When Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin was first being rumored to exist, I was honestly really excited! A Souls-like game set in the world of Final Fantasy 1? That could be so much fun! Getting to see such a colorful and classic setting for a Souls-like game would be rather original after all, and it would be awesome to see classic Final Fantasy enemies and designs used in this kind of game. Sadly, that excitement I was feeling quickly faded when the game was officially revealed… Showing off bland and boring looking characters and environments, along with revealing that the main character would be the very meme worthy ‘Jack’, my feelings of excitement died out as quickly as they came upon hearing the original rumors.
To make matters worse, the demo that was released along side the reveal was broken and unplayable for days. Making this sloppy announcement all the more messy. But what makes this all even more upsetting is the fact that it didn’t have to be this way. Having played through the game from start to finish myself, there is some good to be found in the experience. But oh boy, is there a lot of bad around that very little good…
Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, or SoP, is a prequel to the original Final Fantasy. The game was published by Square Enix, the owners of all things Final Fantasy, and developed by Team Ninja, the developers of Nioh another Souls-like game. The game focuses on Jack, a warrior of light who is obsessed with finding and killing Chaos. Something you probably know already if you’ve heard anything about this game as there have been plenty of memes about him and his dialog. He is joined by four other characters who really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things so I won’t even bother mentioning them here. They do what most warriors of light do and bring balance to the world by getting to the four crystals that represent the four elements of the world and then stopping Chaos. Simple! Or it should have been simple… Things start going off the rails quick, and I don’t mean for Jack and his party members, but rather just the writing in general. So let’s tackle the story first! As it’s easily one of the biggest problems of the game.
Normally when it comes to talking about the story of a game in a post like this, I give a spoiler warning for those that really care about wanting to experience the story all on their own. But for SoP I honestly don’t feel much of a need to warn anyone about spoilers. If anything I should have a warning about how bad the story is! For some reason the writers of SoP thought it would be a good idea to give the game a big complex story complete with multiple dimensions, timelines, and even a secret race controlling things in the background. It is way too much for a Souls-like game. Souls-like games do best when they have a straight forward goal and a story that is best left in the background. That, or a story that is easy to follow and doesn’t get in the way of things. Stranger of Paradise has neither.
So right from the start, and even from just looking at trailers and marketing, it’s clear that Jack is going to become Chaos at some point. His crazy drive to find Chaos, an entity that may or may not exist, clearly sets up the story for this. That and his full name is Jack Garland, Garland being the name of the main villain from the original Final Fantasy which this is a prequel to. I’d say that was a spoiler but this was something that was mentioned by Square Enix themselves before the game was even released, so… Anyways! That’s a good, simple story, right? A would be warrior of light so determined to find Chaos that he ends up becoming Chaos in the process. It’s simple, works for a prequel story, and it could even be a bit tragic! It also calls into question whether or not big prophecies like the ones that say the warriors of light need to stop Chaos are actually good or bad. But sadly, this is not how things go. I’m not going to go into every detail, because I don’t want this post to be any longer than it already is, but Jack and his friends, and I use ‘friends’ very loosely there, basically only exist to fix the world when the balance of light and chaos is in jeopardy. They lose their memories each time so they have no idea they are doing this, and in the end they decide to rebel against the system and become Chaos, because “that’s the one thing they can’t control” as the game says multiple times. And while that could maybe make for a good story in another game, it just doesn’t work for this one.
The story does nothing to make you care about the main characters or the world they exist in. There is somehow too little and too much story all at the same time. Not only that, they try and drop a lot of lore on you in the middle of missions that’s suppose to flesh out elements of the story, which really breaks down the flow of game play. Every so often you will find these orange orbs you can interact with, doing so will pop up an info dump on just about anything. It could be about the area you’re in, some of the enemies, or even something about the main cast. But these bits of lore are always way too long… And having them in the middle of a level when you just want to get back to playing made it so I just about always skipped over them when I found one. It felt as if the writers didn’t understand how to tell a story in this kind of game. Look at Dark Souls for instance. The game is filled with lore, that’s where most of the story is in fact. Most bits of lore are hidden in the item descriptions which you could argue is a bad thing as you have to go out of your way to find them, but on the flip side of that, it always means they don’t get in the way of things when you’re playing. Not only that, the lore in the item descriptions is always short and sweet. Rarely is it longer than a paragraph even. So not only is the story of Stranger of Paradise needlessly complex and confusing, it’s told in a way that is so irritating that I never bothered to try and look into it at all to attempt to understand more of the story.
All of this could have been remedied if the writers had just gone with a more simple story. It feels like someone told them that Souls-like games often had complex lore and a lot of hidden meanings but didn’t tell them how to actually put that stuff in properly. It results in a story that is not only boring but also very annoying. The worst kind of story you can have in a game. Because if a story is just boring you can generally brush it off and just focus on the rest of the game, but when a story is annoying, coming up all the time, butting into the parts of the game you like? Then it can make a game unplayable…
This does bring us to what might be the only redeeming part of Stranger of Paradise though, and that’s the surprisingly fun game play! I feel like all credit must go to Team Ninja here as they brought a lot of what made their other Souls-like game, Nioh, so good into this game while also managing to sprinkle in enough Final Fantasy inspired mechanics to make it feel like it really fits! SoP has a lot of the Souls-like game staples. It has dodge rolls, stamina, places like bonfires to rest at, doors that only open from one side, all that good stuff! Surprisingly it doesn’t have a mechanic where you lose experience or money or anything like that on death though. Which is for the best as this game didn’t need to be anymore tedious to play than it already is. The main Final Fantasy influence in the game play comes from the Job system. Like most Final Fantasy games, especially the more old school ones, there are a lot of Jobs to choose from. You have classics like Warrior, White and Black mage, and Thief. But as you get deeper into the game you also get access to Jobs like Breaker, Dark Knight, Tyrant, and Sage. And the Job you choose really affects how you’ll play! So let’s break it down a bit more.
There are 27 Jobs you can use in Stranger of Paradise, you’ll only start with 8 but it won’t take you long to unlock more after that. Each Job has it’s own skill tree to work through. The skills range from new abilities, special attacks, passive skills, and stat buffs. All of the skill trees have branching paths but aren’t too long, meaning you’ll be completing skill trees and switching Jobs very regularly. Something that is honestly great as it keeps the game play even more fresh. How you unlock new Jobs is through the skill trees as well. At the end of each you’ll unlock a new Job. For example, depending on which path of the Mage skill tree you decided to go down first, you’ll either unlock the White Mage or Black Mage. Some Jobs will require you to go through multiple Jobs to unlock them though, like how to unlock the Knight Job you have to go through the skill trees for the Swordfighter and Swordsman. You can see all that a Job’s skill tree has to offer after you’ve unlocked the Job, so you can plan out which path you want to go down right from the get go. This system is honestly the best part of Stranger of Paradise, hands down! It gives you so much freedom in combat and manages to keep it from getting too boring. With how quickly you level up each of the Jobs, and the fact that you can equip two and changed between them on the fly with no drawbacks, it’s clear the developers want you to experiment with all of them rather than finding two you really like and sticking with those. I’m not joking when I say that working through the skill trees for the Jobs and unlocking new ones to try out was the main driving factor that kept me playing.
Without the Job system the combat honestly would have fallen pretty flat. It’s all pretty basic Souls-like stuff beyond the counter mechanic that seems to really encourage more aggressive play styles. Beyond that, none of the enemies felt particularly fun to fight and I didn’t feel like I needed a specific strategy to beat any of them. You very rarely ever find yourself in a one on one situation when it comes to fights too, enemies always appear in groups which makes each fight feel like a cluster of things just happening rather than a fight that requires strategy. I never really attempted to learn any of the enemies’ attack patterns or moves because everything was always so chaotic that it was easiest just to attack everything until it was dead or try and spam magic from afar. This is such a disappointment as the game can be pretty fun and tense when you get into a rare one on one situation like you do with some of the boss fights. But even in those situations I never felt that learning curve or thrill of figuring out a boss fight like I do in other Souls-like games. Making the fights just feel hollow more often than not.
That hollow feeling isn’t specific to fights sadly, the art and level design suffer from very much the same feeling and then some. The Final Fantasy series is pretty loose with it’s art style between each game. You have the classic games with their more classic fantasy art style but then you get to something like Final Fantasy 7 that has more of a steam punk sci-fi feel. That didn’t set a new standard for the series though, as Final Fantasy 9 went back to a more traditional fantasy art style. And then you have Final Fantasy 13 that went even harder with the sci-fi art style only for Final Fantasy 15 to take a more modern look to their world. So there really is a lot of freedom when it comes to picking an art style for a Final Fantasy game. But even then they all followed one art style, something that gave each game their own feel and look. Stranger of Paradise does not have any of that.
For whatever reason they decided to have each of the game’s levels be based off of levels and areas from other Final Fantasy games. And while this is a cool nod to those other games, it also means that SoP doesn’t really have an art style to call it’s own. Nothing feels consistent and everything feels out of place. It makes the game feel almost unfinished in this regard or that they simply couldn’t decide how the game should look. Combine this with the fact that the game isn’t even super clear that the levels are from other Final Fantasy games, and most players are just going to be confused as to how at one point they are going through a medieval castle and the next they are in a literal space station! The only way any of this makes a little sense, and might get a good reaction from players, is if said players had played all the Final Fantasy games leading up to this. Which is no easy task given how massive the series is. I could very much understand if some of the side quests or extra levels were set in these areas from other games but every level in Stranger of Paradise is like this! And I might be more forgiving if the actual levels were well designed but as you probably guessed, they aren’t.
Stranger of Paradise is one of the first Souls-like games that I have begged for a mini map or any kind of map. Each level has copy and pasted hallways and areas, making it so hard to not get lost as you’re going through them. Not only that, besides the visuals, each level feels exactly the same. None of them have interesting or original mechanics that separate them apart from the rest. This make each level a boring slog to get through and it also meant that I just wanted to get them done as quickly as possible, not wanting to explore around them or see all that each level has to offer. So much so that any short cut felt meaningless, completely robbing me of that satisfying feeling of unlocking a door into an older area as I had zero want or need to go back and check these older areas. Each level also gives you plenty of check points so you don’t even need the short cuts as time savers. All of this just makes each level feel like a chore to get through with the combat being the only thing to look forward to as you go from room to copy pasted room.
This really is the final nail in the coffin when it comes to trying to recommend this game for me. Because even when the combat does shine, there is so much you have to suffer through just to get to it. I was extremely fortunate to have my friend Matt to play through the game with because if I was trying to play this game on my own, I know I would have given up half way through, if not earlier. So thanks again for sharing in the suffering with me, Matt! I could not have written this review with out you. Seriously.
I really try to enjoy most games I play. I try to find something positive, some saving grace, with each. And while I could maybe argue that the combat and Job system are the saving grace of Stranger of Paradise, there is way too much you have to put up with for me to recommend it even for that. Sometimes the negatives of a game can simply be ignored. A bad story can be ignored if it isn’t the main focus or a game can have terrible graphics but everything else holds up. Stranger of Paradise is not like that. It’s flaws are too big and glaring to simply ignore to enjoy the game play. And to make it all the more worse, I still feel like this concept for a game could have worked! Stranger of Paradise really was just poorly executed.
But those are just my thoughts! What are some of yours? Are you considering giving Stranger of Paradise a go after all that? If you have played it, did your experience with the game differ from my own? I’d love to hear your thoughts so don’t be shy!
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