Reviewed on: PlayStation 5
Also on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Koei Tecmo
Even if you love Final Fantasy games, expect to feel like a stranger in a strange land when playing Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. This violent retelling of the original Final Fantasy game from 1987 largely sidesteps the series’ adventurous spirit and heartfelt mysticism to focus on muscle, attitude, and everything extreme. Square Enix labels this remake as a “hardcore action/RPG,” an apt description for a game that rarely relents in its aggression. When swords are drawn and giant beasts enter frenzied states, this edgy experiment shines, as the battlefield lights up with a flurry of combos and magics against awesome monsters that pose a real threat. When the swords are holstered and the characters need to converse or explore, Stranger of Paradise hits lows rarely seen in Final Fantasy's storied 35-year history.
Don’t be surprised if you let out your first audible groan within minutes of meeting protagonist Jack. Showing the emotional range of a brick, Jack is a blank slate of a lead, offering little in terms of backstory or personality, yet he amuses for all the wrong reasons given how frequently he talks about wanting to kill a dark being named Chaos. He growls this dark ambition to almost anyone who will listen, sometimes dropping f-bombs along the way because he’s that angry. The story clings for dear life to the silly Chaos thread, which offers a couple of interesting twists near the conclusion, but mostly falls flat and does little to build up the characters or world around them.
Jack eventually befriends a handful of like-minded individuals to journey with, but they are just as lifeless as he is, and the reasons they are together are flimsy at best. At one point, Jack meets Jed and Ash on a road, and after conversing about Chaos and crystals for just a few seconds, they agree to journey together and cement the occasion with a fist bump. The fist bump is as awful as it sounds, and is oddly notable, as you’ll see this gesture many times, each one as unintentionally comedic as the last. I didn't care for most of the story, but did enjoy where it ends. No, the final moments don't make the journey worthwhile, but at least it ends with a bang.
The hunt for Chaos unfolds within the land of Cornelia, a place lush with most of the fantasy tropes this series is known for. Developer Team Ninja does an excellent job of changing up the locales frequently within its level-based progression – throwing the party into lava caverns, icy mountains, and glowing forests filled with wild beasts. Most of these places are confusing in design, sending Jack and company down mazelike paths, some featuring puzzle qualities that require backtracking to solve. Without a map, expect to get lost periodically. In an odd twist, the party can dart through swarms of enemies uncontested, meaning you can cover ground quickly and find your bearings again. You can also run from the start of a level to the concluding boss without confronting a single foe – a design flaw I exploited to speed up exploration in some of the more confusing levels.
It’s not that I didn’t want to engage in combat. As messy as Stranger of Paradise is in its story and world, it fully embraces the rage of a warrior to deliver an exceptional combat experience. The nicely implemented melee combat and long-range magic sizzle with excitement, and Jack can switch between them on the fly. Enemy movements and unblockable attacks are easy to read, making all fights feel fair and a true test of skill. Even the two A.I. companions who join you are competent and rack up kill counts of their own, even against bosses if you need to keep your distance. Some bosses are incredibly challenging, and your allies may not be enough of a help, but you can always lower the difficulty for this one fight at any save point – another nice touch.
The combat mechanics are robust, allowing for Jack to bombard the enemy with abilities at a liberal pace. The evasive move works well, as does the soul shield counter that allows Jack to bank magic and send long-range attacks hurling back at his attacker – the latter is quite ingenious, yet is sometimes difficult to use given how frenzied battles can be. When foes are giving you fits, saving up magic to activate devastating Lightbringer attacks can turn the tide. Best of all, when an adversary’s break gauge depletes, you can execute them immediately with a stylish finishing move that even delivers splash damage to any other enemy nearby.
Jack lives up to his name as a jack of all trades on the battlefield. Rather than focusing on just one job, Stranger of Paradise encourages the player to use over a dozen of them, switching to whichever style best fits the situation at hand. Each class is fully featured and fun to use. I enjoyed being able to morph in the blink of an eye from a samurai with precise sword strikes to a black mage that carelessly rains down death from afar. Figuring out which jobs work best with each other is part of the fun and reason to experiment often.
Applying points to skill trees allows each job to grow more potent in the way the player wants. Specific armor pairings also deliver worthwhile statistical bumps. Each class can reach a master rank at level 30 and offer a variety of nice customizations, like determining which special attacks trigger at specific points on combo chains. Again, the combat absolutely sizzles in Stranger of Paradise and gives you a true sense of ownership over it.
Almost every defeated enemy drops a weapon or armor, and you quickly learn that you must pace how often you dive into the menus to tinker with each character’s loadout, as you could spend just as much time in menus as combat. The weapons offer almost every kind of attribute bump you would expect, and armors deliver cosmetic changes galore. The "cool" factor of the gear is tied to their levels, meaning at level five, you are wearing leather, and at level 105, you glisten in an awesome dragon-scale suit.
Having so many different options at your fingertips – from the gear to jobs – is where Stranger of Paradise shines the brightest and delivers excitement. These thrills extend to two friends in online cooperative play, but only if they keep pace with your combat level. If you aren’t in the same level range, you must play at the lowest player’s level, which can be a bust if they are just starting and you are in the mid- or endgame.
Stranger of Paradise is the strangest Final Fantasy game yet, bounding wildly between awful and fantastic. If you can tolerate Jack (and that’s a big ask), the excellently crafted combat is worth a look. You may be coming to this game for the story and Final Fantasy experience, but it’s all about combat and little else.