There's something a bit magical about Final Fantasy spinoffs. These games borrow the grandiosity of main series entries but offer a looser experience and vary wildly in their quality -- for every sublime Crisis Core, there's a dull Dirge of Cerberus.
When publisher Square Enix revealed Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origins at E3 2021, it sure seemed like it was going to fit in the latter category. The initial trailer's intense tone was laughable, the aesthetic was a bit too mid-noughties and the playable demo was broken.
And yet, I was intrigued. That only grew whenrevealed that the protagonist's full name was "Jack Garland" -- suggesting that Stranger of Paradise is an origin story for original 1987 Final Fantasy antagonist Garland.
A deep-cut backstory for the villain of an iconic 35-year-old game that's largely considered a retro curiosity these days? Yes please, sign me up for this quest to kill Chaos. The game hits PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC this Friday, and I played about 12 hours of it over the past few days. Square Enix also released a free demo that lets you carry your progress into the full game.
Developed by Team Ninja, the company behind the mechanically similar Nioh games, Stranger of Paradise is an action RPG in which Jack leads a party of three on a quest to defeat Chaos. It seems straightforward enough, but there's some ambiguity about the characters' pasts and true roles.
After an epic CGI intro that reminded me of Darth Vader's Rogue One rampage, the narrative is largely told through in-engine cut scenes. And the visuals are distractingly old-school at times -- the main party members are nicely animated, but secondary characters look a bit plasticky and the environments a little bland. It certainly didn't feel like it was stretching my PS5; its presentation reminded me of a PS3-era game.
Voice acting is solid across the board, but the weak script made it hard to engage with the game in my first few hours. The music -- a vital element of any Final Fantasy experience -- hasn't really stuck in my head so far, but the occasional use of the iconic Prelude has plucked my heartstrings a little.
You select missions from a world map that's pulled straight from the original Final Fantasy, jumping from creepy castle to damp cave battling classic monsters and bosses -- there's something wonderful about chasing down a zippy Cactuar or dodging a Tonbery's deadly blade.
The levels riff on environments from the series' three and half decade history, so expect to see areas that remind you of, and , to name a few.
The basic gameplay loop is a little likeor Dark Souls, since you can rest and level up at Cubes dotted through each area, but doesn't require anything like the intense engagement those games demand. You can hack through most enemies in a fairly relaxed manner, especially early on.
Finding your Jobs
The real magic, I discovered after a few hours of play, lies in the progression. It's inspired by the series' classic Job system, which lets you jump between character classes freely and earn ability points through battle. As your player character, Jack can take on every character class and use every kind of equipment -- you can equip two at a time and swap between them on the fly, making for plenty of combat possibilities. Your party members are initially limited to one job, but they unlock more as you progress through the story.
I initially found the amount of equipment and abilities being thrown at me a bit overwhelming ("Why are there Swordsman and Swordfighter classes?"), so I stuck to Jack's basic Warrior class and brute-forced my way through everything. Once that was maxed out, I got adventurous and the game got a whole lot better. It's super satisfying to unlock advanced Jobs like Ronin and White Mage, seeing all their new abilities, combos and combat possibilities they create.
The Paladin class, which lies in the expert category and requires you to master multiple other classes to access, was particularly intriguing. As a hard-hitting knight with healing magic, it's a popular RPG role for those who like to be self-sufficient and multitalented.
As the enemies and bosses got tougher, I found myself trying out every class I could unlock and experimenting with various abilities, combos and equipment, and combat became far more engaging -- there are absolutely heaps of combinations. There's also a multiplayer element, but I didn't get to try it out in the prerelease period.
The spinoff legacy
Even playing the early stages of the game, it's clear Stranger of Paradise isn't the joke some thought it'd be when it was unveiled last year. It's a fun reimagining of the original Final Fantasy on its 35th anniversary and a nostalgic blast through classic locations.
This game's progression, combat systems and fun boss encounters will ensure it finds an audience among action gamers (particularly those with a fondness for Final Fantasy), but the story's weak opening chapters and sometimes cheap presentation diminish the narrative side of the experience.