In this, the thirty-fifth year of Final Fantasy, many descriptive words have been used to convey the series since 1987. One word that has never been used to describe Hironobu Sakaguchi’s legacy is ‘stale’. The Final Fantasy series has never rested on its laurels, completely reinventing itself with each numbered mainline entry. With spin-offs that range from battle royales to kart racers, feature films to manga, Disney to Ehrgeiz, the franchise has always been trying new things.
And then we arrive at Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, a Final Fantasy take on the Soulsborne. Again, definitely not stale, but quite possibly the most divisive Final Fantasy title yet.
It is a reimagining/remake/retelling/re-something-or-other of the original Final Fantasy game. In that, four Warriors of Light go on a quest to restore light to four crystals that have been tainted by monsters. As the Final Fantasy series has evolved, the mainline plots have become more complex and entertaining. The original game, whilst groundbreaking, pales in comparison with what came after.
In Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, you play as Jack Garland, a man who shares his surname with the primary antagonist of the original game. He, along with his compatriots Ash and Jed, believe they are these prophesied Warriors of Light, despite there only being three of them. They do however all possess tainted crystals and are given access to the Shrine of Chaos by the King of Cornelia in order to defeat Chaos himself.
Now, anyone that will have seen the pre-release trailers and info for Stranger of Paradise will have also no doubt seen the memes. To put it bluntly, Jack has got a bit of a hard-on for wanting to kill Chaos. It is eating him up inside. Early on in the game, the concept that Chaos may just be an imaginary creation by humanity to explain darkness within the world is brushed off by Jack as “bullshit”, before proceeding to put headphones in and play some nu-metal. This moment did the rounds on the internet before the game released and it really does tell you how one-dimensional Jack is when it comes to Chaos.
Even thirty-five years later, this story remains paper-thin. Cutscenes are short and sharp, and primarily used only to introduce a minor character, boss or new location. There are no towns to explore or rest up in; you can speak to residents of Cornelia, but this is done through the world map screen rather than having a town to wander round. Not that they have much worth talking about anyways.
In order to get to Chaos, Jack and his crew will need to go through thousands of enemies. Coming from Team Ninja, the action is fast and frenetic whenever you encounter a group of enemies. Stranger of Paradise may have initially appeared as a bit of a Soulslike when first announced, but the reality is it plays much more like a hack and slash title.
Bonfires are present – referred to as cubes in-game – to help checkpoint your progress. But there is virtually no penalty for death. You aren’t carrying around souls, runes or Sen in Stranger of Paradise, so you do not drop anything upon death. EXP is instantly added to jobs that Jack has equipped, along with a rudimentary amount to those unequipped.
Jack himself doesn’t level up from this EXP. Instead, enemies drop tons of armour that increase in power as you progress. You will quickly be bogged down by the sheer amount of loot you get, and it will soon become a futile effort manually equipping new gear to your party. Instead, the Optimise Equipment button will be your best friend.
Gear can be upgraded by the smithy in Cornelia, again who is accessed through the world map menu. But because any gear you have equipped will quickly be redundant when new gear is found, the smithy’s primary purpose is to help you dismantle the hundreds of pieces of loot you no longer need. Dismantling rewards materials for upgrading, should you insist on keeping the same items with you.
Instead, you will want to focus most of your tinkering and upgrading time on the job system. The job changing system has been in Final Fantasy since Final Fantasy III, but Stranger of Paradise has one of the best implementations of it. Early on, Jack will have access to a few basic job roles such as Swordsmen, Ronin, Pugilist, Mage, Lancer and more that each have their own skill tree. Through levelling them up you can unlock job points to spend on the tree. Admittedly very run of the mill. Reach level thirty and that particular job becomes ‘mastered’ but does also open up advanced jobs. Here is where you will find some Final Fantasy staples: Dragoon, Red/White/Black Mage, Monk, Knight, Thief and more. Unlocking these will become crucial as you progress.
It is how Stranger of Paradise puts these jobs into use on the field that is the best part of the game though. As Jack, you can have two jobs equipped at any time; for other party members it is just one. But they vary so wildly between each other, with strengths and weaknesses for each, it feels at times that this was where 90% of game development was focused. Unlocking nodes on each skill tree can increase job affinity or unlock new abilities. These abilities may be combo related or command related. Command abilities are shared across jobs; some of these cannot be used when using certain job types, but these seem a rarity.
Combo-related abilities are assigned to each job and the RT button. As you are slashing, bashing or punching away with the RB button, depending on which point the RT button is pressed during this combo will perform the related combo ability. You can spend a lot of time experimenting with these such is the depth, but once you have your preferred move list, you will likely not budge for anything new.
Mages work slightly differently, and can be tricky to get the grasp of at first. Spells are performed by holding the RT whilst selecting a direction on a spell wheel when casting. They are not massively required during the first few dungeons but become increasingly useful as you progress. As soon as veteran players start encountering the flans, they will know it’s time to open the spell book.
Much like World of Final Fantasy did for the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary, Stranger of Paradise features a whole host of throwbacks. Many Final Fantasy enemies such as cactuars, tonberrys, coeurls, flans and more will be present in numbers. As will the major bosses from the original Final Fantasy game, with a bit of a glow-up from their 8-bit origins as well.
Many of the game’s dungeons will be familiar to veterans too. At the beginning of each dungeon, a Fool’s Missive will pop up detailing the area you are about to explore. If it is based on a previous Final Fantasy area, it will subtly refer to that previous game as a Dimension, with the corresponding mainline number following. Musical cues from that area will also play as you are travelling.
Maybe this is giving the plot of Stranger of Paradise too much credit but is this implying that all Final Fantasy’s are further intertwined with one another than we initially thought? There is always a lot of discourse around such fan theories, but this could be fuel to the fire.
What it really did though was remind me of how much more fun I could be having playing any number of the mainline entries.
Stranger of Paradise also features multiplayer. Here, you can replay previous missions with friends or get help with any mission you are struggling with, and has human players replace your AI companions. I have always maintained that things like this are useful if you want to replay a mission rather than run through the entire campaign in co-op, but the option is there if you are that way inclined.
At this point we should talk about the graphics, because they are a real mixed bag too; fittingly, like the rest of the game. At times, Stranger of Paradise looks gorgeous running on the Xbox Series X, yet at others there is major pop-in and texture issues. It appears to be evident on both consoles and PCs too. Now, I am nowhere near an expert on why these issues are there, but reading online and it was explained in layman’s terms that I can understand. Basically, character and enemy models simply are not optimised for current gen hardware; they are the type of models that developers will be creating in two generations’ time where supporting hardware can render them properly. Or something like that. Either way, the range in quality of graphics during certain portions of this game is severe. It feels like switching between original graphics and remastered graphics that Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary allowed you to do.
Much like the paradox a title like Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin conjures on both sides of the colon, the game itself appears to be of two halves competing against each other. There is the hack-and-slash Souls-lite experience that is great fun when tied in with the interchangeable job system. Then on the other side, there is everything else: lack of story and character interactions, pointless upgrade system, tacked on multiplayer, poorly optimised graphics and just a lacklustre campaign. Even as a Final Fantasy purist, this is a spin-off title reserved only for the purist of purists.
Relive the humble beginnings of Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin from the Xbox Store