Title: Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin
Developer: Square Enix, Team Ninja, Koei Tecmo
Release Date: March 15, 2022
Reviewed On: PS5
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Action RPG
The existence of Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin has been an enigmatic, thought-provoking one since its initial unveiling. Even after a few public demos, its story and cast are a mystery other than somehow being tied to the first Final Fantasy. Now, having finally played through the entire game, Stranger of Paradise has delivered on a memorable experience deserving of the Final Fantasy name.
Throughout Stranger of Paradise, players control the protagonist Jack as he and his allies seek to rid the world of ‘Chaos’ and restore the elemental crystals. The concept is relatively simple. Still, a plethora of contextual clues and notable vagueness make it clear that achieving this goal isn’t so cut and dry. Other than the more apparent mysteries of who Jack and company are, as they are in fact the Strangers in Paradise, secrets regarding the passage of time and why there are five crystal bearers as opposed to the four of the classic prophecy are tackled.
I found myself engaged by the narrative due to its ties to the original Final Fantasy alongside the relationships between Jack and the party members. While there’s less on-screen bonding and conversation than I would have preferred, the cast’s dichotomies feel genuine. Still, Jack’s bluntness and other particular elements like the arguably unintentional humor will make the experience mixed for some players, making story attachment difficult.
I was able to find both hilarity and intrigue in these interactions, but it’s definitely not for everyone. However, I was disappointed by the lack of compulsory visits to the central hub, Cornelia. After the title’s start, where Jack and company receive their mission, Cornelia almost feels forgotten about for an extensive amount of time aside from the updated NPC dialogue. This results in a missed opportunity for more scenes involving Princess Sarah and the rest of the royal family.
The combat is the name of the game here, though, and it’s astonishingly well-crafted. Players solely control Jack and get to choose between various classic Final Fantasy jobs like Black Mage, Dragoon, Samurai, and many, many more. Each Job has its own skill tree where unlocked panels provide new combos, stat alterations, or prerequisites to unlocking more advanced Jobs. The intricate depth present within the combat system is jaw-dropping, with countless possibilities for potential builds. In addition, various playstyles are accounted for in ways that make each one readily appealing.
For instance, as someone who usually prefers close-ranged combat, I found myself constantly utilizing spells. And, to be honest, the magic system of this game is probably the best I’ve ever seen it handled throughout the Final Fantasy franchise. Every spell feels impactful, each mage Job variant offers unique spells, and the on-the-fly Job switching makes it even more reliable. Further, the non-mage Jobs manage to be just as fulfilling to use. Between the more glass cannon play style of Dark Knight to Ronin’s more patient yet destructive power, each Job has clear pros and cons that grant a constantly fresh gameplay loop with player agency at its core.
Adding to the fantastic gameplay design, this title can be loosely compared to the Soulsborne entries and Nioh. However, while there are a few base similarities, the experience here is altogether distinct and more forgiving. Alongside expected mechanics like evasion and guarding, the most prominent one is Soul Shield. This is essentially a riskier guard that completely negates damages and stuns enemies, but at the cost of Jack’s break gauge, which causes him to collapse for a limited time if depleted. Mastering Soul Shield is essential for success, especially on the hardest difficulty.
I must admit that I found the challenge level lacking. The boss design is fair and creative, yet they’re a tad too straightforward to read, leading to elementary victories. At most, I found myself only failing bosses a few times each. If you’re moderately experienced in more demanding action games, Stranger of Paradise won’t provide too much of a challenge. Ultimately, I primarily attribute this general ease of difficulty to the Soul Shield mechanic, which, even when accounting for Jack’s break gauge, is too generous in its window of availability.
Granted, I don’t want to come off as if I’m bragging or that the game is mindless because it isn’t, but it’s worth knowing beforehand that the title is rather forgiving and welcoming with its difficulty level if you’re willing to die a couple of times and ingrain telegraphs. The choosable difficulty levels and placements of checkpoints right before boss battles also provide a stress-free atmosphere. When reaching the bosses, all of your focus can be affixed to them and not any potential backtracking that might arise from death. Moreover, there are well-crafted tutorials on the world map for every weapon type’s moveset, so you are given transparent avenues for bettering your skills and mastering the fundamentals.
The level design of Stranger of Paradise also deserves notable acclaim as it boasts genuine navigation and occasional puzzles requiring light thought. One of my greatest fears going into this title was that its stages would be too thoughtless in the deliverance of qualitative combat, but I’m glad to see that the areas are still enjoyable to explore in spite of that.
Several side paths, with more inventive ones later on in the experience, also reward players with great loot. Side-missions, which occur in the main story maps, can help players learn more about these areas’ varying paths. If there’s one critique I have with the exploration, I wish there were more naturalistic environments instead of the castles and fortresses that seemed to take center stage. This is personal preference, but I would have liked more area variety. At the very least, the aforementioned exploration supplements the lack of world map navigation.
Equipment is either found in dungeons or granted as rewards for completing missions. The quantity of what you receive can come off as too much, but the Smithy allows for handy dismantling to upgrade materials to enhance the weapons you prefer. The ease of this system is appreciated as the quantity of gear is utilized as more player choice for either altering builds or sticking to what you know works.
The AI-controlled party members have a few pre-determined Jobs that you can choose between, though their equipment loadout can also be altered like Jack’s. One slight complaint I have for the gear is that while it’s neat to see the characters’ attire change according to what the player chooses for them, the amount of headgear that completely covers the face is an unfortunate design choice. This makes expressions less discernible in cutscenes, and having less of this face-covering headgear would make concocting loadouts less frustrating in some minor respects.
The soundtrack is catchy and atmospheric, with there being addictive beats that nicely complement the dungeon crawling. Additionally, the performance on PlayStation 5 is exceptional. Save for frame drops here and there, they’re barely noticeable and are incredibly rare. The presentation will likely be the most divisive facet of this game next to its story.
The questionable character models don’t seem necessarily representative of modern games, but they were never actively offputting throughout my experience. There was never a moment where I found myself distracted by the supposed low-quality presentation. Still, this trait will wildly vary in reception depending on the crowds within the player base. Above all else, I’m simply glad that graphical quality didn’t take precedence over smooth performance.
Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin is an undeniably stellar action game boasting addictive mechanics that will cater to a myriad of crowds. Even when accounting for a few minor critiques, the combat is some of the best the franchise has to offer. Further, its clever writing choices and conclusion will undoubtedly be lasting and impressionable for those engaged by the narrative. More scenes displaying character banter would have been greatly appreciated, and the presentation can be a dropping-off point for some players. Regardless, this game unabashedly revels in its valorous identity, and those willing to open up to it may be pleasantly surprised.
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