Even if you love Final Fantasy games, playing Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin can make you feel like a stranger in a strange land. This violent retelling of the original 1987 Final Fantasy game largely bypasses the series’ adventurous spirit and heartfelt mystique to focus on brawn, poise, and all things extreme. Square Enix calls this remake a “hardcore action/RPG,” an apt description for a game that rarely falters in its aggression. When swords are drawn and huge beasts go insane, this outlandish experiment shines as the battlefield is lit up with a barrage of combos and magic against awesome monsters that pose a real threat. When swords are holstered and characters need to converse or explore, Stranger of Paradise hits low points rarely seen in Final Fantasy’s 35-year history.
Don’t be surprised if you let out your first audible moan within minutes of meeting protagonist Jack. Showing the emotional range of a stone, Jack is a blank slate on a lead that offers little in terms of backstory or personality, but he’s amused for all the wrong reasons given how often he talks about slaying a dark being called Chaos to want. He snarls that dark ambition at just about anyone who will listen, sometimes dropping f-bombs because he’s so angry. The story clings for its life to the goofy chaos thread, which offers a few interesting twists towards the end but mostly remains flat and does little to build the characters or the world around them.
Jack eventually befriends a handful of like-minded people to travel with, but they’re just as lifeless as he is, and the reasons they’re together are flimsy at best. At one point, Jack meets Jed and Ash on a road, and after only a few seconds of chatting about chaos and crystals, they agree on a journey together and cement the opportunity with a fist smash. As horrific as it sounds, the fist bump is oddly remarkable, as you’ll see this gesture many times, each as unintentionally comedic as the last. I didn’t like most of the story, but I enjoyed where it ended. No, the final moments don’t make the journey worthwhile, but at least it ends with a bang.
The hunt for chaos unfolds in the land of Cornelia, a location steeped in the fantasy tropes this series is known for. Development team Ninja does an excellent job of frequently changing locations within its level-based progression – throwing the party into lava caves, icy mountains, and glowing forests teeming with savage beasts. Most of these locations are confusing in design, sending Jack and company down maze-like paths, some with puzzle qualities that require a way back to solve. Without a map, expect to get lost regularly. In a weird twist, the party can shoot through swarms of enemies unchallenged, meaning you can quickly cover ground and get your bearings again. You can also run from the start of a level to the final boss without facing a single enemy – a design flaw I’ve exploited to speed up exploration in some of the more confusing levels.
It’s not that I didn’t want to get involved in the fight. As chaotic as Stranger of Paradise is in its story and world, it fully embraces the fury of a warrior to deliver an exceptional combat experience. The beautifully implemented melee and ranged magic sizzle with excitement, and Jack can switch between them on the fly. Enemy moves and unblockable attacks are easy to read, making all combat feel fair and a true test of skill. Even the two AI companions that join you are competent and rack up kills of their own, even against bosses if you need to keep your distance. Some bosses are incredibly challenging and your allies might not be enough help, but you can always lower the difficulty for that one fight at any save point – another nice touch.
The combat mechanics are robust, allowing Jack to bombard the enemy with abilities at a liberal pace. The dodge works well, as does the soul shield counter, which allows Jack to gather magic and throw long-range attacks back at his attacker – the latter is pretty awesome, but difficult to use at times given how hectic battles can be. When enemies are giving you seizures, saving magic to activate devastating Lightbringer attacks can turn the tide. Best of all, when an enemy’s Fracture Gauge is depleted, you can instantly unleash them with a graceful finishing move that even deals area damage to every other nearby enemy.
Jack lives up to his name as a jack of all trades on the battlefield. Rather than just focusing on one job, Stranger of Paradise encourages the player to use more than a dozen of them and switch to the style that best suits the situation at hand. Each class is fully functional and fun. I enjoyed being able to instantly transform from a samurai with precise sword swings to a black mage who carelessly rains death from afar. Figuring out which jobs work best together is part of the fun and reason to experiment often.
By applying points to skill trees, each job can become as powerful as the player wants. Certain armor pairings also deliver worthwhile stat bumps. Each class can achieve a master rank at level 30 and offer a variety of nice customizations such as: B. Determining which special attacks trigger at certain points in combo chains. Again, the combat in Stranger of Paradise absolutely sizzles and gives you a real sense of ownership.
Almost every defeated enemy drops a weapon or armor, and you quickly learn that you need to time how often you dive into the menus to tinker with each character’s gear, since you could be spending as much time in menus as in the Struggle. The weapons offer just about every type of attribute increase you would expect, and armor offers cosmetic changes galore. The gear’s “cool” factor depends on its tier, which means that by tier five you’ll be wearing leather and by tier 105 you’ll be resplendent in an awesome dragonscale suit.
Having so many different options at your fingertips – from gear to jobs – is where Stranger of Paradise shines at its brightest and creates excitement. This thrill extends to two friends in cooperative online play, but only if they keep up with your combat level. If you’re not in the same level range, you’ll need to play at the player’s lowest level, which can be a bust if they’re just starting out and you’re in mid- or endgame.
Stranger of Paradise is the strangest Final Fantasy game yet, swinging wildly between terrifying and fantastic. If you can tolerate Jack (and that’s a big request), the superbly crafted combat is worth a look. You might come to this game for the story and the Final Fantasy experience, but it’s all about combat and little else.