When rumours of a Souls-like action-adventure Final Fantasy game started circling the internet last year, a few inquisitive eyebrows were raised. It certainly piqued my curiosity, but when Stranger Of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin was officially revealed I had mostly one thought: ‘Oh. Oh no.’ After experiencing the full thing, the final result was something surprising, sometimes for better, but mostly for the worse.
You play as Jack, a very angry man, for reasons that never feel fully clear. All Jack knows is his burning desire to kill Chaos, come what may. Our protagonist has plot-related amnesia, so his only guiding force is a black crystal, and that innate need he has inside him. He isn’t the only one though, as along his journey he meets two others like him, Jed and Ash. Their meeting was maybe the most baffling thing in the game, and it undoubtedly sets the tone for what comes next.
Jack is just walking along, about to enter Cornelia, the setting of the game, when he senses something. He turns around, already scowling, and sees Jed and Ash looking at him, crystals vibrating in hand. They know he too is after Chaos, apparently. Immediately they become friends, and then they fistbump, and reader: I lost my shit. From that fist bump, I knew what I was in for.
That’s honestly one of Stranger Of Paradise’s strengths. From the numerous demos and trailers the game has had as it approached launch, anyone paying attention will have seen a lot of the game, including the first level, which features a Chaos shrine that’s fallen straight out of a Nu Metal music video from the early 00’s. But the game is so much more ridiculous than the trailers let on. On numerous occasions, I was laughing so hard to the point I would have to pause for a minute. One joke sees a character explaining who they are, with Jack jumping up to sucker-punch him screaming “I don’t give a fuck who you are,” and I was overcome with joy.
I’m a Kingdom Hearts fan (sorry), and an underappreciated aspect of those games is how funny they are. This moment with Jack going straight for the attack, literally not caring about any of the exposition at hand, felt like an 18+ take on that kind of silliness you might find in Kingdom Hearts. And this honestly feels plausible, as the author of the light novel adaptations of Kingdom Hearts, Tomoko Kanemaki, put together the story for Stranger of Paradise. Unfortunately though, the story is just a mess.
If you’ve watched all of the trailers for Stranger Of Paradise, you have seen most of the story. This isn’t a joke, because cutscenes in this game are short, and they rarely explain what’s actually happening in any meaningful way. Technically speaking, by the end of the game, I understood what was going on, but essentially no important plot happened by the end. I think this game is genuinely funny, in an intentional way, but a few quality jokes – most of which you’ll be able to see ridiculed on Twitter – are not enough to hold it together. Cutscenes bookend each level, and that’s a whole other can of worms.
Despite the advertising, Stranger Of Paradise isn’t really a Souls-like at all. Team Ninja was the developer of Stranger Of Paradise, who of course made the also notoriously difficult Nioh games. If you’re familiar with gameplay from the Nioh games, you’ll likely be more at home with Stranger Of Paradise. But even though the gameplay is sometimes good, it’s packaged in an incredibly boring series of levels.
You might have noticed in the trailers that some of the locales featured in Stranger Of Paradise are very directly inspired by places across the mainline Final Fantasy games. This could have functioned as fan service, but it is so poorly put together it made me question how much of a love letter to Final Fantasy this game was meant to be. Stranger Of Paradise is the anniversary present from Square Enix to celebrate 35 years of Final Fantasy but the level design feels like some of the most uninspired I’ve ever encountered in a game.
The set dressing from place to place was different, sure, but I would argue that this game has more corridors than the infamous Final Fantasy XIII. And in turn, for me at least, the combat suffered. Enemies became a hindrance, a sentient blocker that was slowing me down in my quest to escape this level’s nightmare tunnels.
There are several difficulty options in Strange Of Paradise. I did try out the Story difficulty to see what it was like, and it pretty much turned the game into something like Dynasty Warriors, though I did still have to watch my health occasionally. But mostly what I used Story mode for was bosses. The first notable boss you tussle with, Garland, is honestly a great fight. You have enough space to manoeuvre around, attacks are clear, it was a joy to get through. But the rest of the bosses felt more like an unfair slog, as they toss out attacks doing large amounts of damage, with the attacks being poorly telegraphed or leaving you without enough time to get out the way.
There are definitely some great foundations for the gameplay. The job system is super interesting, but in the more difficult fights there felt like there was a lack of polish that really just soured my experience. In the end playing the game just felt boring, and the whole game was a disappointment. Several parts of Stranger Of Paradise are interesting enough on their own, but as they came together, it’s clear that it’s nothing more than a jumbled mess of a thing.
I want to love Stranger Of Paradise, I honestly do. No, I can’t believe that Jack is a loveable, angry himbo either, but the game did manage to convince me of such. But no amount of weird, unexplainable charm makes up for a game that feels like it needed more time. I think the game is potentially worth playing just to see all of the almost surreal dialogue that’s on offer, but don’t expect anything even half as revolutionary as something like Demon’s Souls. Stranger Of Paradise is a PS2 game that never was, but considering how many generations ago that was now, that just isn’t enough.
Stranger of Paradise is mostly just a mess. When the gameplay works, it works surprisingly well, but that wasn’t often enough to make it fun for its entire runtime. It’s hard to make a judgement on the story, mostly because there isn’t much of a narrative, but it’s even more disappointing because I wanted to spend more time with the characters, because they’re far from unlikeable. A grand ode to Final Fantasy it is not, and it fails to appeal to the JRPG lover in me on most counts.
- Genuinely, if surprisingly, funny
- Combat is enjoyable when it works
- Nonsensical, lacklustre story
- When the gameplay doesn’t work it’s a chore
- Lifeless level design