Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin asks and answers the question of what the world of the first Final Fantasy, which came out in 1987, might look like in 2022 if it were reimagined with a modern action combat style. Its overly complex story and one-dimensional NPCs don't pay off until the final hours, but the freedom available in its challenging combat and extensive character customization is consistently rewarding from the start until – and after – the credits roll. It's a love letter to its own source material, filled with references and homages to the series’ history that seem designed to give fans of any Final Fantasy something to enjoy.
Like the show Lost and other stories that revolve around some grand mystery, Stranger of Paradise's plot had me theorizing and scratching my head until the very final moments, when all is revealed in a way that brings everything together. However, where Lost used memorable characters and turning-point moments to carry the story forward prior to the big reveals, Stranger of Paradise misses the mark on its cast and instead solely relies on its solid action gameplay, only offering vague and often indecipherable clues to what’s going on. Its lack of real character development beyond your party of five run-of-the-mill characters making small talk and reiterating their need to find and kill an entity known as Chaos that threatens the world means I won’t be uttering their names in the same breath as Final Fantasy greats like Cloud and Yuna – or even necessarily remembering them a month from now.
And yet, while the early hours of the story did a poor job of keeping me engaged (especially as main character Jack and his starting companions Ash and Jed all revealed varying levels of amnesia and constantly remarked on their deja vu wherever we went) it turned out to be an effective buildup: the tail end did the exact opposite by answering all the questions I had. That said, I took the time to explore and find most of the memento collectibles as I played, which allowed me to connect the dots between the story the main story shows you and the story behind what's really happening in the world. Some filled in smaller gaps, like the origin and importance of the dark crystals that drew our starting party together in the first place, and others helped explain the meaning behind the titular stranger and the paradise they hail from. However, they’re easy to miss, and the ending and its big reveals might not have resonated as strongly for me if I hadn’t had their important context.
While this isn’t a direct remake of the original Final Fantasy, it thoroughly reimagines many of its locations. The main city of Cornelia is where that first adventure began; and places like the Chaos Shrine and the Cavern of Earth dungeon have had new life breathed into them by Koei Tecmo's team, which seems to have found inspiration in similar areas from other Final Fantasy games. It merges in factories reminiscent of Final Fantasy 7 Remake's Mako Reactors, a pirate cove filled with Sahagin (like the Sastasha dungeon in Final Fantasy 14), and even something that strongly resembles Final Fantasy 13's Sunleth Waterscape's weather-changing mechanic makes an appearance in one of the wetlands you'll adventure through. There are plenty of other great locations that I won't spoil for you as it's equal part a treat and a puzzle for fans to discover which game inspired each of the stages in Stranger of Paradise. The fact that nearly every stage has a unique look kept exploring their ins and outs refreshing, and in the background there are new music arrangements from other FF games that are sure to catch the ears of longtime fans.
Graphically, though, even the PlayStation 5’s HDR Quality mode couldn’t make Stranger of Paradise look better than average most of the time. Some cutscenes look great and instantly had me snapping away with the screenshot button, but those were few and far between. In-game it looks fine, with decent character models and textures that resemble Final Fantasy 13, but never good enough to make me wish it had a photo mode. After spending my first playthrough in Quality mode – which didn’t have any noticeable frame rate drops below 30 throughout the entire campaign, I made the switch to Performance mode and never looked back. The jump up to 60 frames per second makes dodging and parrying much easier for my playstyle, and some of the flashier combo abilities were even better because I was able to more reliably cancel out of them by swapping jobs to extend my combo even further.
Stranger of Paradise offers five difficulty modes: casual, story, action, hard, and Chaos (which unlocks after your first playthrough), and the temptation of higher-level item drops led me to play on hard for my first run. It took me just under 30 hours to roll credits, and that included undertaking a good number of side missions I considered essential to raise my gear score, unlocking job roles for allies, replaying missions in up to three-player co-op, doing tons of inventory management, constantly upgrading/customizing my party’s loadouts, and no small amount of dying – especially when testing specific builds and multiclass combinations in boss fights to determine their suitability.
At this setting just about every enemy posed a threat to my survival, from the lowly roundworm that turns into a wheel of purple flames to ever-deadly Tonberrys and their deadly chef’s knives and powerful area-of-effect attacks. There were even times where my own carelessness allowed a group of bats or skeletons to simply overwhelm me, rendering me unable to escape. It’s dangerous out there! You can always adjust the difficulty at any checkpoint, though, so if you find yourself under-leveled you can choose to make any single fight easier if you want – which is certainly preferable to grinding it out.
Despite a lot of obvious Souls influence in its combat style, though, Stranger of Paradise is actually pretty forgiving when it comes to death: you keep all of the experience, materials, armor, weapons, and even additional potions you might have found – and the PS5’s speedy load times put you back in the action almost immediately. It’s not without consequences, though – other than having to run past or fight through the same swathes of enemies – you suffer a temporary decrease to your maximum MP, which nearly every combat ability is centered around. Spells like Cure and Fire, command abilities like Lancet and Lightbringer, and even class-based combo abilities like a Dragoon's Jump and a Warriors War Cry all require MP to function, so there’s an urgent need to recover all six sections as soon as possible. (Limiting the number of mana segments available is also a callback to the original Final Fantasy, where you had a limited number of spells you could cast before needing to rest at an inn or use the cottage/House recovery item to restore your MP.)
Thankfully, MP can be recovered in a few ways, including by depleting an enemy's Break gauge and finishing them off with a Soul Burst, which causes an explosion of crystal shards that knocks back other enemies in the process. These come with a variety of over-the-top animations that bring some nice levity to the combat – using Soul Burst on the Guardians of the Flying Fortress stage, for instance, has Jack pile-drive them into the ground, which is immediately followed up by a curbstomp to their nether regions to really add insult to injury. Soul Bursting Cactaurs, meanwhile, picks them up and flings them; he also gives the malicious Tonberrys a simple pat on the head before shattering them into pieces. He has a broad range.
There are 28 jobs in total, each with their own skill trees, so there’s a lot of room to experiment and find combos that synergize well in your party, defining your playstyle. You can equip any two jobs on your character (and one on each of your companions, who you indirectly control), and while you can only have one active at any given time the fact that you’re able to swap between them at the press of a single button lets you extend combos creatively and synergistically. You can mix and match jobs however you like, such as combining two glass-cannon Mage jobs to build up your Intellect stat and make your spells hit harder and stun enemies by rapidly overwhelming their Break gauge, or you might combine Berserker and Warrior so that you can use the Warrior’s War Cry HP-regeneration skill to offset the Berserker’s inability to use healing potions while maintaining your Berserk status, which increases your offensive and defensive powers for a limited time. Alternatively, tanky jobs like Paladin and Knight can be combined for increased HP and stamina to reduce the impact incoming damage has on your Break gauge.
My personal favorite, though, is multiclassing Sage – which blends black and white magic and grants access to the devastatingly powerful Ultima spell – with Dragoon, bestowing the abilities to maneuver around the battlefield with Jump and to poke down enemies with short chains of rapid attacks for good damage. It reduces my damage output a bit but the tradeoff in survivability in combat is well worth it for my preferred hit-and-run style.
In addition to whatever two jobs you pick for him, Jack also functions as a Blue Mage, meaning that he can absorb certain attack moves with a properly timed Soul Shield and turn them back on the enemy. Absorbing attacks like a bomb’s Fire spell and then throwing it back at them, causing them to self-destruct, is one of the most satisfying moves in Stranger of Paradise. Soul Shield can also be used in rapid succession, and I've managed to parry entire laser beams from bosses like the six-headed dragon Tiamat (one of the four ancient fiends from the original Final Fantasy). Parrying exciting moves like that reminded me of my time with Street Fighter 3: Third Strike.
Combat and customization are strong, but Stranger of Paradise’s inventory management system is on the weaker side of things. The good news is that you can sort your Item menu to your heart's content and organize by job, stats, perks, and anything else that appears on a piece of gear. The problem arises once you go to your Equipment menu, which doesn’t have the filter options and simply sorts based on new items, level, affinity, defense, and type of gear. This doesn't sound terrible on paper, but when you have 500 pieces of equipment and are looking for a specific one that has the highest bonus for your two equipped classes, you end up spending a lot of time looking at a menu instead of slashing enemies to score more loot.
There is a shortcut to help gear up quickly but it’s not the most effective. Tapping on the touchpad on a character will equip them with all the highest-level gear available that their class can currently use, but it often won’t be beneficial to their specific class. For instance, you may wind up with Mage gear equipped on your tank if it’s the highest level. The menu also restricts your ability to send gear to your stash, effectively locking efficient inventory management to checkpoints in the level. If your bag fills up, you're forced to sift through your inventory to discard the least valuable pieces – that feels very old-school, especially in a co-op game where you don’t want to be waiting around for someone to figure out what to drop.
It’s very common to fill up because while most games with gear scores you spend hours grinding away, hoping to get a new piece of equipment that will work for your build, but Stranger of Paradise does the opposite: it generously showers you with items – roughly 80 to 120 per mission – and it offers specific rewards upon the first completion that are visible before you begin. I can't think of another game that has made loot hunting this efficient from day one. Also, because Stranger of Paradise is hub-based and you will spend most of your time between missions looking at the map, it's simple to forget to dismantle unnecessary gear and accidentally start the next mission with a full backpack. I may have done that once or twice.