Big destruction energy.
When it was first announced, Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin caught my attention – and not just for its oblique name. The idea of a Final Fantasy/Dark Souls mashup retelling the story of the original Final Fantasy game was intriguing, especially given the main character was shown to be a guy in a tshirt and jeans, as opposed to a fantasy destined one. How would that all be explained?
Developed by Team Ninja – well-known for its work on the Ninja Gaiden and Nioh series, as well as Warriors crossover titles like Hyrule Warriors and the upcoming Fire Emblem Warriors Three Hopes – this team’s pedigree proves it’s no stranger to the grueling action-combat genre. Stranger of Paradise follows on this well-travelled road, but with its own unique Final Fantasy flavouring.
Our story finds us in control of Jack Garland, a very gruff blonde man with a growly voice and an intense desire to track down and destroy Chaos, a vague evil threatening the kingdom of Cornelia. A prophecy foretells the coming of four warriors of light who will arrive to vanquish this threat, leading Jack to offer himself up for the job. With no memory of how he arrived there or who he is beyond a black crystal in his possession, he’s soon joined by two equally amnesiac warriors with crystals of their own, Ash and Jed.
Did you ever expect to play a Final Fantasy story with a main character named Jed? I sure didn’t. In any case, after some bureaucratic arguing over these three doing the work of the four warriors of light, they set out to destroy Chaos and by extension, save the world.
Players will encounter additional members for their party, and begin traveling the world to restore the four elemental crystals and take down the threat to Cornelia. These play out as a series of missions selected from a world map, where players can take Jack and two other party members along for the ride. While locations do follow the basic structure of Final Fantasy’s story, each is specifically inspired by a location from one of the 15 titles in the mainline series. For franchise fans, this is a fantastic tour through nostalgia – seeing an upscaled version of Noctis’ hometown in Final Fantasy XV is one thing, but to see the same treatment applied to the NES- and SNES-era games is a level of attention not seen before for these historic games.
Clearly drawing inspiration from the art of series mainstays like Yoshitaka Amano, it’s great to see their concepts brought to life this extravagantly. Boss enemies will also often strike a pose reminiscent of their sprite-based origins, which hits the nostalgia button just right for folks like me who have spent a lot of time with this franchise.
Not that it’s all sunshine and rainbows; given the absence of any kind of map, a number of these locales are labyrinthine to try and move through. One level inspired by a Final Fantasy XII location was particularly frustrating in how much it twisted in and around itself, leading me in circles on more than one occasion as I tried to figure out which identical corridor I hadn’t yet been down.
Given the genre of game this is, using the save points scattered throughout restores both yourself and any downed enemies in the level – meaning if you need to recover, you can no longer use the scattered debris of your conquered foes as a guide to where you have and haven’t been.
That said, I did enjoy my time getting lost in these levels as Stranger of Paradise’s combat loop is very satisfying. As you encounter a variety of famous Final Fantasy enemy types, you can chip away at both their health and break gauges to come out victorious, with a variety of light and heavy attacks, as well as job-specific skills. Take out their break gauge first, and Jack can perform a powerful finishing move which turns the foe into red crystals before shattering, recharging and extending the party’s MP gauge. As most special abilities and heavy attacks cost MP to cast (some powerful abilities even burning a point entirely on use), it’s in your best interest to take advantage of this mechanic to expand your power before facing each level’s boss encounter.
These finishers are flashy and over-the-top – Jack is a violent man, and he’s happy to demonstrate on any goblins that get in his way – but it is satisfying as a finisher on one enemy will have a knock-back effect on any others in range. I will highlight however one particular finisher that just hit me in the wrong way: for horse-type enemies such as Nightmare, this finisher move involves Jack snapping the enemy’s neck to take it out. Something about it was just a bit too visceral for my tastes, though I’m not sure why this one in particular jumped out at me – but caution to any other players who may have an inner Horse Girl like I apparently do.
Adding to this finisher mechanic is the ability to counter unique enemy skills with your Soul Shield, which draws its energy from your own break gauge – counter with this at the right time and you can take their skill as your own, blue mage-style. This allows you to vary your attacks even more, and being able to halt a dangerous enemy attack before it can affect you does feel pretty great. As mentioned above, you also have a selection of job classes you can choose from as you play. Starting with a basic selection for Jack and only one for each other party member, playing as each class will earn you Job Points to unlock abilities for that job’s skill tree, eventually allowing you to unlock additional classes.
It’s a great way to encourage exploration of the various jobs available, and I found myself rapidly moving from job to job to figure out which felt right for my playstyle. Each has its own unique structure, like mage classes being able to charge up spell strength for their heavy attack, dragoons who can leap and attack from a distance, or counter-attack-focused swordsman classes.
Along the way you’ll also be amassing a lot – and I mean a lot – of loot. Enemies drop an average of one to three pieces of armour or weapons for you to suck up and distribute to your party, so be prepared to be swapping gear a lot. While you can manually assign your preferred equipment amongst your party, you’ll most likely find yourself quickly taking advantage of the “Optimise Equipment” button, given you can find yourself doing this a half dozen times in every level. Given the sheer volume of loot acquired however, I was a bit put off by how often my party ended up wearing the same look. Given the variety of classes available, you would think the same hooded jacket wouldn’t be the best fit for everyone, but nope.
Stranger of Paradise also allows you to upgrade the abilities tied to each piece of gear, but this hardly felt worthwhile given how quickly every item becomes outclassed as you proceed through the story, and the cost in materials to do so. I found myself regularly picking a gear level a few below Jack’s current setup and mass-dismantling it all for parts – and still not being able to upgrade the entire party from there.
Lastly, we come to the story. While the major beats are revealed through its main missions, they can also be fleshed out by locating hidden documents scattered through both main and side missions; these re-use each map and typically start you from the end, working towards the start. Even with these additional documents, I still found myself a little unclear on what had been going by its end. While you do uncover Jack’s reason for being there, motives remained blurry to a certain extent. Perhaps there’s one document I missed somewhere that ties it all together, but for a franchise that prides itself on over-telling its stories, Stranger of Paradise felt a little under-told.
This isn’t helped by the jarring quality of some of the cutscenes, either. Final Fantasy games will often have two tiers of scene – the flashy, over-the-top CGI events, and then the simpler in-engine scenes. For Stranger of Paradise this same binary exists, but the upper-tier scenes would be on par with the average scenes of a mainline title. The lesser scenes feel like something I haven’t seen since the PS2 era – wooden character models going “bap-bap-bap” with no link to the words being spoken. I don’t need every game to have motion-captured acting, but this felt like an artifact of a bygone era that pulled me out of the experience on more than one occasion.
Overall, I would say that you should play Stranger of Paradise for its combat and not its story. While there are nuggets available for series fans, this isn’t the pinnacle of storytelling by any means. It’s best to dive into the gore rather than the lore; fight for fun, be like Jack and focus on the Chaos. Certainly don’t expect this to be a brilliant subversion of the original Final Fantasy’s narrative.
Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin was reviewed using a promotional code on Playstation 5, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.
18 March 2022
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