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October 2021

Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Team Ninja
Release Date: March 18, 2022


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PS5 Preview - 'Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on June 16, 2021 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin blends challenging and strategic action gameplay with the world and lore of the Final Fantasy series to create a unique action RPG experience.

Probably the most striking and unusual game to appear at the Square Enix E3 2021 conference was Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. With a trailer that consisted mostly of excessive crystal-based violence against popular Final Fantasy monsters and the protagonist making sure that every single person knew how he felt about wanting to kill Chaos, it seemed to be the most memorable part of the show, if just for meme potential. Thankfully, after some delays, we got some hands-on gameplay time with the limited PlayStation 5 trial demo. There are a lot of things to say about the game, but one thing is clear: It has the potential to be a darn fun Souls-like title, as expected from Team Ninja.

The plot of Stranger of Paradise — as much as we can discern of it — appears to be a loose retelling of the original Final Fantasy. Players control Jack, a huge, beefy dude whose sole motivation appears to be really, really, really hating Chaos, the final boss of the first Final Fantasy. The demo follows Jack and his two friends, Ash and Jed, as they enter a temple searching for Chaos and come face-to-face with Garland, who attempts to knock them all down. There's little plot so far beyond "The Warriors of Light go to fight Garland," which you might recall is the first dungeon of Final Fantasy. We'll have to see if there's more to it than that.

The easiest way to describe Stranger of Paradise is Nioh with a Final Fantasy coat of paint. As soon as I picked up the game, it felt like Nioh, from the basic movement to the flow of combat to the fact that at least one enemy has moves that I remember from Nioh. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, as both Nioh titles are among the best of the Souls-like experiences, but it makes it easy to get a feel for the gameplay.

It isn't just a reskin, though. The core gameplay mechanics are both familiar and different at the same time. Jack can equip two jobs, which determine his skills, stats and weapons, and the jobs can be leveled up by gaining experience points while using them. You get Lancer, Mage and Swordsman and upgrade them to Dragoon, Black Mage and Warrior, respectively. While the advanced classes are similar to their lower-tier classes, they have their own abilities and skills, so you may find that you prefer the Lancer to the Dragoon class.

Regardless of the class, your combat abilities are built around your MP bar. Each class has a unique skill that can be used by spending MP. For example, the Warrior class can do a War Cry, which is a temporary buff, and the Dragoon class can jump. You can set up special abilities in the middle of your combo strings; they cost MP but are very powerful, often doing special elemental damage or reaching wide areas.

However, the Mage is different in that they can use special combos and cast magic. You choose the spell you want from a radial menu, and the longer you hold down the button, the more powerful the spell you'll cast. Magic is quite good for doing tons of damage, but elemental spells also interact with the world. For example, fire magic can set brush alight, and that can either work for you (if the enemy is standing in it) or against you (if Bombs is throwing fireballs at you from a blazing inferno). On the other hand, water spells can put out blazing fires.

The Soul Shield mechanic is probably the centerpiece of the gameplay. By pressing the Circle button immediately before an enemy attacks, you can block their attack and increase your MP meter. By doing this repeatedly, you'll have much more MP to use on your skills and abilities. It's also a better guard than the traditional guard because it can nullify magic. If that weren't enough, it also functions as the game's Blue Magic, so if you absorb an attack that has a purple name bar, you'll temporarily gain the ability to use that attack yourself. These special actions are powerful and come out instantly for no cost, so it's absolutely worth grabbing them.

The downside to the Soul Shield mechanic is how it interacts with your Break bar. Jack has a Break Bar that goes down as he takes damage or when he uses the Soul Shield. Should this bar run out, Jack will be "broken," which stuns him, causes him to lose some of his gained MP, and makes him lose any absorbed attacks. As you can imagine, this is a bad thing. The bar refills slowly over time, and each equippable job has its own Break Bar, so it isn't as limiting as it sounds. You also can use various skills to instantly replenish it, but this has an MP cost, so you have to balance it.

The nice thing about Breaks is that it also applies to the enemy. It functions like the "stamina" meter from other Souls-likes titles in that you can lower it with careful parries or special attacks. Lower an enemy's health bar enough, and you can insta-kill them, which also has the benefit of significantly increasing your MP. On regular enemies, this is a great idea, but it's also super helpful for the boss of the demo. By constantly Soul Shielding and Breaking him, you can trigger a special cinematic attack that lowers his health to the halfway point, and a second one instantly defeats him, regardless of his remaining HP.

The boss, Garland of Final Fantasy 1 fame, is a lot of fun. He's aggressive and fast in a very fair way. He can wreck you if you get greedy or overextend, but on the same note, you can parry and block almost all of his attacks, so you can get just as aggressive with him. It also makes the fight feel cinematic as you're pushing your way through his attacks until you can stun him and Jack can punch his giant helmet so hard that it cracks. Even regular enemies are fun to fight, and they have some cool interactions. For example, Bombs casts a Fire spell that you can capture with your Soul Shield ability. If a Fire Spell is cast on them, they'll grow larger and self-destruct, so you can turn a frustrating enemy into a literal weapon against nearby foes.

Everyone was taken aback by Jack's plain and modern clothing in the trailer, but that clothing represents his default look. Like Nioh, Stranger of Paradise absolutely hemorrhages equipment, items and gear at you, each with stats and abilities. Some weapons or armor are tailored to certain classes and grant bonuses when equipped by them, while others can be used freely. It looks like the same Diablo-style loot treadmill that defined the Nioh games.

Overall, I was surprisingly impressed by Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. It helps that Team Ninja is building off of the strong base that Nioh gave it, so it already has experience in the Souls-like genre and in creating quick and satisfying combat. The demo left me wanting more, and if it can be as good as the Nioh titles, then Stranger of Paradise will be a darn fun time when it release in 2022.

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