35 years ago, the four Warriors of Light fought the fallen knight Garland at the start of the first Final Fantasy game. In more ways than one, that was only the beginning. Garland was the prologue to a much longer adventure for the Warriors of Light. It culminated in the revelation that a time loop trapped the world, and Garland was waiting for them once again at their journey's end. For Final Fantasy, a total of 14 direct (though narratively unconnected) sequels followed, with another on the way, plus countless spinoffs. Final Fantasy is now one of the biggest video game franchises of all time. Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin represents the closing of a different style of time loop for that franchise as, three and a half decades later, Square Enix returns to the original Final Fantasy bringing the full breadth of the franchise's history along with it.
Stranger of Paradise casts players as Jack, one of the Warriors of Light, who show up outside the Cornelia kingdom gates. Jack and his friends have no memory but share a burning desire to slay the being called Chaos. Even with Chaos' temple nearby, that journey proves much more complicated and far more revealing than they would have expected. As in the original Final Fantasy, the Warriors of Light must restore light to four elemental crystals that bring balance to the world. Along the way, they discover forgotten truths about the world and themselves while slaying mighty monsters, including the Four Fiends, Chaos' servants that each guard one of the crystals.
Stranger of Paradise plays like a cross between a Soul-like action game and Destiny-style loot shooter, with Final Fantasy's signature job system holding it all together. There are 27 total jobs to unlock, and players can choose any two for Jack to switch between with a simple button press (other jobs are accessible at any time via the menu, but it's unwise to attempt this while in combat). Jack and two other Warriors of Light -- controlled by the AI in single-player and other players in online multiplayer -- engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat with wave after wave of monsters, culminating in an epic boss battle. Defeating these enemies requires well-timed dodges and blocks to charge Jack's MP gauge, allowing him to unleash a variety of special abilities, job-specific powers, and combo attacks to drain a monster's health and lower its break gauge. Should that break gauge empty, Jack can unleash a soul-shattering finisher to boost his MP further.
Combat requires focus and can turn deadly quickly if an enemy knocks Jack off balance. Once slain, foes are likely to drop one or many pieces of equipment. Stranger of Paradise uses an equipment level to measure how well players stack up against the enemies in the next mission. This system means players can carefully choose their gear to best suit a specific build and challenge or auto-equip it to make that number go up as high as possible. The latter option makes the game more accessible (as does the "Story" difficulty level and the additional "Casual Mode" option). Yet, those who engage in the former will get the most out of Stranger of Paradise.
That's because Stranger of Paradise is almost all combat all the time. Each mission sends players to a different location modeled after somewhere from another of the mainline Final Fantasy games. Some of these are incredibly distinct (it's hard to mistake Final Fantasy XV's sleek architecture or the green glow of mako energy from Final Fantasy VII), others less (a snowy mountain is a snowy mountain, whatever game it comes from). But the idea that Jack and his friends are to "explore" these areas is nominal at best. There are no puzzles to solve or platforming segments to navigate. Jack moves from room to room, clearing out whatever enemies await.
Luckily, the job system keeps things fresh, at least for most of the game. Unlocking new jobs is exciting, and the ability to swap between them with ease means players can always shake things up if they're starting to get bored. Job affinity, acquired via equipment and skill unlocks, helps this along. Having job affinity means you'll earn experience for that job even if you're not currently using it. The system does help alleviate what could otherwise be a tiresome job-by-job grind for those interested in experimenting.
Unlocking jobs is exciting, but once you've settled into a combo you like, it isn't hard to gain mastery by unlocking every ability on the job's tree, even for expert jobs. After that, the shine starts to fall off the game's seemingly endless combat scenarios, especially as it continues to throw slightly more powerful versions of the same monsters at the player well into the late game.
Stranger of Paradise puts a dark fantasy spin on Final Fantasy's story with a bit of a metatextual touch. The environmental homages in the level designs aren't simply Easter eggs but background information for the plot, explained within the game for those who care enough to pay attention. The Warriors of Light's amnesia is also crucial to the game's story, but it also makes it hard to invest in the characters when all players have to go on is their bromantic bond over killing Chaos. That lack of characterization is felt in the dialogue and vocal performances, though Mocean Melvin carries Jack off well.
It doesn't help that the game is paced slowly, with long stretches of monster murder punctuated by brief cutscenes offering story movements. Unfortunately, the decision to have Jack and friends all wearing their battle gear, which often includes complete facial covering during conversations, undercuts these moments, making dramatic scenes often feel absurd. It's a shame because what story there is -- which spins a retelling of Final Fantasy into a tragedy about breaking bonds of subjugation to the status quo -- is appropriately epic and, in moments, emotionally satisfying. One wonders what could have been if Stranger of Paradise had gone in a shorter and more narratively focused design direction.
It can be challenging to wrap one's head around Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. On the one hand, it is utterly steeped in Final Fantasy mythology. And yet, it's a far cry from a traditional Final Fantasy game. In a way, it feels like an attempt to apply the Final Fantasy VII Remake approach to a game much less suited to such treatment, with fascinating, if not entirely successful, results. Fans of heavily customizable action games will find a lot to love but might be divorced from the nods and homages to Final Fantasy history. It'll be the players who have a foot in both worlds that will most enjoy Stranger of Paradise, but despite some narrative pacing issues and a bit of bloat, most players will find it an enjoyable, action-packed fantasy adventure.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin releases on Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S on March 18th. It was reviewed on a PlayStation 5 with a review code provided by the publisher.