What is it? A Soulslike Final Fantasy from the developer of Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball
Expect to pay $60/£50
Release date March 17, 2022
Developer Team Ninja
Publisher Square Enix
Reviewed on Intel Core i7-11700K, GeForce RTX 3070, 16GB RAM
Link Official site
The mere existence of Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is, well, strange. When Square Enix announced it was remaking the beloved Final Fantasy 7, it made sense. It was, after all, the game that put the world's most ironically named series on the map—one that many JRPG fans still hold dear. And with so many other adored games in the series to draw from, creating a spin-off inspired by the now 35-year-old and largely forgotten original is an odd choice. The game itself is stranger still.
Stranger of Paradise offers a new take on the bare-bones narrative of its pixelated predecessor, with developer Team Ninja injecting the series with a more edgy tone. At least that's what it was going for, but cringe-worthy dialogue from over-the-top characters sees the game sail right by the realm of cool and land squarely in a field of cheese. The largely nonsensical plot sees our band of heroes, led by Jack Garland, setting out to restore crystals and kill the evil overlord known as Chaos, who may or may not even exist. Each of the game's characters can be summed up with one adjective. There's the spritely Jed, the stern Ash, the wistful Neon and Jack, who can only be described as driven, and driven by only one desire. To kill Chaos. For all its absurdity, the story is nonetheless entertaining, with each level bookended by short snappy cutscenes that never feel like they intrude upon the action.
While it's more forgiving than Nioh, Stranger of Paradise does have more in common with the samurai-inspired Soulslike than the Final Fantasy series. The many aspects of combat feel overwhelming at first, but the mechanics click surprisingly quickly. The Job system offers a wealth of different fighting options, catering for a variety of playstyles. Foes are thrown at you thick and fast, and being able to switch between classes and swap in and out abilities makes for encounters that are both robust and gratifying. In a nice nod to the series' roots, you even go head-to-head with Final Fantasy favourites like Cactuars, Marlboros, and Tonberries.
Battles are given extra depth thanks to Soul Shield, an alternative method to regular blocking that reduces an enemy's Break Gauge. Fully depleting this gauge allows you to swoop in with Soul Burst, a showy finisher that sees enemies turn crystal before spectacularly shattering into tiny pieces. It's both slick and undeniably satisfying. You can also temporarily absorb certain skills with Soul Shield to use back against your enemies. Turning a Cactuar's deadly 1,000 Needles attack against the bouncy menace elicits a feeling of sheer delight if you're a Final Fantasy fan who's long been on the receiving end of this spikey signature move.
As solid as Stranger of Paradise's combat is, it's not without its shortcomings. Magic doesn't transition to the game's fast-paced combat quite as well as melee. Casting spells was all well and good in the days of turn-based battles, where enemies would patiently stand and wait for an elemental-based pounding, but as you're held in place for the considerably lengthy cast times, you're effectively a sitting duck. And being stationary for any length of time is a sure way to have your Chaos killing quest come to an abrupt end. You also only have the option to switch between two job classes on the fly. Swapping up your style any further requires halting the action to go into the menu. It's a curious limitation that's at odds with the otherwise ample level of freedom the game offers.
Admittedly, one aspect that would benefit from dialling down the variety is the game's loot system. Every encounter and chest offer new weapons and equipment. Drops are so frequent that they become meaningless, as you're constantly rifling through menus to equip a slightly pointier sword or a marginally better bandana. Another case of too much comes from the constant chatter between teammates that isn't as helpful as it is monotonous and unnecessary. Hearing your party question what could be in a chest or announce they've spotted a save point every time you come across them quickly leaves you wishing your next lofty treasure haul would include some silencing potions.
The choice of difficulty level adds to the game's accessible nature. Story mode reduces the difficulty significantly, while a casual option lets you breeze through battles. There's also a higher difficulty mode that offers an experience that's best described as brutal. The standard ‘Action’ setting provides a considerable challenge that perfectly bridges the gap between mindless victories and frustrating repetition. Bosses will have you hot under the collar, but the threat is never insurmountable as you become familiar with their attack patterns, learning the best times to block, evade and retaliate with the vast array of abilities at your disposal. Levels are linear yet intricately detailed, with numerous light puzzling elements and sneaky shortcuts to unlock.
For the most part, these locations, lovingly inspired by previous Final Fantasy titles, look nice, at least in brightly lit areas, but it can be hard to see anything in the game's more shadowy sections, even after toggling with the display settings. The game runs smoothly at 60 fps but grinds to a snail's pace when cranked up to 120 fps, particularly when you're performing an enemy shattering Soul Burst.
While it's not without its issues, Stranger of Paradise is an undeniably stylish and charmingly ridiculous adventure. The solid and engaging combat, varied environments, and the way the game can be catered towards your preferred playstyle and difficulty level make for a Final Fantasy title that shines despite its considerably darker style. While it offers one of the most dynamic combat systems the series has seen, its sketchy story and half-baked cast also make it one of the shallowest additions. This trashy B-movie take on the series may be a little rough around the edges, but it's nonetheless an enjoyable and fascinating reimagining of the aged escapade that started it all.