If the vague, open-ended nature and pure challenge of modern Soulslike games aren’t really your thing, or you just want a very different flavor of action RPG, there is a strong possibility that Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin is likely a game you’ll enjoy. Like many action games from the PS2 era all the way to those who owe a lot of their gameplay design cues to the Soulslike games, Stranger of Paradise takes its immediately-familiar set of action game systems and delivers a fun game with big weapons, tons of loot, and little reason to care about its story.
Despite Final Fantasy lore being nestled somewhere in the DNA of Stranger of Paradise, you wouldn’t really notice that by playing it. I don’t really find that to be an issue, though. Even mainline Final Fantasy games haven’t resembled what the series was back when it was in single digits for a long time now, so all bets are off at this point anyway. Might as well experiment with everything you can, I guess. What this reimagining of the original game brings to the table is a far more linear journey where levels are divided up, characters are fairly simple, and the compelling narrative moments are few and far between. Striving for more upgrades to your weapon affinity of choice or keeping your eyes peeled for the perfect addition to your outfit are all things that you’ve seen before but are still done well enough here.
"Stranger of Paradise takes its immediately-familiar set of action game systems and delivers a fun game with big weapons, tons of loot, and little reason to care about its story."
Using your wealth of gear to spec out your teammates in particular can really change up the team-combat in some interesting ways – but the combat in particular is probably the high point of the gameplay. You have basic attacks, heavy abilities mapped to R2, and a list of commands that can be accessed with L2 plus the corresponding face button. This is something borrowed from somewhat more modern action games than most of the game’s more foundational elements, but still works well in tandem with everything else.
The soul shield is perhaps the most original thing about it. It’s a versatile defensive move that, if used at the right moment, can block most attacks while simultaneously filling your MP and creating an opening to follow up with a heavier attack. You pay a price for it by taking a big hit to your own defenses, but the rewards for sprinkling it into your normal combat flow are usually quite noticeable as you’ll be stunning enemies and using your other abilities more often since your MP will be fuller more often. Combining good use of the soul shield with knowing when to dodge and when to rely on your teammates is usually the key to defeating most foes – and it’s an undeniably fun and rewarding rhythm to get into.
That said, with a bit of grinding here and there and keeping a sharp eye out for new gear, you can create a simpler flow to the game that allows you to mostly button mash your way through a large chunk of the game’s combat encounters, only switching classes when you feel like it. The complexities of the combat and different classes can largely be explored at your own pace, so you never really feel overwhelmed or behind, but doing so is highly encouraged will reward you in kind, so there’s a nice streak of versatility for the game that I think gives it a little bit of an advantage. Unfortunately, a lot of that combat will be done in similar-looking corridors and against often repetitive enemies, so it doesn’t quite reach its full potential, but it’s an above average combat system nonetheless that easily gets its hooks into you despite some repetition occasionally setting in. The inclusion of co-op is a nice addition, too, which should never go unappreciated these days.
"Combat in particular is probably the high point of the gameplay."
Speaking of the environments; there’s not a whole lot to hate or like here. Most of the levels are divided up between long stretches of same-y corridors where you’ll mostly be laying waste to smaller enemies and larger open areas where you’ll spend longer amounts of time fighting bigger groups and more challenging ones. The levels make some minor efforts to mix things up with some rope climbing and a very conservative amount of exploration in between those two main concepts, but for the most part the levels serve as little more than husks of environments in which to kill stuff and loot the spoils. They are also a bit dark for some reason.
Even outside areas feel oddly dark despite me turning up the in-game brightness quite a bit. None of them look bad by any means, though, and they do feel distinct from one another. Some even have some neat little nods to the original game, but you’ll just usually see most if not all of what any one level has to offer both in terms of art design and layout before you’re half-way through it. For the most part the games levels are laid out well enough that you won’t get turned around too often, but if you do, the repetitively designed corridors and battle areas combined with the fact that destructible crates and enemies easily regenerate can make it difficult to tell if you’ve already been to an area at times. This is good if you’re trying to grind, but doesn’t do the rest of the gameplay any favors.
Perhaps the weakest point in Stranger of Paradise is the characters themselves. Not a single one brings much of anything to the table that makes you want to root for them, nor is their quest to destroy Chaos – despite not even really knowing what Chaos is – particularly interesting. This merry band of misfits, including Jack himself, couldn’t be any more of a missed opportunity on Team Ninja’s part to really inject something a bit more interesting into the narrative of the game. Jack’s overly confident one-liners and gruff delivery does become more tolerable as the game goes on, and sometimes his character even flirts with being slightly endearing, but ultimately this is the part of the game that feels weakest. While the main story itself does provide some satisfaction later on, it can only add up to so much when there isn’t a single interesting character within it. It’s not always an unforgivable blunder for an action game to drop the ball in this area, but it can create danger for the rest of the game by impacting a player’s motivation to see it through, as it unfortunately does here.
"Perhaps the weakest point in Stranger of Paradise is the characters themselves. Not a single one brings much of anything to the table that makes you want to root for them, nor is their quest to destroy Chaos – despite not even really knowing what Chaos is – particularly interesting."
Nevertheless, while Stranger of Paradise takes too long to establish a compelling narrative, and totally fails to make its characters interesting, what is here looks and runs pretty well. The detail and effects are not quite what I would expect from the same team that made Nioh 2, but they get the job done with satisfying animations and flashy feedback during combat and some interesting enemy designs that are mostly held back for after the more generic goblins and wolves of the first few hours. It’s also a fairly well-optimized affair that mostly seems to stick to its target frame rate in both quality and performance modes on PS5. Given that, and the fact that you aren’t missing out on much with the slight visual downgrade, I’d recommend the performance mode. It’s not a particularly pretty game, but the number of noticeable frame-hitches I encountered in either quality mode was less than what I’ve seen from other AAA action games this year for what it’s worth.
Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin will likely go down as a bit of an oddball for the Final Fantasy series. Those that are looking for something more akin to the high quality and well-roundedness of other recent entries might be left a bit wanting with Stranger’s repetitive environments and obscenely trite characters, but at the same time it does nail its action and light RPG stuff pretty well. I wouldn’t quite say it’s a game where you should “turn your brain off” to enjoy it, but it does accommodate that mentality pretty well if you want to play it like that while also providing a good amount of depth for those who want to dig deeper. Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin does manage to take a lot of modern action game and RPG ideas and put them to good use.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Great action gameplay; Runs well; Steady and satisfying progression.
Bland-at-best characters; Story is boring; Graphics are disappointing.
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