America - Front
America - Back
By Issa Maki 31st Mar 2022 | 2,486 views
Like time itself, the Final Fantasy series is one of those rivers you can't step into twice. Take Final Fantasy VII: after two sequels, two prequels, and an ongoing remake (that has spin-offs and DLC of its own), how could it ever be expected to remain the same experience it was in 1997? What about Final Fantasy XI? I've played it in three different eras and the only constant has been the nigh-impossible task of successfully activating a PlayOnline account. My sentimentality for Final Fantasy III wouldn't exist without the PSP port of the DS remake (it has auto-battle at double speed), and the subsequent re-releases of Final Fantasy XIV and Final Fantasy XV were vastly improved from their launch states.
Unsurprisingly, the original Final Fantasy hasn't been spared from this cycle, but less known are the efforts that have been made to expand on its lore beyond the scope of what began in the NES days. Stranger of Paradise unapologetically continues this narrative with a story that will please longtime fans – while alienating virtually everyone else – and gameplay that remains solid throughout but has its flaws, not the least of which is a complete lack of a playerbase.
Stranger of Paradise tells the story of the amnesiac man Jack, who has mysteriously appeared before the gates of Cornelia with nothing but a name and a crystal. Beset upon by Ash and Jed (who appear to be in the same boat), the three party up to seek an audience with the king. Concerned by the lack of adherence to prophecy, but moved by Jack's single-minded compulsion to destroy 'Chaos', the sovereigns grant the adventurers their blessings to quest in the portent of an uncertain future. Those coming in fresh to Stranger of Paradise might only see an out-of-place, raving underwear model, but there is far more going on underneath the hood than modern audiences know.
Without dragging readers too far through the weeds, long ago the Dissidia games established that the world of Final Fantasy is a simulated reality (of which there are at least two), composed of elements inspired by 'other universes' (the subsequent Final Fantasy sequels) that is being used by an advanced civilization as an energy source. Needless to say, on top of knowing the significance of Princess Sarah's lute or the bats flying out of the Chaos Shrine, players are expected to be picking up from the load screens of Stranger of Paradise that the Fire Cavern from Final Fantasy VIII was the inspiration for Mt. Gulg, or that the Sunken Shrine is based on a Mako reactor from Final Fantasy VII. Anyone failing to do all this is missing vital pieces of the puzzle that's going to hold back their enjoyment of the narrative immensely. I fault Square-Enix, but if you're one of the few who has followed the bread crumbs for decades, it's actually pretty awesome.
As far as gameplay is concerned, Stranger of Paradise is quite fun. Featuring online multiplayer, a familiar Souls-like combat system, and a healthy amount of customization, anyone who takes the time to learn the intricacies of battle will be well-rewarded for their ingenuity. It's far from perfect, but the amount of freedom is worth any hassle.
The standard action/adventure skeleton is on hand: light/heavy attacks, parries, dashes, rolls, and invincibility frames. Where it really gets interesting are the wrinkles added by blending the hallmarks of Final Fantasy with Nioh's general framework.
Soul Shield is a second form of defending that will restore and raise Jack's maximum MP amount, opening up more options in a fight. Absorbing enemy attacks with purple names grants temporary access to Instant Abilities, Blue Mage-inspired magic that is free to cast but only has a limited number of charges. Activating Soul Shield depletes the Break Gauge (stamina) and abusing it can quickly lead to misfortune.
Should Jack manage to erase his opponent's Break Gauge, he can initiate a Soul Burst (glory kill), damaging the gauges of surrounding enemies. Lightbringer (a type of Command Ability) increases all Break damage dealt, while providing a brief moment of invulnerability on activation. Combo Abilities are reminiscent of the Artes found in the Tales series, allowing players to tailor the end of their attack strings with dozens of special techniques as they see fit. There are eight types of weapons to use and between two job classes to swap at will (with passive stat-boosting Job Affinity bonuses), the amount of depth is satisfying. If combat options appeal to you, look no further.
There are over two dozen jobs to master, and while Jack can choose any he needs, his NPC allies are left with set roles. Each job (save one) has an MP-spending Action Ability that defines their role on the team; Paladins have Holy Fang that restores HP with every successful hit, Dragoons can Jump, evading enemy attacks while dealing damage. Mixing these unique skills with Command Abilities gained across various jobs is the name of the game, leading to effective, highly-efficient builds; my Ninja/Sage using Blood Weapon, Sentinel, and Magic Arts ran through the back half of the adventure, finishing a projected 40 hour game in just over 26. Making the time to experiment will reveal the amount of control at the player's command.
Beating Stranger of Paradise unlocks Chaos Mode, a New Game+ that offers further rewards. Expert level classes can be unlocked for Jack's NPC party members, and defeating certain side missions raises the maximum level of mastered classes. Artifact armor (that has two Affinities) helps to boost the synergy between jobs, and Affinities themselves can eventually be upgraded. Someone properly motivated could spend weeks tweaking builds creating the ultimate party member – the problem is that there isn't anyone out there to play with.
Regrettably, Stranger of Paradise is host to a few flaws that hold it back from greatness. Some of these decisions are odd given Team Ninja's recent pedigree, but the roots of most of these issues lie with a single question: who was this game made for?
As much as it pains me to say it, I have never played a less active AAA game than Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. In fact, I was getting more traffic in the demo the week before than I did during the entire launch weekend. There were only three instances where I had a full squad of human players, and by the time I finished my first playthrough I had matched up with less than fifteen in total. Blame Elden Ring if you want, but the simple fact of the matter is that there isn't a market – it's not Final Fantasy enough for Final Fantasy fans (is it ever?) and it's not hardcore enough for Team Ninja enthusiasts. Square-Enix is expecting a stadium full of support when there isn't even a busload of interest.
The side effects this has on the gameplay are noticeable out of the gate. Outside of using potions, maintaining Jack's HP is surprisingly restricted while playing solo, requiring specific classes or builds for success. I was roughly 80% of the way through the game before any of my NPCs could cast Cure – and even that was unreliable at best. I also question the logic concerning Phoenix Downs; I'm allowed to have three chances to resurrect during a multiplayer session with people who are higher level than me, but I don't get any by myself when the game is exponentially more difficult? Watching 20 minutes of dungeon progress evaporate in a second is tough, especially knowing that if another person was there, one way or another it wouldn't have happened.
Another issue I have to call out directly is the overbearing and underwhelming weapon upgrading. Equipment management was already annoying in Nioh, but at least it served a purpose: properties could be transferred across weapons, new finds could be used to enhance old favorites, gear was used as several forms of currency – things of this nature. Here, upgrades not only require side quests to be completed before being offered, but the copious amounts of supplies needed to do so almost always outweigh any benefits provided. In what universe is a .7% increase in Strike Ability Damage worth investing 120+ crafting materials on a weapon that will be outmoded mid-mission? If Team Ninja is going to ape its own subsystems, why not copy the good stuff that makes it all worthwhile?
Stranger of Paradise is a good game that can be great if the player is willing to meet it halfway, but only those with 30 years of lore baggage and a penchant for punishment are prepared for the journey – of which there are very few. This is the fault of the company in charge more than anything, yet the game's reputation (and Team Ninja) will unfairly take the hit for it. Square-Enix is still operating under the assumption that it's the same king of the RPG realm that SquareSoft was at the turn of the century, when the reality is that the throne was usurped by Bethesda in the mid-2000s – and has since been taken by FromSoftware. The Age of Fextralife has been upon us for over a decade, and the last one on the clue train thinks they're still running the show.
And what we're left with is a Frankenstein's monster of a game, with nowhere to call home and no one to love it. The worst part is that it's a damn fun time that deserves attention for its merits. If you've done the legwork, the story is an intriguing look into the increasingly detailed lore of Final Fantasy that had already grown more complex than most comprehend. Add a great combat system, strong amount of customization, and online co-op, it could – and should – be a win-win situation for everyone by all accounts, but it isn't. Instead, Stranger of Paradise will fall into the void, appreciated only by a select group.
Tetsuya Nomura summed it up best in the opening of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children when he said: “To those who loved this world and knew friendly company therein: this Reunion is for you.”. The feeling here is equally palpable yet wasted on an empty room.