Chaos reigned during Square Enix‘s E3 2021 showcase, which was literally the case for its unveiling of Stranger Of Paradise – Final Fantasy Origin. What should have been a glorious reception for the publisher’s Japanese division – a brand new title in the Final Fantasy franchise, developed by the highly reputable Team Ninja – went down like a lead balloon.
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Never mind the convoluted title, I could only think of it as the ‘Chaos’ game, as spouted by the game’s most normcore-looking protagonist in a Final Fantasy game ever. The memes went wild as fans looked on bemused at what fresh hell Final Fantasy‘s creative producer and character designer Tetsuya Nomura had unleashed. Just what were they thinking?
To add insult to injury, a trial demo for the game launched for PS5 just shortly after the announcement, only for players to find that it was “corrupted” and unplayable. And yet, for all the derision that should have it laughed out of existence, once Square Enix managed to fix the demo, I came away surprisingly pleased.
Sure, the voices are still awful, the protagonist Jack looks as if Devil May Cry‘s Nero had tripped over into the wrong game, and this looks and feels nothing like a Final Fantasy game, let alone the NES original it’s supposed to be based on. But cast those concerns to one side and this is a solid and accessible take on the Dark Souls formula with, well, chaotic energy.
If the trailer hadn’t already clued you in, your mission is to kill Chaos, as you traverse murky gothic environments cutting down monsters in your path. These include some familiar Final Fantasy staples, such as the fire-spewing Bombs that gradually expand in size before they self-destruct.
Jack’s ridiculously modern basic get-up in Final Fantasy Origin is also suddenly easier to overlook once you discover you can find and equip a whole range of other outfits. Far from just wielding his big heavy sword, it also turns out you can find other weapons like magic maces and lances, which are also tied to various job classes, while certain outfits also provide better stats for specific job. You can even easily switch between two jobs at any time at the tap of a button.
Yet ultimately, Stranger Of Paradise is at its best when you don’t try to focus on the tenuous links with Final Fantasy and rather on the Souls-like twists it brings to the table. Naturally, Team Ninja has brought over ideas from Nioh, from the way you can unlock new moves with different weapon types to the Break system. While you can defeat enemies by taking down their health, wearing down their break gauge leaves them open to a brutal instant finisher from Jack, almost like a crystallised glory kill from Doom. This also a vital way for recharging your magic meter required for performing more powerful attacks.
Of course, if you can break enemies, they can also break you, and sustaining too many hits could leave Jack completely winded on the ground and open to a more devastating blow. But this is where the ‘Soul Shield’ comes into play. It’s the game’s own version of parrying, although similar to Devil May Cry‘s Royal Guard in that comparatively it has a more generous window than the precise frame execution required for parrying in Dark Souls. Not only does it parry powerful physical and magical attacks, letting you rush in for a follow-up counter, but it also reduces break and replenishes your magic meter.
These mechanics were admittedly difficult to get to grips with at first since I was getting used to the button layout (who thought mapping ‘interact’ to holding down the DualSense touchpad was a good idea?), and considering most of the mobs you face aren’t as unforgivable as the enemies you face in Souls games, you could easily hack-and-slash your way through most of it alongside your two AI-controlled companions.
But it’s the final encounter with Chaos himself (or the man who would become Chaos), a challenge that took a fair number of attempts, that I really appreciated the brilliance of the Soul Shield and Break mechanics, which offers the same tight rhythm of a Sekiro boss fight, and the same elation when you triumph. The tone is still a problem that’s chaotically all over the shop, but against all odds, I’m actually excited for Stranger Of Paradise. Chaos reigns indeed.