The expression "Don't judge a book by its cover" exists for a reason. It would be simple (and also unfair) to judge Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin by the trailers, the demos, and the endless memes. Sure, it's fun to mock it as "The Chaos-Killing Game," like I have for the past several months. Is the final product really that bad, though?
The short answer is that it is... until it isn't. The longer answer is more complicated, almost chaotic. I came out of Stranger of Paradise loving certain aspects and disliking a few others.
(Edge) Lord of Chaos
A lot has been said about Stranger of Paradise's story, characters, and voice acting quality. As noted, I have made a lot of jokes at this game's expense, but I did walk into this with an open mind. After all, I've enjoyed my share of "so bad, it's good" stories and that seemed to be the consensus from some of my peers. However, the more I played through this game, the less I saw what many of my contemporaries were seeing. I didn't see the narrative as "so bad, it's good." To me, it felt like it was just bad.
The characters start out awful. It goes beyond lead character Jack, but he's the main problem. Jack is almost a caricature in how one-dimensional he is. Everything in the lead-up to this game's release about Jack wanting to kill Chaos is accurate. That aspect of his character is spot-on to a laughable degree. There's zero depth to Jack's character and the rest of the game's supporting cast isn't really any better. I couldn't tell you the first thing about Ash or Jed and even less about Neon and Sophia. Their purpose seems to toss out banal observations more than anything. They do help out in combat, which I'll get to in a moment, but I could have done without the statements of the obvious, the half-hearted attempts at pathos, or the occasional lame attempt at humor.
Honestly, I was hating the Stranger of Paradise story. Then I hit the final few hours and it started to become clear that this laughable characterization was actually by design. Without spoiling the twists, by the time I reached the end, I was impressed by some of the clever narrative beats and how this dark tale reached its resolution. It was easy to judge this book by its cover, but seeing how the authors reached said cover, I couldn't help but walk away respecting everyone involved.
Granted, the final hours don't fix everything. The attempt at an actual backstory doesn't fix the hilariously bad dialogue, the horrendous voice acting, the multiple instances of unintentional comedy, or the lack of characterization for the rest of the cast. On top of that, even as the game tries to flesh out Jack's character, he still has laugh-out-loud moments that I'm fairly certain I'm not supposed to be laughing at. There's a particularly bizarre interaction with Princess Sarah near the end that nearly had me on the floor over how bat-guano-ridiculous it was and how it added almost nothing to the narrative.
In short, Stranger of Paradise's story isn't nearly as bad as it looks, but it still isn't particularly great.
While Stranger of Paradise's narrative quality is up for debate, the game's combat is a major highlight. It's derivative of the Souls formula, encouraging players to go toe-to-toe with enemies, exercise proper defense, and wait for openings before striking. By itself, that's nothing remarkable, though the Soul Shield mechanic is a novel one. This allows Jack to absorb enemy attacks to unleash himself, whether it's to send a foe's spell back at them or use on a boss later.
Still, Stranger of Paradise's basic combat has been done in much better games. However, what sets it apart is the brilliant implementation of the Final Fantasy job system.
As the game moves along, players can craft different character builds based on recognizable Final Fantasy jobs. They start off with classic roles like the Swordfighter, the Mage, the Duelist, and a few others, but as players fill out each job's associated skill tree, more advanced jobs open up. This is where character building starts to get even more fun, as jobs like the Sage and the Knight combine elements of other classes to create strong combinations.
Jack can have two party members at his side, who can also learn from a predetermined set of classes. It's possible to teach them more by completing certain side missions, but I do wish it was possible to teach them the full range of basic and expert jobs so that I could experience a greater range of party compositions. I also wish, frankly, that the AI was a little bit smarter. There were more than a few instances in my playthrough where I would try and direct an AI partner to attack an enemy, only to see them just stand around. It was almost as annoying as the instances where a massive enemy would literally run between my two party members, parting them like the Red Sea, and bop me in the face.
Character leveling has its strengths and weaknesses. There's no traditional experience system. Instead, players are as strong as their job level and their gear. Job leveling is a simple matter of taking out enemies as different class roles and filling out the skill tree. That's all fine, but it's the game's loot and gear system where things get messy. Do you have a disdain for games that bombard you with hundreds of loot pieces, of which 90 percent become junk within minutes? Boy, are you going to hate Stranger of Paradise. Players are flooded with loot throughout every level, much of which is either useless or becomes worthless after finding something better a minute later. Junk loot can be dismantled, but only in-between stages. Worse, what's the point of dismantling loot for components that can enhance your current clothing items, if what you're wearing will probably be replaced in the next 15 minutes?
One other major complaint about Stranger of Paradise is its stage structure. There are certain expectations that come with the Final Fantasy name and one of them is some semblance of an overworld. Instead, this is a totally linear experience with individual stages picked out of a map interface. That does make playing online co-op slightly easier, but it's disappointing that there isn't a bigger world to explore. It's especially disappointing because some of Stranger of Paradise's stages are downright mesmerizing. The caves of The Journey Begins and the swamplands of Memories of Poison are just a few eye-catching examples of the Final Fantasy franchise's world building at its finest.
While Square Enix and Koei Tecmo tried to go for something non-traditional with Stranger of Paradise's gameplay loop, it sometimes doesn't work for the best. There's no map mechanic, so there are often times where you'll finish an intense battle and forget which way you came from. Considering each save point respawns enemies, getting lost often proves aggravating.
Welcome to 'Paradise'
It's possible to overlook the crummy parts of Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin's story. It's a big ask, because there were so many moments where I asked myself, "What am I watching?" The dialogue, the acting, and just the general quality of the game's storytelling is terrible, at least for the first half. It does get better towards the end and it's almost admirable how the game's developers were able to take some of the story's more laughable elements and make sense out of them.
Wonky writing and performances aside, as an action game, this shines far better than I could have expected. The job system is great. The combat, while it has its moments where it can feel unfair, is mostly a highlight. The boss battles are a blast. Plus, Jack's finishers are a pleasure to behold. He can look like a genuine badass whenever he isn't talking.
If you're curious about what Final Fantasy would look like as a Souls or Nioh-style action game, Stranger of Paradise is a solid effort. It's just a shame that it's bogged down by its oddball narrative choices and its cumbersome loot system, which makes the total package such a mixed bag. I suppose it's the nature of this chaotic beast.
This review is based on a PlayStation digital code provided by the publisher. Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is available now on PC (via the Epic Games Store), PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One for $59.99 USD. The game is rated M.
Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin
- Combat utilizes FF job system beautifully
- Gorgeous environments
- Fierce boss battles
- Jack's finishers look cool
- The story does work by the end!
- The story starts off terribly
- Dreadful dialogue
- No waypoint makes it easy to get lost
- Cumbersome loot system
- Poor sound mixing
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin review: Living on the edge
Mixed bag lol. I’ll pick this up when it’s 20
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