Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin came as something of a surprise when it was announced in June 2021. The collaboration between Square Enix and Team Ninja genuinely threw me off, especially with its desaturated announcement trailer full to bursting with exaggerated violence. It seemed like a complete deviation from final fantasy as a brand, but as more information about the game began to pour out I became increasingly more interested in the story of Jack Garland and his companions. And if Stranger of Paradise does one thing, it commits to what it sets out to do. That is to tell the story of Jack on his mission to kill Chaos.
The narrative of Stranger of Paradise is a relatively simple one. It follows Jack Garland on his quest to kill Chaos. He is joined on his journey by a cast of what initially are mostly unremarkable characters, thrown together haphazardly to form a party. Jed, Ash, Neon, and Sophia follow Jack, each with their own motivations. However, as the game progresses and the player learns more about them, they serve as welcome additions to the story. Each interacts with Jack in mostly similar ways, but have their own way of going about it. Party banter during missions gives the player a clue as to what these people are like, outside of what the story slowly unravels. Neon and Sophia are also great, since the game doesn’t relegate them to treading the same ground as other female characters in the final fantasy series for the most part.
And despite everything, Jack is overall a great protagonist for Stranger of Paradise. He has a couple of great scenes (one of which that involves him dropping the F-bomb), but he is generally unlike anyone in the final fantasy series so far. Jack is rough around the edges, but not in an overly abrasive way. Or at least in a way that isn’t outright cruel to his friends. There are some truly great moments in the game that hammer in his general lack of patience, and I found him oddly refreshing despite his generic design and rough attitude.
The story itself is sometimes convoluted, with bits of important lore tucked away in Lufenian Files players can collect through the variety of stages. Side missions also provide some flavor text in their description. However, it isn’t the script and its sometimes nonsensical presentation of important information that ruins the experience. Some cutscenes are oddly thrown together or cut off abruptly. It makes it appear as though the game wasn’t potentially given enough time in the oven.
Story missions can also feel overly long, with the environmental design varying between being actually interesting or just boring. Team Ninja’s spin on notable final fantasy locations sometimes hits the mark, but Dimension 7 (Final Fantasy VII) stuck out as particularly lackluster. And yes, the game does make nods to previous final fantasy games in very obvious ways. Not just through level design, but also through the music that plays throughout. There are some really great songs there, however, particularly in Dimension 8 and Dimension 10. All of these areas feature remixed tracks of scores fans of the series are more than familiar with.
Gameplay for the title is similar to Nioh 2, in the way that it is mostly fast-paced and there is some level of expectation that the player will be countering and breaking enemies when the opportunities present themselves. Every enemy will have a stagger bar players can break through the use of attacks. These include standard attacks and special attacks that cost mana. Upon breaking an enemy, Jack can then grab them and turn them into vibrant, red crystals, which he promptly crushes with his feet, hands, or fists. It’s always a spectacle and never gets boring. You can also effectively parry certain enemy attacks to obtain their unique skills, which can then be flung back at them. Initially, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up, but the game provides enough breathing room to allow for players to grow accustomed to the variety of mechanics you can use. These systems feel layered. When using everything you’ve learned to overcome challenges, it’s genuinely a lot of fun. And this all works in tandem with the Job Class system, which has something of a unique spin compared to how it has appeared in other final fantasy games.
Players can seamlessly swap between any two job classes they’ve selected on the fly while in combat or roaming missions. I stuck primarily to Sage, which was unlocked by leveling up two prerequisite Job Classes, while alternating between Dark Knight and Berserker as my more offensive options for my playthrough. The way players unlock Job Classes incentivizes them to give every option a shot, which is good. It not only allows for a greater sense of variety, but also lets players potentially discover their affinity for a Job Class they might not have otherwise selected. I was genuinely surprised at how much fun I had playing a Monk that I ended up making it part of my regular rotation if I would ever get bored of being a Dark Knight.
Each Job Class also has their own unique attacks and skills. These can be layered into Advanced Job Classes like the Dark Knight, which allowed for me to pull attacks from the Job Classes I had to level in order to unlock it. It created a nice sense of variety, as all of these systems come together in very satisfying ways. Skills are unlocked through a skill tree system as players level up their individual job classes. However, using the Affinity system through equipping gear allows for passive accumulation of levels. So the grind isn’t really all that bad in terms of skill progression, since you can also use Anima Shards to pump levels into whatever Job Class you’re not particularly interested in playing. I did this to unlock the Ninja Job Class later in the game, as I had neglected Duelist and Thief fairly early on in favor of White Mage and Black Mage.
Thankfully, you can also swap your assigned Job Classes outside of needing to head to The Cube. The Cube has several purposes outside of serving as a checkpoint for Stranger of Paradise‘s mission-based levels. This is where players can level up their Job Classes (or unlock new ones) during missions or swap out their party members. You can also change the Job Classes of your party members while at The Cube, which adds another level of flexibility. If you want to take a more backseat approach and fling spells as a Black Mage and allow Jed, Ash, Sophia, or Neon to lead the way, you can. I spent a bulk of my time using Sophia, who I assigned the Dragoon Job Class to, and Jed as my primary party members. The Job Classes these two characters can obtain are great at breaking down the stamina bars of common enemies and bosses.
Players can also obtain extra stat bonuses through equipping gear that share affinities with certain Job Classes. After reaching a certain percentage, these passives are unlocked and applied to your character. However, these are not retained if you choose to swap out your equipment. At higher difficulties, these passives feel more important, but are something players can largely ignore and face no consequences if playing on story or casual difficulty. It does, however, add a level of texture to the game that creates a more layered experience overall in more challenging difficulties. Though Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin could do with a better explanation of these systems, and what they affect. As I still hadn’t quite understood some of the finer details until I was roughly level 60.
And while equipment remains relatively important, it is unfortunate the inventory system in Stranger of Paradise is less than optimal. There is no easy way to sort equipment and dismantle it with more than a couple of button presses. It feels less than intuitive, and could do with some serious streamlining. Especially as you end up collecting swaths of different equipment the more you progress the game. Sometimes I would end up having a full inventory after a handful of missions and would take a good five to ten minutes navigating my menu, deciding on what to discard or keep.
The design of the equipment itself is also less than remarkable, and I never found any set I particularly liked or was drawn to. Everything is mostly in muted colors and consists of whites, grays, and blacks. There wasn’t anything particularly exciting or worthwhile grinding for, in terms of appearance. Nothing is particularly fantastical and falls more in line with mundane outfits you would find in Final Fantasy XV. Fedoras included. Not that it matters, as you’ll constantly be swapping out equipment at any opportunity.
Another issue with the equipment system is how it limits what pieces players can distribute to their companion character. Who can equip what feels random at best. I would pick up pieces of equipment that felt like it would be a good fit for Neon, who ended up as my designated Red Mage, only to realize the item was not compatible with her. Worst case scenario, you will go entire levels without receiving new pieces of equipment for some of your characters. Which can be incredibly frustrating.
Accessibility options are also few and far between. There are several different difficulty options however, which make the game feel more approachable. And those looking to play alone can switch to the story difficulty if they’re solely interested in the narrative. Subtitles are available and fairly legible. However, the general user interface uses a very thin font that can be hard to read on smaller displays.
And it’s these things that accumulate to dampen the overall experience in Stranger of Paradise. Underneath all of these issues, it is a great game with a lot of heart. But it is unfortunately held back by lackluster presentation of what could be an interesting story and the accumulation of the general lack of quality of life issues. It just feels like such a step back from Nioh 2, which is almost impossible to ignore. Especially since you would think a lot of these systems would be carried into Stranger of Paradise. Ultimately, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin will please those who are willing to buy into the ideas it presents wholesale and is a solid action game. However, despite all of the praises I have to sing for it, it’s obvious that this game was made for a very specific audience in mind and won’t be for everyone.
Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin will come to the PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and personal computer on March 18, 2022.