It’s been 35 years since the release of the very first Final Fantasy, and many gamers would look back fondly on memories of playing the 1987 classic. The original premise was as simple as it got: four Warriors of Light embark on a quest to defend the land from darkness with the help of four elemental crystals that they find across the world.
Over the years, stories would get more complex over time, and the cast of characters wider and more nuanced, but the general narrative of the mainline games was always that of the struggle to overcome great darkness.
In 2022, the story of the original game would be explored in a dark, alternate retelling in the form of Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin.
Developed by Koei Tecmo’s Team Ninja and published by Square Enix, Stranger of Paradise is a spinoff prequel to the first instalment of the mainline Final Fantasy series. You play as the stoic and strong-willed Jack and his four companions – Ash, Jed, Neon, and Sophia – as they strive to save the Kingdom of Cornelia from the clutches of the mysterious entity known as Chaos. To spice things up a little, they seem to all have lost their memories, and part of their journey is to recover said memories to uncover more secrets in defeating the big bad.
You’ll be entreated to a dark, albeit comically underwhelming, story that thankfully doesn’t overstay its welcome. The true meat of this game is just you, your big weapon, and your buddies, hacking and slashing your way through corridors and hallways filled with familiar Final Fantasy monsters.
Let’s talk about this Chaos for a bit (no spoilers, I promise). If you’ve watched the trailers or have at least been around the internet for the past year or so, you might recall how this game was memed to death for its hilariously aggressive marketing of Chaos. The way characters, Jack especially, constantly mention Chaos in quite literally almost every other line in the dialogue is borderline laughable. Even the rest of his party mocks him for his excessive talk about Chaos. I think that’s both the best and worst part about the writing; the writers seemed to have embraced the campiness of their script and just rolled with the punches.
Tonally, the story is supposed to be dark, and at times it really is, given how this is an origin story of how the conflict in Final Fantasy I came to be. However, for the most part, it ends up being more akin to that of a campy B-movie which serves more to entertain than captivate. The characters take themselves so seriously it’s quite funny, however. I found myself chuckling endearingly at how Jack seems so hell-bent on pursuing this entity while his companions smile and grunt in agreement.
Again, there is nothing to write home about the story of Stranger of Paradise. I love tragedies, and this one could have been an excellent one if not for the lack of fleshing out of characters and proper stakes involved. There is actually quite a bit of untapped potential in harnessing Jack’s compulsive obsession to defeat Chaos, but it either isn’t explored fully enough, or the writers didn’t seem bothered to try taking risks with the narrative.
There’s a nice little twist in the final third of the story, however, but it shouldn’t surprise you that much if you’re a seasoned Final Fantasy veteran. However, if you’re a newcomer to the franchise, this might actually be a pleasant ride for you. In spite of how mediocre the writing actually gets, the ending was actually a rather bittersweet and somewhat satisfying one, much to my surprise.
But of course, we’re talking about a Team Ninja game here, so I would say don’t be hard-pressed to find a decent story here. Instead, you might be drawn in by the scintillating combat instead.
What makes Stranger of Paradise stand out among other Final Fantasy spinoffs is the fact that it is developed by the makers of the Ninja Gaiden and Nioh franchises – two series that have amassed a cult following thanks to their challenging, skill-based real-time action gameplay that with relatively deep character progression and equipment systems (for the latter, at least).
Having mentioned these two game franchises, however, I must preface that Stranger of Paradise isn’t actually as difficult as Ninja Gaiden, Nioh, or any of the Souls games by FromSoftware (which inspired Nioh in many aspects). There is a difficulty setting option in this game, which should appeal to gamers who prefer to experience the story at a more comfortable pace in Story mode.
Also, there is actually no penalty to death, even on higher difficulties. This means you can constantly die and try again without fear of losing any experience you’ve accumulated along the way. That said, it is ultimately a skill-based game, so regardless of difficulty, you’ll still be required to learn how to dodge, block or counter enemy moves in order to progress.
Since this is first and foremost a Final Fantasy game, Team Ninja has incorporated the franchise’s iconic job system into the gameplay. As Jack, you have access to a plethora of weapons that are tied to the jobs you pick. You can also equip two different weapon/job sets that you can freely swap into on the fly, giving you options with which to engage enemies. I usually run Sage or Black Mage as one of the slots as it gives me some much-needed ranged magic damage as some enemies – the flying ones, especially – can prove to be quite annoying to fight in melee.
At the beginning of the game, you’ll have access to eight Basic jobs: Swordsman, Pugilist, Duelist, Mage, Lancer, Swordfighter, Marauder, and Ronin. Later on, you’ll gain the ability to unlock Advanced and later Expert jobs. These require you to invest points into the earlier jobs in their respective job tree, where there will be the Advanced/Expert job unlock node at the bottom of each tree. Typically, each Advanced or Expert job requires 2 or 3 of the previous tier to be unlocked, meaning you’ll want to cycle through each job to be able to get to the job you want (or at least work towards the trophy/achievement for unlocking all jobs).
The beauty of this job system is that you aren’t required to fully max out the previous job in order to unlock the next tier job; all you really need to do is just gain enough job levels to make a beeline for the job node. It’s a great practice that doesn’t tie you down to any job you don’t really enjoy playing. Anyway, experience is rather easily acquired just by going through the main and side missions once, so you shouldn’t have any problems unlocking all the jobs you want to unlock in one sitting.
But if you want to invest in job trees fully, you’re in for a treat. Each job maxes out at 30 (99 in the postgame) and grants varying passive bonuses and new combos for weapons, as well as active R2/RT abilities exclusive to said job and job Affinity bonuses.
There are eight different types of weapons (9 if you include the shield), and every job will grant access to a varying number of them. For example, you can wield a spear as a Dragoon or Lancer and have the same light and heavy attacks for spears, but the former will have the gap-closing Jump as their active ability, while the latter has the ranged Lance Hurl. On paper, the two jobs could play a little differently, but ultimately it doesn’t change up the gameplay that much as the majority of the combat in the game will be fought using weapon skills, as active abilities are tied to MP.
Personally, I would have liked to see more passive gameplay changes when switching to these jobs, something in the vein of Dragoons getting a little jump at the start of their combo attacks since their theme is all about taking to the skies like dragons or Black Mages dealing more damage by standing still since they are typically immobile when casting their massive spells. But that’s just a personal gripe of mine, as the combat is still a great adrenaline rush from the get-go.
Despite the wasted potential in what the customisation system could be, the combat itself is actually incredibly fun and satisfying. As mentioned, weapons have their own set of light and heavy attacks, with combo inputs similar to that of fighting games that require you to memorise varying combinations of button inputs.
More combo abilities can be unlocked by leveling jobs that add more variety to your moves and even add secondary effects such as elemental damage, extra break gauge damage, and so on. Later on, weapons themselves come with their own unique abilities, which add even more options for your loadout. The most interesting part here is that these combo abilities can be swapped out at any time, making for a really fluid and fun combat experience.
The fighting styles for each weapon are lifted directly from the Nioh games, which is already super satisfying on its own. Greatswords and Greataxes feel really powerful with their charged, albeit slow attacks, while faster weapons like Knuckles and Daggers let you dart around the battlefield and apply elemental effects much more easily with their significantly increased attack speed. Regardless of the weapon you’re using, you’ll find yourself engrossed in some really endorphin-inducing battles for the most part.
Another nod to the Final Fantasy games is that you fight in a party of three – though you only really control Jack. The other two party members are mostly AI-controlled, though you can order them to use their active ability with the press of a button. Otherwise, they act to the best of their computer-controlled ability, trying their best to dodge out of the way of incoming attacks but prioritising offense first and foremost. The damage they deal isn’t as significant as yours, but in higher difficulties, when enemies deal tons of damage per hit, every little bit helps.
Party members don’t have access to all jobs, unlike Jack, and only have a selection unique to each of them, which still gives you options with how you want to deck your party out. They also have access to Advanced and Expert jobs, which are unlockable via certain side missions. If you’re in need of a magic-user, Sophia can support the team as a Sage with powerful black or white magic at her disposal. If you need some hard-hitting physical offense with some damage mitigation, Ash is your guy with his Liberator job.
While the party member AI is relatively competent on its own, it would have been nice to add customisable AI options like the Gambit system in Final Fantasy XII to really change things up and fully pay homage to the party-based gameplay that the mainline series prides itself on.
The enemies you face in Stranger of Paradise will come in all shapes and sizes and usually will come at you in packs. To defeat enemies, you’ll have to hack at them to whittle down their Break Gauge (the yellow bar that appears above their head), and once that is down, you’ll stagger them and be able to perform a Soul Burst, that instantly KOs the enemy, and any other nearby enemy with depleted Break Gauges as well.
Enemies are usually easy to fight against alone but could prove annoying when faced in numbers. Luckily, you’ll have your party members at your side to help take care of things, and since they can draw aggro away from you, you’ll be able to rain hell on them from the flank or behind. That said, there will be various encounters where you will have to face the enemy head-on, such as bosses or the *gasp* terrifying Tonberries, so your ability to dodge and soul guard at the right moments will be tested here.
Aside from dodging and strafing out of enemy attacks, you can also block and even parry attacks with well-timed blocks, leading to highly-damaging parry-only combo moves. There is also the option to perform Soul Shield, which is an even more powerful parry ability. Do this right, and you’ll be able to fully block their attacks without taking any damage at all. However, mistime it, and you’ll not only be exposed to attack, but your own Break Gauge will deplete as Soul Shield drains your Break Gauge upon use on top of enemies’ attacks. So even then, you’ll want to use it sparingly.
Another cool aspect of Soul Shield is that it allows you to absorb purple enemy attacks and use it against them, much like Blue Magic in traditional Final Fantasy games. This is effective especially against bosses, as they deal a significant amount of Break Gauge damage.
While most enemies are fun to fight against and slaughter, there are some instances where combat is just downright frustrating. Flying enemies such as the bat will, more often than not, give you a hard time, especially when you’re in melee, as they tend to zip and dart around erratically and can even move vertically. This makes it very difficult to hit them properly, even with reach weapons like the lance. Magic does the trick, but it also consumes MP. This is where a physical ranged job like the Archer or Machinist would come in handy, but unfortunately, those jobs weren’t adapted for this game – which is ironic considering how there are actually decent bow and arrow mechanics in Nioh.
Fighting bosses can be a hit-or-miss affair as well. While almost all of them are incredible spectacles to behold, with incredibly cool mechanics that force you to think on your feet and not be too comfortable with your usual fighting style, the balancing for some is rather lopsided, even on the same difficulty level.
I won’t go into spoilers, but let’s just say one of the early to mid-game bosses will prove to be a rather head-scratching affair as it is basically a DPS check to see how fast you can deplete their Break Gauge, but their Break Gauge is incredibly tough to drain, and it constantly replenishes after a certain threshold. And in the next mission, the boss can suddenly feel like a cakewalk. I feel like this is something that can be alleviated with a patch, but in its current state, certain boss fights might even force one to drop the difficulty a little just to get through to the next story sequence.
Defeating enemies and bosses and completing missions will net tons of randomised loot with which you can customise the party’s loadout. This can range from stacking Affinity bonuses, so you gain even more powerful passive buffs for your equipped job, elemental attacks, defense, or even unique weapon skills. And by tons, we mean tons. The amount of items you can acquire in the game is staggering, and you’ll find yourself being swamped in oodles of gear before long.
On the surface, this gives you tons of freedom in being able to change out your equipment as you see fit, but in reality, you’ll constantly be changing equipment by the time you complete the next mission as the item level increases by a few levels the further you go in the story. Suddenly, all your current item bonuses are moot because you’re just not dealing enough damage to the enemy, so you’re forced to optimise your equipment to be able to survive adequately through the level. Unfortunately, item level is king in this game, and this is truly a shame as enemies scale by item level. Considering how quickly you can blaze through the story, this doesn’t give you enough time to fully enjoy the benefits of your previously-acquired gear, meaning any legendary weapons or armour are almost immediately obsolete by the time you get to the next part of the story.
Not only that, you’ll acquire so much equipment in your runs that you’ll find yourself with a full inventory really quickly, and if you’re not in the world map where you can simply dismantle your equipment at the Smithy to free up space, you’re forced to discard equipment on the spot in the map to make way for newer pieces of gear that might not yield better stats overall.
Unlike traditional Final Fantasy games, Stranger of Paradise’s world map isn’t fully explorable. Instead, each area is its own instanced mission, with its own linear map and unlockable shortcuts – very similar to Nioh. The most striking feature of these maps is that they are each derived from one location of each mainline Final Fantasy so far. Some examples include the Sunken Shrine, that takes direct inspiration from the Mako Reactor in Final Fantasy VII, and the Crystal Mirage that pays homage to Final Fantasy III. On top of that, each location comes with its own remixed version of music from that Final Fantasy installment, which scratches that nostalgia itch even more.
While the story in Stranger of Paradise is a ho-hum experience, the same can’t be said for the musical score. The combined work of Naoshi Mizuta (Final Fantasy XI), Hidenori Iwasaki, and Ryo Yamazaki has paid off astoundingly, delivering an adrenaline-pumping soundtrack that compliments Jack’s bloodthirst as he suplexes Sauhagins to submission and rips Malboros apart with his bare hands. I found myself silently headbanging to the tunes quite frequently as I cut swathes into enemy ranks as the scintillating beats synergised nicely with the frenetic nature of the game’s combat. It’s especially satisfying when Jack lands a Soul Burst on a boss, with an equally-satisfying animation as he destroys them in an explosion of crystals.
My only gripe with the soundtrack is that the combat music for regular enemies remains the same across all levels. Since the team has remixed ambient music for each mainline game, I’m surprised they didn’t do the same for the plethora of equally awesome battle tracks for each game. A wasted opportunity, indeed.
With all the praise I have for the OST, I wish I could say the same about the sound design of this game, though. It seems severely lacking in the cutscenes and general gameplay from my experience. Scenes involving walking or running should include rhythmic drumming of footsteps, ruffling of clothes, and the clanking of armour and weapons, but all you get is just a series of panting and grunting from the voice actors. Environmental sounds such as running water from a waterfall or bubbling lava in a volcano are either absent or muffled, leaving me with a relatively hollow feeling when going through levels.
Sometimes, it’s just not enough to have a really good score driving the game; some sound design (let alone good) greatly improves the quality of a game, and unfortunately, it looks as though Team Ninja has forsaken that aspect.
And yes, there will be tons of grunting in this game. While it sounds just about right in the Japanese voices, since it’s something we’re accustomed to when watching anime, it sounds downright hilarious in the English version.
Graphically, Stranger of Paradise is also found wanting. Even on the more graphics-intensive Resolution mode, textures still look as though they lack pixels in lots of places, and character models sometimes have a rather granular and blocky look to them. Environments look gorgeous at first glance but look rather basic and dull upon closer inspection. It does look like a PS3 game in the guise of a current-gen one. It’s even more baffling that frame rates can take a massive dip in Performance mode, especially when touching Cubes to take a rest or when three or more spellcasting enemies fire off huge Fireballs around you.
While I admit that I played this game on a base PlayStation 4, it shouldn’t be any excuse, given how games such as Horizon Zero Dawn, Death Stranding, and Final Fantasy VII Remake, games that have been released in the last five years, can harness the PS4’s graphics much, much better than a game that came out in 2022. It’s quite a shame as the character, monster, and environment designs are quite the spectacle to behold at the right angles. Regardless, Stranger of Paradise is still a pretty game in certain respects.
Beating the game unlocks a new difficulty setting – Chaos mode, and is the basis for the true endgame. In this mode, you’ll be able to replay virtually all main and side missions in the game, albeit with souped-up enemies and drastically-increased item levels. Similar to Nioh, you’ll want to gradually progress through item levels, and completing missions in this mode will net you Anima crystals, which you can use to unlock even higher item level settings for missions, for a maximum item level of 300. Though there seems to be no end in sight for this postgame, my hope is that Team Ninja has some DLC planned down the line for players to revisit the game in months to come.
To rip a page out of Jack’s chaos-riddled quote book, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is really just a bundle of, well, Chaos. Would I recommend it? Yes, if you like games that, at their core, focus more on gameplay than story. Its story is a campy, pulpy, overly-edgy mess, but it’s one that somehow never fails to eke out a chuckle simply for how cheesy it can get. Its technical and narrative flaws are circumvented slightly by really satisfying (albeit ultimately lacking) gameplay and a banger of a soundtrack to boot, so it does have some things going for it.
It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, being an action game in a similar vein to Souls-likes. Granted, it does come with a much smoother difficulty curve, the presence of a difficulty slider, and the lack of a death penalty, so it’s definitely a much more accessible to Final Fantasy fans who want to experience an alternate history of the first game in this iconic JRPG franchise.
Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is now available on PS4/PS5, Xbox One/Xbox Series X|S, and PC on the Epic Games Store.