“I’m here to kill Chaos.” In the history of Final Fantasy’s numerous spin-off titles, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is certainly one of the strangest conceptually. Set before the events of the original Final Fantasy, Stranger of Paradise is a prequel nearly 35 years later with entirely different gameplay to boot. Helmed by the ever-ambitious Tetsuya Nomura and series veteran Kazushige Nojima along with a beautiful score by Naoshi Mizuta, Stranger of Paradise’s development by Team Ninja might’ve come as a surprise for many but after finishing the game, I’m glad to say their style is more than welcome. It only makes sense that Nomura’s “story of an angry man” has the gameplay intensity to match it and given Team Ninja’s work with the Ninja Gaiden series and more recently, the Nioh series, it feels like a perfect fit.
Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is experimental, unrelenting, and chaotic to say the least. But more than that, Stranger is ambitious in its attempts to connect itself to the world of Final Fantasy and while disjointed in the presentation of its story, somehow manages to wrap it all up in a way that’s unlike anything I’ve witnessed in the series history. It is not only a remarkable spin-off but one more than worthy of your attention because, despite its “edgy” chaos-centric narrative and all the wonderful homages to past titles, there’s a lot of heart here with a surprisingly emotional narrative while campy at times remains charming, especially during its final stretch.
Before I get into the specifics of why Stranger of Paradise is a noteworthy addition to the Final Fantasy series, I’d first like to address the biggest issue with the game itself, performance. Throughout my entire playthrough of Stranger of Paradise, I can’t count a single time where every other cutscene wasn’t punctuated by a short but noticeable framerate drop. Luckily in my experience, I had rarely experienced this during actual gameplay save for when there are a lot of particle effects going on-screen. While each area in the game also has a distinct aesthetic going for it as well, it’s only further set back by the textures often looking muddy and the poor performance at times more than adds to that issue.
It’s a shame that the performance is like this, especially considering my computer had more than met the requirements, yet despite this, cutscenes often dipped below 60 frames per second with some cases even dipping in the low 12 – 14 fps range. Unfortunately, however, this framerate drop did take me out of the experience a few times and while unintentionally amusing at times, I hope that a fix for this comes soon since it’s one of the biggest things holding back what is an otherwise very enjoyable game.
My colleague Erren tested out the PlayStation 5 version of the game and found several points to report: namely that graphics options are broken down into two major settings: resolution and performance. Resolution mode offers a higher base resolution but with a variable framerate, while the performance mode drops its resolution and picks up an average 60 frames per second. The difference between the two is noticeable – particularly because the game isn’t exactly pushing the envelope when it comes to graphic fidelity or animations, and the resulting hit in performance mode is obvious while playing on a 4K TV. Otherwise, Stranger of Paradise runs fine enough on the new generation hardware and minor hitches during gameplay aren’t too much of a bother. Since gameplay is really where Stranger shines, you’ll be wanting to stick with performance mode throughout.
“A Story of an Angry Man”
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s finally time to talk about the highlight of the game itself… the story! The basic premise follows Jack, a man with a pure desire to destroy the entity known as Chaos. Jack arrives in the kingdom of Cornelia and along the way, Jack encounters other companions eventually being deemed as Warriors of Light. Jack and his three companions; Ash, Jed, and Neon, are then sent on a journey to restore the Four Crystals of Earth, Water, Wind, and Fire. While the premise remains simple initially, as the story progresses, it appears things are not quite what they seem. Throwaway lines start becoming significant glimpses at foreshadowing and further developments with actual context to them and I found myself more and more eager to uncover more of the mystery the story was building up to. There really are no wasted moments here.
Without spoiling too much, I’ll make it very clear that the opening hours might feel disjointed, campy, and confusing at times but try your best to stick with it because of how all of it is re-contextualized in the climax of its journey is some of the best storytelling I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Some fans might argue that its plot developments might’ve been predictable given its nature as a prequel to the original Final Fantasy, but it’s still an engaging experience watching Jack and his companions build towards those moments. I also have a feeling that while Jack might seem one-note and hard to relate to initially, by the end of it all, Jack is someone most will root for with his character development also leaning heavily into the strength of its more emotional narrative at its core.
A Fresh New Spin on the Series
Now for the other half of what makes Stranger of Paradise such an enjoyable experience! Most fans familiar with Team Ninja’s work will immediately notice the similarities with previous titles, especially Nioh down to the mission select screen and loot-based gearing. However, despite these similarities, it’s the small changes that Stranger of Paradise does with its actual gameplay that make it special. While loot-based gearing might sound detrimental to those unfamiliar with the concept in Team Ninja’s other games, each enemy will drop gear around or above your current level which is a nice way of incentivizing going out of your way to engage in combat encounters more often especially with side missions adding challenging fights with bountiful rewards. Furthermore, the option for a loot filter helps for avoiding gear of lower quality and overcrowding your inventory.
Unlike Nioh, your attacks aren’t limited by movement but by a meter called your “Break Gauge” which depletes when taking damage. Upon fully depleting your gauge, Jack gets stunned and subsequently takes damage until his gauge is replenished. However, the gauge isn’t entirely detrimental to the player as the meter also allows you to use your “Soul Shield” for a period of time allowing you to parry projectiles which is a nice way to incentivize aggression while also taking player skill into account. Furthermore, enemies also have a break gauge as well. Oftentimes, it’s more beneficial to be aggressive in order to deplete their break gauge and gain access to a “Soul Burst” which allows for an opportunity to destroy enemies immediately and also gain MP in the process which allows for the usage of special MP moves that prove more devastating than traditional weapon combos.
All things considered, Stranger doesn’t seek to punish the player but teach them a lesson as death often just resets you at a checkpoint with nothing lost other than a decrease in your MP meter. That’s not to say the game itself isn’t difficult, however. Despite my extensive history with previous Team Ninja Games especially with the recent Nioh 2, I played on the hardest difficulty available and still found it to be an adequate challenge in particular boss fights and select enemies like tonberries. Furthermore, multiplayer also adds scaling to encounters to keep that level of caution in approaching fights intact given the leniency of having another player helping you.
It’s also worth it to mention, that the variety of playstyles available in Stranger is all thanks to the way the job system works. There are a total of 28 playable jobs and each has its own respective niche and playstyles often branching and developing from smaller beginning classes with a unique skill tree of their own. The job system makes for a nice way to explore playstyles and also adds a lot more depth to the combat in terms of approach and also incentivizes playing around with the systems of the game.
With this much consideration put into the gameplay itself, given Stranger’s nature as an anniversary title, there is an abundance of fanservice sure to please longtime fans of the series. Early on, there’s a zone that closely resembles Sastasha from Final Fantasy XIV and even features pirates as enemies. However, the homages don’t just stop at being surface-level recreations of their respective games with some zones such as the Cavern of Earth whose appearance closely resembles that of the Tomb of Raithwall from Final Fantasy XII also include moving walls much like the Demon Walls in the tomb from the original game. These zones also feature brand new renditions of themes of their respective games scored by the masterful Naoshi Mizuta whose own original pieces are equally enthusing as well which add a nice dynamic to exploration within the zone. Because of this attention to detail, the overall gameplay experience is seeing each location in Final Fantasy I reinterpreted through the lens of future games while also further reinforcing the amount of love put into the project itself.
Lightning in a Bottle
Unabashed in its intentions and straightforward at times, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin isn’t a flawless game. I think there’s a lot to potentially deter some people here but if you stick with it the whole way through, you’ll find that Stranger of Paradise has a lot to offer beneath its performance issues and seemingly clumsy dialogue. Stranger of Paradise presents a surprisingly emotional narrative with a great main character to boot and looking beyond that, there’s a genuinely fun and challenging game here. With a rock-solid foundation and a visually distinct aesthetic heavily inspired by its predecessors, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is a diamond in the rough and an anniversary title more than worthy of the Final Fantasy name. To bring up another anniversary title I was reminded of after finishing, the amount of charm and creativity in its creation is reminiscent of 2016’s World of Final Fantasy which was also a third-party developed game that offered a lot for fans of the series. Stranger of Paradise is a breath of fresh air for a spinoff title and from its initial trailer, it was everything I wanted and so much more. It’s a game that’s managed to accurately encapsulate an entire series while also presenting an evolution of those ideas. It’s a game that’s managed to make Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” fit so snugly into the narrative and is somehow all the more endearing for it.
More importantly, Stranger of Paradise is a game that’s made me rethink the state of the series and ultimately rekindled my love for it in the first place. I’m excited for the future of this series that’s been so dear to me for as long as I can remember and it’s thanks to titles like this that represent the potential the series still has to offer.
I’m here to kill chaos… but I’m also here for so much more, and Stranger of Paradise seems like a good step towards that.
Versions Tested: PC (Epic Games Store) & PlayStation 5.
Disclaimer: PlayStation 5 review code provided by the publisher Square Enix.