Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin Review – Kill Cringe, Embrace Chaos

Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin feels like a lost gem. The kind of game that dropped early on the PlayStation 3 in Japan but never quite made its way West, forever relegated to rough forum translations and cult favour. It is frequently garish in its artistic sensibilities and relentlessly obtuse with its narrative. It is, marvellously, both laughing at and revelling in the trappings of the wider Final Fantasy mythos, an interesting means through which to celebrate its 35th anniversary. It also plays exceptionally well, all traces of the jank present in its other components replaced with a robust combat system and approachable balancing options.

It will undoubtedly be the punchline of many jokes in the weeks to come, some good-natured no doubt but others will likely wince in the face of such a boldly silly experience. Jack Garland and his merry band of Warriors of Light are here to kill cringe though, and if you can dispense with traditional notions of cohesion and restraint, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin will have you dancing on cringe’s grave.

Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin Review

Exactly where this lands on the canonical timeline of Final Fantasy is somewhat tricky to reconcile so instead let’s go macro. Jack Garland is here to kill Chaos, as you’re likely well aware. Following the siren call of his egg-shaped crystal, Jack travels to Cornelia, a prospering kingdom living in uneasy tension beneath the shadow of the Chaos Shrine nearby. Upon arrival, Jack’s crystal 3DS Streetpass pings two more capital ‘D’ dudes, Ash and Jed, who are brandishing their own crystals and desire to purge the world of Chaos. They go on to be joined by Neon and Sophia, two women who balance out the testosterone of the crew nicely as they all journey forth into the unknown.  

To say Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is unconcerned with its narrative isn’t exactly fair, but it is wildly unfocused on it. How this tale unfolds is relatively interesting in broad strokes, the only kind of pacing the game affords as it whips you between cutscenes and revelations at a breakneck pace. This bizarre pacing feels both of a piece with the wider tone of the game and, unfortunately, like a byproduct of cut content. Speaking to the latter first, there are several moments throughout that feel as though scenes have been wholesale removed from the flow of events making for somewhat jarring transitions and character work. Though the kind of chaos Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin evokes with its vibe does a relatively decent job of papering over these cracks through sheer force of will. 

That’s because Jack simply does not give a fuck. His insistence that every plot beat, every lore morsel or attempt at humanity, be met with an indifferent grunt is a brilliant stroke of stupidity. The man is the purest essence of 2010’s Generic Male Protagonist with a (perhaps unintentional) light coat of 2020’s irony paint. Astos, the game’s quasi-queer Dark Elf Prince, is launching into a grandiose monologue but Jack simply cuts him off mid-sentence – he doesn’t care, he just wants to get to Chaos. A local innkeeper, obviously fond of the heroes to whom he is offering board for the evening beckons them inside with warmth, Jack grunts, the innkeeper delights “I thought you’d say that!”

Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is full of these moments, little riffs on the expected tone and flow of a scene within the genre that give it a refreshing, if weird, energy. In turn, this is contrasted with the game’s attempts at surprisingly heady concepts and sincere emotional pathos, both of which work better if you’re willing to meet it three-quarters of the way. The game’s Creative Producer Tetsuya Nomura has been openly discussing how one major component of the plot plays out in relation to Jack and his quest to kill Chaos so it’s no surprise to say that Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin dabbles in memory loss and fate.

Nestled awkwardly between the extensive Final Fantasy lore elements and Jack’s overarching narrative are pockets of air in which the rest of the cast have moments to rise to the surface. During one mission a character is ruminating on their home, now forgotten to them beyond vague images and smells. Lamenting to the group that they’re longing for a place they can’t even remember anymore, a melancholic silence settles among the usually chatty Warriors of Light and my heart twinged. Jack grunts.
   
It’s hardly a revelation, especially in a series as fluent with convoluted yet satisfying emotional storytelling as Final Fantasy, but there’s a fascinating kernel among the chaos here. Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin’s approach to character work is, at the very least, academically interesting to parse. Given Final Fantasy I’s simplistic slate of heroes, this pseudo-remake-prequel has been left to its own devices when crafting its protagonists, producing what Nomura describes as personifications of the original game’s motifs. Jed is a sweet kid who doesn’t know what to do with his feelings, Ash often winds up playing big brother to the group, Neon’s convictions run interference with Jack’s stalwartness and Sophia hides wells of sadness behind a vampy-mask.

They’re not all that deep but they are supremely likeable, making their forward march down a tragic road all the more compelling. The innate sadness to their exploits presents as a strange union between meta and in-text self-awareness, the game gladly playing into both your and the character’s pre-established understanding of the events about to unfold. This is maybe too heavy an idea to be so harshly contrasted with the game’s comedic sensibilities but provided you can bridge the dissonance in your mind, the end result is uniquely satisfying.

Much of the game’s pre-release discussion has been calling FromSoftware’s Souls games to mind but the final product bears minimal resemblance to the formula, instead opting for a fast-paced, loot focused action experience. From a barebones overworld map, you’ll choose a mission and from there enter into mostly linear levels, some of which progress the story and some entirely optional side content. Later missions open up the level design a little bit, often incorporating simple puzzles and intersecting paths through a location. These are welcome alterations to the formula by the time you’re hitting the third act but the game’s primary focus is its combat. 

Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin operates on a class-based system, layering mechanics onto an easy to grasp base set of moves as your affinity with a Job grows. Jack can have two Jobs equipped at any time, easily switching between the two on the fly with the press of a button. This generous ability to essentially re-spec your entire character, equipment and all, in an instant during gameplay makes for an effortless flow to most encounters. Add to this the impressive diversity of the Jobs on offer and you’ve got a rounded, accessible range of playstyles at your fingertips.

Each Job has its own skill tree, at the end of which more Jobs are unlocked, new abilities discovered and so on. These special abilities can be mapped to a variety of button combinations of your choice too, granting you an excellent degree of freedom over your build. Baseline combat has your standard light and heavy attacks, along with a quick dodge and two types of defence. A standard shield block will negate most of the damage but it pays to parry more often than not as it yields greater rewards than a simple block.

Much like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and more recently Sifu, you’ll need to monitor both your and your enemy’s stamina bars, chipping away at it to eventually open a foe up to a brutal finisher move. Once you’ve broken an enemy’s stance you can crystalise and shatter them, refilling a portion of your mana bar which is in turn used for special Job-based moves. This loop keeps you engaged in combat near constantly, a balancing act between aggression and defence that rewards attentive play.

That same freedom is reflected in the game’s bevy of difficulty options. You can play in either Story, Action or Hard mode which can be changed at any point during missions too, though once you’ve bumped it down it can’t be raised again until the mission is over. On top of this, the game allows for Casual Mode in which death penalities are removed completely letting you focus on pushing ahead with ease. Each mode still highlights the rewarding combat systems, and even on Story the second half of the game can get quite tense. Jack’s party can also be swapped out at checkpoints or even told to stay behind if you feel like going solo. Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin also feature campaign co-op that, while a little fiddly to get going, plays smoothly and allows for the same range of on-the-fly character changes as singleplayer.

Gear also plays a pivotal role in your Job loadout, though small refinements could have gone a long way here. You’ll likely end a mission with dozens of pieces of new gear and loot, dropped from enemies, chests and rewarded for completion of a level. These are randomised drops, meaning you’re going to wind up with hundreds of spare pieces of equipment after just a few missions. To make matters worse, the game does little to foster any affinity you may have for a particular piece, allowing you to swap out to the best possible loadout with the push of a button on the character screen. This is a great timesaver but combined with the sheer magnitude of gear you’ll be grabbing does make it all feel a bit numbing. You can scrap unnecessary gear through an awkward menu and use the spare parts to bolster your equipped pieces but the speed at which you find more makes these investments feel lacklustre.

At least it all looks cool though. Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin’s aesthetic choices are…aggressive. Falling just shy of true maximalism, the game’s artistic interpretations of Final Fantasy and its numerous mainstays is wuss-rock edgy. A coyly gritty lens passed over supremely silly fantasy concepts that make for an overall look and feel that, again, belongs somewhere in the past decade. This is absolutely a compliment, in case you were wondering. Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin has hidden most of its grunge armour and weapon designs behind the game’s initial “real world” shirt and jeans combo Jack rocks in the trailers but this is undoubtedly packed with attire that feels right at home in the wider Final Fantasy pantheon.

Elsewhere, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin looks as though it has been shot through a smeared lens. What seems to be relatively well-made assets have been washed out by a constant blur filter and some truly shocking HDR lighting work. Toggling between optimisation modes does little to elevate the issues, though at least motion blur can be turned off too. Conversely, Naoshi Mizuta’s score goes about as hard as you’d want for a game of this tone, a brash and thrilling undercurrent to the game.

In a release window where Horizon: Forbidden West and Elden Ring have pushed the boundaries of fidelity and art direction in gaming, to have something as garishly uncomplicated as Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin come along feels cosmically comedic. Towering castles, verdant forests, pulsating future-tech fortresses – it’s all very familiar Final Fantasy trappings and in that familiarity, the game finds respite from its strange technical elements.

Whether or not the many, many oddities of Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin are self-aware ultimately matters little in the face of the end product. An idiosyncratic riff on a 35-year-old RPG classic that feels a decade too late to the marketplace of vibes, elevated to fascinating heights by impeccable core mechanics and sheer force of will. Push through the desire to cringe in its face and Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin delights with gauche earnestness and one of the most rewarding action combat loops on the market. 

This is Chaos magic, Jack.


Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin was reviewed on PS5 using a digital code provided by the publisher.

Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin
Reader Rating0 Votes
0
PROS
Weirdly compelling narrative
Tight core combat mechanics
Loads of player approachability options
Outright funny
CONS
Lacklustre loot system
Poor visual optimisation
8
Overall

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James Wood
James Wood
James literally cannot recall a time in which video games weren’t a part of his life.A childhood hobby turned adult fascination, gaming has been one of the few constants.

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