There’s already a sound theory crystallizing in the minds of Final Fantasy fans regarding the potential narrative beats in store for us when Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin launches sometime in 2022. Between possible hints in concept art and the expectation of a form of plot subversion downright native to series scribe Kazushige Nojima, some among us are buying into the notion that Jack, Origin‘s angry and macho hero, is either the knight Garland from the original Final Fantasy or that he becomes Chaos, that game’s final boss, in some weird, timey-wimey, way.
It’s typical for us Square RPG diehards to see a reveal trailer and immediately attempt to piece together a fraction of the puzzle. It’s less typical for a Square RPG reveal trailer to elicit such strong negative reactions and meme-centric rebuttals within seconds. Enter Team Ninja, the studio most recently renowned for its success with the Nioh franchise. Through Koei Tecmo, Team Ninja is spearheading development on Origin, playing in Square Enix’s sandbox but bringing several of their own toys to the occasion. This is readily apparent on several levels, from the art style and texture work to the visceral animations and complex battle system. It also immediately invites itself to scrutiny.
The result is a very different spin on the Final Fantasy formula. In a vacuum, that’s a welcome thing, for what is Final Fantasy if not a constantly changing brand? In practice, I’m feeling a bit like Jack here. Not so much with the angry and the macho, but out-of-place and clashing with the world around him? It’s a rigid dichotomy, and it’s led me to approach my thoughts on the game’s limited-time demo from two divided perspectives. One of those perspectives is that of a writer making an earnest attempt at objective analysis of a work-in-progress product that doesn’t necessarily reflect my desires for a beloved franchise. The flip side of this delicate coin is me, the opinionated Final Fantasy lover with absolutely subjective beliefs on what makes a rock-solid entry and what should be kept wayward of the series.
The writer in me recognizes the sheer number of gameplay elements on display in just one slice of Stranger of Paradise and is duly impressed. I’ve already gotten the gist of three distinct weapon types: slow and powerful greatswords; longer-range lances that move at an even clip and do modest damage; and rapid-fire spell-casting maces fit for the mages among us. And that’s quite literal, in fact; maces are for Mages, capitalization intended, whilst greatswords are for Swordsmen and lances for Lancers. Of these three job classes, not one of them is spared from an impressive upgrade path rich with stat boosts, combo packages, special commands, and more. At the end of each of these mostly linear pathways, players will unlock the advanced job variations – Swordsmen become Warriors, Lancers are Dragoons, and Mages graduate to the sacred ranks of… Black Mages.
Entertainingly, by the time I reached the concluding stages of the demo, I was already capable of casting Flare, the kind of spell typically reserved for endgame Final Fantasy scenarios. More viscerally, Jack the Warrior and Jack the Dragoon are so profoundly capable of so many types of brutal attacks that I have to assume Chaos is secretly shaking in his boots. The amount of experience you accrue toward your jobs and the swiftness therein means you’ll probably swim through the basic job upgrade path and then make a real dent in the advanced job’s enhanced rap sheet.
Blood-soaked carnage is what Stranger of Paradise excels at invoking, even when the blood itself is replaced by a handful of special effects that convey a similar sentiment. Everything Jack does has weight to it, and every hit he lands looks painful. But brute-forcing through the demo is hardly recommended. I’m sure individual skill levels have a ton to do with it (I’m not exactly a Souls-like war hero), but strategic tinkering with the tools made available to me was the only way I could get past several scary scenarios, including singular showpiece opponents and swarms of smaller fry.
Critical to progress is a keen awareness of a few major mechanics introduced during a tutorial sequence prior to the meat of the demo. Soul Shield is one of those mechanics. If you’re not well-versed in the art of parrying in technical action games, I’m sure a scary run through the confines of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice can bring you up to speed; otherwise, prepare to learn the hard way that dodging and blocking can only take you so far. Successful timing of the Soul Shield parrying system allows Jack to not only fully negate damage from many attacks but to send those attacks roaring back at his foes in a surprise round of hot potato. Don’t expect Soul Shield to save you every time, because as you might suspect, there are indeed a plethora of attacks that require you to get out of Dodge instead of trying to hold the Alamo with your flashy magical doodad.
There’s also Soul Burst, a technique you’ll want to make the most of whenever possible. You can only use it on staggered enemies – Stranger of Paradise employs a “Break” system, and it works both ways, so try to avoid being staggered yourself – but it taps you with additional MP to consume with the many-splendored MP-guzzling job class abilities at your disposal.
Lightbringer wants you to toss aside some of that crucial MP in order to more swiftly break your enemies with things like Soul Shield. Are you starting to see the rotation here? It took me a while, but once I got the hang of things (and didn’t completely suck with the Warrior job combos) I was beginning to see some real improvements in how long I managed to keep Jack’s useless buddies alive. (No, seriously. I’m sure Jed and Ash are perfectly reasonable people but they make for atrocious AI companions.)
One can’t hope to describe their time with the Stranger of Paradise demo without acknowledging its messy side. To be frank, the graphics are not good. It’s been said all over the internet by now, and I hate to agree with something so harsh, but there are times this really does look like a PS3 game. And not a very pretty one at that. During the tutorial, Jack is surrounded by what only dimly appears to be a field of wheat. It’s so grainy (heh) that I can barely tell. The Shrine of Chaos, where you’ll spend most of your time, doesn’t fare a whole lot better. There are some noteworthy artistic asides that really double down on the fact that this is a game from the makers of Nioh, but otherwise, this is a series of zones that start off terribly bland and gradually reach a state of fairly mild intrigue.
It just isn’t a looker at all. I’m not saying Final Fantasy games must always be cream-of-the-crop graphical masterpieces like some at the company clearly believe, but even for an outsourced spinoff the visuals are middling. Action RPG enthusiasts might be willing to overlook this for a buttery-smooth framerate, and it’s almost guaranteed that things will be a good deal more polished for launch, but as it stands Stranger of Paradise is a jittery thing, stuttering to and fro, afraid to look behind Jack’s shoulders. This runs poorly, and it’s going to need to do far better in the final telling.
We’re dealing with something that is absolutely incomplete right now. It would be utterly silly of me to pass judgment on the muddy images, the seriously shaky speed, and the generic environments now. A whole lot can change between now and release. But goodness, I am not enthralled at present.
The writer in me goes over the past several paragraphs with a fine-tooth comb, hoping to avoid unseemly grammatical issues, aiming to deliver something with decent readability, yadda-yadda. “So, here’s an overview,” the writer says, and then he steps aside and allows for a more… critical outlook.
“This doesn’t feel like Final Fantasy,” I’ve seen some claim of virtually every Final Fantasy in existence. What is the essence of FF? It’s similar to the folks I know who grieve that the Star Trek franchise is done and dusted because the modern shows don’t “feel like Star Trek.” Disliking the new shows is one thing; decrying them as not following some unwritten code is another. In both cases, there have been many iterations and each version brings something new to the table. It is unfair of me to outright critique Stranger of Paradise as not feeling like Final Fantasy.
That said, I’m at a crossroads. I don’t want to think it, let alone type it, but… this doesn’t feel like Final Fantasy. Today is the first time I’ve found myself on the other side of the camp, the side filled with people who think they know what constitutes “on-brand” in a diverse franchise. The logical part of my brain acknowledges that I’m just being dramatic and that Final Fantasy can look like just about anything. The rest of me is cringing.
Take the Bomb enemy. A series staple, known for growing in size and causing a great deal of grief for players who fail to speedily defeat it. On the surface, things aren’t so terribly different here. The Bombs do grow, and their strength rises with their burgeoning girth. But one thing my eyes can’t reconcile is the fact that the most commonly effective way I’ve found to handle Bombs is for Jack to grab their searing-hot bodies and pound them into the floor like a man with a grudge against his son’s bully who shows up uninvited and decides to destroy the kid’s birthday piñata with a raw-knuckled vengeance.
“Heed me,” I can practically hear Jack telling the Bombs. “You are no longer in Final Fantasy Land. You’re in the ring. With me. And I am going to rip you apart and feast on your molten heart.”
Violence is an institutional offense in Stranger of Paradise. No goblin’s death is a clean one. The developers accentuate the boorishness at every turn with moment after moment of “wow, you tore that guy a new one” theatrics accompanied by painfully redundant do-nothing dialogue that’s about on par with actually saying “wow, you tore that guy a new one.” There’s a borderline-applaudable commitment here to ensuring players understand the protagonists are fish-out-of-water types, hailing presumably from some unseen suburb in 2013’s attempted Devil May Cry reboot misfire; I keep waiting for Jack to drop the act entirely and go full-blown juvenile “humor.”
That’s not to say Final Fantasy IX‘s Zidane Tribal and friends weren’t technically tearing their own enemies a new one, but it’s all in the execution. It’s one thing to see beloved Beatrix light up a battlefield with an advanced sword skill that leaves the party on their knees at 1HP. It’s another thing entirely to see Jack slam his blade into the pulsating orifice of some apocalyptic mouthpiece until it’s writhing on the ground at his mercy, ready to be eviscerated into a bunch of red crystals that may as well be blood splotches at this point.
I mean, hey, if that’s your thing, my advice is to hope Stranger of Paradise is a whole lot more stabilized by launch. If it is, you might just have something special on your hands. The core gameplay is promising, the pedigree of the Nioh developers speaks for itself, and I can see a lot of people falling in love with this despite its less-than-pretty out-the-gate reception.
And hey, at least I can give Jack more “FF-like” attire pretty quickly into the demo. As soon as he’s out of his “Hot Topic by way of Gold’s Gym membership” wardrobe and looking like a Lancer, he… well, he looks like an unscrupulous boxer cosplaying as a Final Fantasy character, but there’s a charm in that.
Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin launches sometime in 2022 for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series, and Microsoft Windows platforms. Nova Crystallis will have you covered in Jack’s blood, sweat, and tears as further news arises in the months to come.