STRANGER IN A STRANGELY GENERIC LAND
You know, I was really rooting for Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. Despite its ludicrous name and divisively received reveal trailer, a Final Fantasy game helmed by the folks behind Nioh seemed like a great fit. The epic action of Team Ninja paired with the elegant storytelling of Final Fantasy.
Boy that would’ve been great, wouldn’t it? Instead, we have the clunky action of another experimental Final Fantasy brawler that heavily reinvents the wheel again, paired with the laughable storytelling of Team Ninja. It’s such a perfect opposite of what you’d actually want that it’s almost endearing, like Dirge of Cerberus.
Almost endearing, but not quite.
YOU DON’T KNOW, JACK
Stranger of Paradise’s demo starts at the very beginning of the game, giving players a good few hours of content to chew through. You’d be forgiven for assuming the game is skipping over early events because the intro spends so little time establishing the three main heroes, or anything else for that matter.
We see a dark knight tearing through ranks of guards, carrying some princess away on a stormy night. Then suddenly we’re playing as main hero Jack in an open field, beating up goblins for a tutorial that seemingly is happening in-character. Then a giant sphere opens up, and teleports him to the kingdom of Cornellia with no memory beyond his name and a need to kill “Chaos.”
Not simply a villain named Chaos, but the literal aspect of nature itself. His allies Jed and Ash are on the same mission. They all meet outside the main city, fist bump, and a text screen tells us they went off and became badass adventurer monster hunters.
I’d love to say I’m exaggerating here or glossing over something, but I’m not. The storytelling and writing actually get worse from here. An early game reveal I won’t spoil is so out of left field and inexplicable that I could hardly believe it. Jack’s later told in the same scene that Chaos doesn’t exist, only to say “Bullshit.”
Then in the next scene after, is told this again and suddenly has a moment of doubt, before tripling down on the apparent delusion. This is in addition to an overwhelming number of his lines being grunts and three to five word sentences. Jack is a charisma void – a walking parody of grizzled male protagonists all over.
I’d love to say this is some clever subversion by Stranger of Paradise’s, but it’s not. It’s played 100% straight faced. If nothing else, there’s a variety of difficulty options, so if you happen to enjoy cheesy, unironic camp but don’t fancy a huge challenge, the option is there.
KILLING CHAOS, ONE BUMPER AT A TIME
Okay, so the leads are unlikable and the writing’s fairly mediocre. What about the gameplay? This is Team Ninja we’re talking about! They made Nioh and Ninja Gaiden Black! Well, did you ever think that what every action game was missing was repeatedly massing the bumper keys right above your triggers? No?
Does that sound like quite possibly the worst idea ever, especially if playing on an Xbox controller? Well I hope you take the time to customize your key bindings because that’s the default control scheme in Stranger of Paradise!
This is as uncomfortable on your hands as it is limiting for what players are actually able to do. The combat can be best described as a Frankenstein’s Monster of Lightning Returns, FFXV, and FFVII Remake. Except, they’re just not the fun.
I could order my squad to overcharge their attacks for a minute, but otherwise they’re on auto-pilot. The array of jobs rely on uniquely diverse mechanics. Except, outside of the standard three, the choices get weird.
The mage class has a fiddly elemental selection menu slapped on top of the regular ability readouts. The ranged class auto-targets but the game insists on going to an over the shoulder camera every throw. The zoom-in, zoom-out is nauseating at the best of times.
Beneath all this, there is a solid core loop of stunning enemies before killing them so you can do a takedown move that boosts and fills your magic meter. Every takedown move is over the top, except instead of blood, your enemies shatter into crimson crystals. The amount of MP you’ve gained resets after dying.
There’s even a Dark Souls-like bonfire equivalent cube system that you can access that resets enemy spawns in the area. Instead of there being massive challenges though, the reason to reset enemies is more to grind than anything else. Which isn’t that exciting to do as the skill trees are very simple, with not much branching.
Ironically the best aspect of the gameplay is a one-off feature. When counter an enemy’s attack, you can choose to either merely block with your weapon, or spend some of your rage meter to steal their attack. Depending on the attack, it could be devastating. Bats in particular fire this area of effect sound wave that’s great for stunning other opponents for finishers.
It’s an inspired idea, and honestly could’ve been fleshed out further. The idea of stealing enemy attacks to horde them for crucial moments is fantastic, and far more interesting than what else is presented.
It’s to the point that Stranger of Paradise starts to dismiss many of its JRPG trappings. You can auto-equip your best gear with the press of a button. Talking to people is mostly relegated to a menu interface, like Stranger of Paradise is including these moments under protest.
The visual aesthetic and world building are a total mess. Somehow earpieces and smart phones exist, but everyone lives in feudal European villages. I know Final Fantasy has been tapping into a more modern fantasy setting, but we barely understand the kingdom of Cornellia by the time we’re told to save it.
STRANGER OF PARADISE IS A FUTURE “SO BAD IT’S GOOD” GAME IN THE MAKING
The real saving grace of Stranger of Paradise is that, having finally held it in my hands, this game is comedy gold. There will be some who will be swayed by the strange design and head scratching narrative. I certainly won’t begrudge anyone who does.
I just can’t help but see it being anything more than meme material for most players, and that’s something Square Enix really doesn’t need right now.
Maybe Stranger of Paradise ll come together with some post-launch tweaks, like LEFT ALIVE, which improved substantially down the road. I’d love nothing more than for an extremely over the top Final Fantasy action game that embraces the sheer potential of the series’ most out there moments.
This could have been Final Fantasy’s Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Instead, the only Chaos I anticipate is a divisive reception when Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin finally launches on March 18th for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, and PC.