if they assume you already know what has and what is happening. Many would chalk it all up to poor writing, but this confusing heap of... well, confusion, isn't the result of bad writing; "Baroque", both the video game and the manga, is like this on purpose.
Let me take you back in time for a minute here. The year is 1998, and you're Japanese (you lucky thing; you're in for some great Japan-exclusive manga, anime, and video games) and you've just returned home from your local game store with "Baroque", which you pop into your Sega Saturn. What you experience is something you've never experienced in a game before. It's a story that leaves you completely in the dark, trickling only small drops of information at a time, seldom in chronological order. You're forced to piece the backstory together on your own without GameFAQS or Super Cheats. There are definitely many that do not approve of this unorthodox style of story telling. However, I have to applaud Sting Entertainment for making such a brave and, quite frankly, risky move.
Oh yeah, the manga.
Author Shinshu Ueda clearly has an appreciation and love for the original Sega Saturn video game, as she faithfully retells "Baroque"'s convoluted story through more conventional, and agreeable, means. As someone who played the PlayStation 2 remake before reading the manga, I quite like the 17 chapters it has to offer, as it gave me much-needed clarification to remedy the confusion the cryptic video game had inflicted upon me. In other words, I technically wasn't reading this manga "blind", as many would put it. I believe this fact had a large impact on my enjoyment of the manga. If I had picked up this manga without any foreknowledge of the video game whatsoever, I don't believe I would be forgiving toward its utterly confusing narrative.
"Baroque", as a whole, is widely regarded by many as one big "mind f*ck". Even I, as someone who has spent a lot of time trying to comprehend the story, completely agree with such an assessment. However, there is some degree of satisfaction to triumphantly putting all the pieces of the puzzle together. It certainly brought out the sleuth in me, and I'm apparently not the only one.
TL;DR- If you didn't play and have an appreciation for the video game first, this might not be your cup of tea.
Since "Baroque"'s story relies heavily on revelations, I cannot talk too much about the characters, or else I will quickly begin treading in spoiler territory. Just trust me on this one... Most of these characters have a lot more to them than I am stating here, as I am grossly simplifying them.
Dextera- our protagonist. Dextera begins the story just as you and I: confused. Very confused. It's written clearly on his face in almost every panel he's a part of (which is a large number, mind you). As a matter of fact, I often found myself comparing him to a poor, lost little puppy dog. Unlike your typical shounen anime hero, though, Dextera seems to adjust sorta well to the crap he's been thrown into. He's a somewhat competent fighter, but there's still an air of relatable uncertainty about him. Personally, I find it quite refreshing.
Part of the story's big mystery is the source of Dextera's awful feeling of guilt, which plagues him from page one. He doesn't know why he feels guilty, nor does he know how he can fix it. This would be a perfect opportunity for the author to deliver a typical "2edgy4u" archetype, following the example of everyone's favorite Shadow the Edgehog. That's not what we get from Dextera, even though the source of his guilt would certainly justify a more brooding personality. Instead, what we get is a very human-like reaction. In some panels, I can genuinely feel the poor boy's grief. That is owed partly to the art, which we'll get to in a bit.
The Archangel- is not really an angel. Actually, he's very much human and the leader of a semi-cultish religious order known as the Malkuth Order. He's down to earth, serious, and determined to have things go his way... even if his face always looks like his mom told him to take his little sister to see the new "Care Bears" movie instead of "Terminator 2: Judgement Day".
Ahem. Anyway. If you couldn't hear the foreshadowing his red eyes were trying to tell you, the Archangel turns out to technically be the villain of this tale. I'm not sure if that should be considered a spoiler because of how (kinda) obvious it is. But... hold on. Though the Archangel is the villain, he's a villain in the sense that he is opposed to the main character's goals. In other words, he's a villain with good intentions, but poor means. I'm not talking about an "Infinity War" Thanos kind of "villain with good intentions". He legitimately wants to help the pitiful state of the world. I can't say I've seen too many villains that are as nuanced as the Archangel.
There are more characters, but I can't even get past a few sentences without spoiling things if I discussed them here. Remember what I said before; this story relies a lot on revelations, meaning that very basic information doesn't even scratch the surface of what this story and characters are actually about.
TL;DR- The characters in this manga are surprisingly well developed for a 17 chapter long manga, and they don't easily fall in your typical anime archetypes (probably because this manga was written in 2000, back when archetypes weren't as big as a problem as they are now). Keep in mind that lots of characters and their purpose are revealed gradually.
To put it simply, I really like the art style of this manga. Being published in 2000, it retains that "90s manga" feel. Characters like Dextera and Alice have sweet, lovable faces that provide plenty of solace in such a dark, gloomy story. Perhaps one of my favorite parts of this manga are the very expressive faces the characters wear in various situations. The best, I believe, are Dextera's poor, lost puppy-dog faces. They certainly help the reader garner sympathy for him. Alice, who shows some hints of the tsundere archetype, tells us plenty of her character just by looking at her, and she's easy to read. The Archangel's staunch frowns reflect his intensity, but occasionally, especially in flashbacks, you can tell when he's confident- snarky, even. All in all, the way the characters are drawn are quite appealing, and they intrigue the reader to learn more about them.
The monsters that inhabit the Neuro Tower, the once-human "Meta-Beings" (also called "Grotesques"), have unique designs that are both unsettling and curious. The credit for this ought to be less directed toward Ueda and more toward the creative people at Sting Entertainment, as Ueda is merely taking the Meta-Beings from the game and implementing them in the manga (as she should). Nonetheless, Ueda puts these creepy, Silent Hill-esque creatures onto paper quite nicely. As a matter of fact, one chapter's gory scene involving a Meta-Being captivated me with both disgust and morbid fascination. I stared at the page for a couple of minutes or so just so I can take in how utterly... disgusting... the scene looked. I don't think that's ever happened to me while reading manga, even in stories like "Elfen Lied" and "Deadman Wonderland".
That's my praise, but now, onto my criticisms of the art.
While the drawings can be quite good most of the time, some scenes, mostly consisting of fast action, are quite confusing to look at. A few times, I spent a good while staring at one page, attempting to figure out what the hell was happening in it. The most I see are a bunch of lines all over the page, maybe with another character's face buried somewhere in the midst of all the chaos. This is a problem I encounter with almost every action manga, though, so perhaps this is an issue unique to me.
Another beef I have with the art is how character's faces are constantly eaten by panels. By that, I mean one panel may only consist of half a face or half a body, which doesn't give me a full picture of what's happening in the moment. There are also a lack of full pages that help establish a character's environment and location. For the most part, though, the important details are easy enough to fill in with inference. It's nothing to discourage someone from reading the manga.
TL;DR- characters, especially their facial expressions, are expressive and appealing. The monsters that fill the Neuro Tower are curiously disturbing, as to be expected from a horror manga. Sometimes the action scenes are a bit hard to follow, and the lack of establishing shots makes an already confusing story all the more confusing.
Just like the video game, both the remake and the original, "Baroque: Ketsuraku no Paradigm" appeals to a very slender audience. With its story being told in a confusing, vague manner, many will be driven away from it. And, really, that's fine, because this isn't a manga you should read if you're unfamiliar with the video game it's based off of, otherwise you'll find yourself lost pretty quickly. Heck, even someone who has played the games like me might still find it hard to follow. Not only that, but I also doubt you would appreciate it as much as you would if you had played the game. Long story short, this manga is meant to be a companion to the video game, and it'll provide plenty of much needed clarification... or maybe it'll just leave you with more questions! Who knows? That's one of the things I love about "Baroque"!