“Chaos” is a phrase you’ll hear a lot throughout Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, the latest instalment in Square Enix’s long-running Final Fantasy franchise.
Team Ninja – the studio behind the Dead or Alive fighting game series and Souls-like hit Nioh and its recent sequel – have been handed the reins of Square’s beloved property for this ambitious spinoff, which is a departure in as many ways as it is familiar.
It’s not the first time Team Ninja have dabbled in the world of Final Fantasy: 2015’s Dissidia Final Fantasy was a more fully-realised execution of Square Enix’s FF-themed fighting games for the PlayStation Portable. With Stranger of Paradise, however, Team Ninja appear to have been trusted to craft their own take on Final Fantasy from scratch, resulting in a flawed but fascinating blend of Nioh’s complex third-person action gameplay and old-school Square RPG mechanics.
Stranger of Paradise’s premise is classically simple: four Warriors of Light, led by brooding protagonist Jack, seek the destruction of ‘Chaos’ and the rejuvenation of the world’s four precious crystals. Where it spirals off into deliberately convoluted territory is exactly who or what Chaos is – and precisely how the group’s pasts may be entwined with the eternal battle between light and darkness.
In a broader sense, it’s an alternate take on the story of the original Final Fantasy for the NES, released back in 1987. Much like Square Enix’s ongoing remake of Final Fantasy VII, Stranger of Paradise aims not to simply repackage the classic tale verbatim but also to offer new perspectives on well-tread ground – and have goofy, self-aware fun along the way.
The Warriors of Light embark on a journey spanning multiple continents, with story and side missions leading the group through overgrown castle ruins, pirate-infested cave systems, futuristic science labs and all manner of bizarre locales inspired by specific titles in the Final Fantasy series.
To defeat the forces of Chaos, you’ll have to explore and experiment with the game’s surprisingly deep Job and gear loadout systems. For those who play Final Fantasy XIV Online, there’ll be plenty of familiar concepts here: Jobs are essentially character classes, each with their own unique abilities and approach to combat.
The Jobs you’ll unlock in the early hours of the game are straightforward; choosing from a variety of melee or magic-based classes such as Swordsman, Pugilist or Mage. But the depth soon reveals itself in the form of Advanced (and, much later, Expert) Jobs, which greatly expand the variety of weapons, gear and abilities available to each of the Warriors of Light.
You’ll find weapons, equipment and special items in each mission, either dropped by enemies upon their demise, in treasure chests or as completion rewards. Stranger is very generous with loot, which is a double-edged sword – it’s nice to be rewarded, but after the game’s opening chapters, you’ll frequently find yourself absolutely swamped with glowing relics. The inventory isn’t bottomless, so learning to only pick up what seems worthwhile is key to not becoming overwhelmed.
The game’s UI allows you to filter and sort your characters and their gear well enough, although there’s still quite a labyrinth of menus, options and sub-options you’ll need to wrap your head around to optimise each character and keep your inventory manageable. Thankfully, the inclusion of a button to instantly equip each character with optimal gear means you really don’t have to spend hours poring through stats if that doesn’t appeal. It’s honestly a god-send in the later hours, when the higher difficulties necessitate careful consideration of exactly what loadout you’re bringing into each mission.
What you actually do with all this gear is far more important, of course. It should be unsurprising that combat is Stranger’s most compelling aspect, feeling much like Team Ninja’s efforts in Nioh and Nioh 2. All the typical considerations are here from Final Fantasy at large: elemental weaknesses, building gauges, party synergy and more.
But beneath all these systems is a hard-hitting, deeply satisfying combat feel which is exemplified perfectly by Jack’s signature finishing move, which can be pulled off on every enemy type in the game. After wearing down an enemy’s stamina bar – which is separate from their health – Jack can enter a Bayonetta style over-the-top finishing animation where some part of their anatomy (or all of it) is turned into blood-red crystals and absolutely obliterated with his bare hands.
It’s different for each enemy type, and frankly, it never once got old. It’s not just fun to watch but an incredibly effective way of quickly establishing crowd control in clustered encounters, as well as recovering Jack’s own stamina.
It’s unique touches like this – and the game’s hilariously angsty and mysterious tone – that keeps the torch blazing throughout the duration of the story, which lasted just shy of thirty hours on my playthrough. It’s perhaps overly long, and drags its mysteries out far beyond the point where the audience will likely have figured out where everything’s headed. But the core action gameplay and multitude of customisable systems are compelling in a way that dispels some of those issues.
If there’s just one major issue that truly hangs over Stranger of Paradise, it’s the technical performance. Despite looking somewhat rough, even on the PS5 version’s Quality mode, it frequently staggers and dips during large combat encounters and cutscenes. Some deep-diving fans appear to have discovered at least part of the problem; many of the character models in the game have far too high a polygon count, resulting in performance issues across the board. It’s uncertain whether this will be remedied by Team Ninja in post-launch updates, and it would be a crying shame if not, because a game with such satisfying combat really deserves to be enjoyed to its full potential.
Stranger of Paradise is destined for cult success: sure, it’s a little bit ugly, and perhaps too left-field for its own good, but those willing to overlook its limitations are likely to enjoy a goofy, challenging and admirably ambitious game – just like Team Ninja frequently do so well.
Stranger of Paradise – Final Fantasy Origin was played on a PlayStation 5 using a copy purchased by the reviewer.