As much sense as it makes on paper, I never actually expected the Final Fantasy team(s) at Square Enix to jump on the Soulslike train. Final Fantasy branches out into other genres all the time, but a space that prides itself on skill-based gatekeeping never seemed like a fit. Well, here we are, looking a Final Fantasy Soulslike action game right in the face. Stranger of Paradise’s trial demo, despite getting off to an unfortunate start, seems like it could be a secret banger.
There are certainly eyebrow-raisers here. The main character’s whole vibe is bizarre. Between screaming about Chaos, his weird t-shirt gimmick and his name being Jack, Nomura and company have a lot of work ahead of them to make this dude endearing. That said, the two sidekick-like folks are much more interesting, and the scenario itself slaps.
It’s easy to forget the plot part of the original Final Fantasy. But even then, Square was veering outside of the box with its storytelling and worldbuilding. While Dragon Quest was about a brave knight saving a princess and slaying a dragon, Final Fantasy got the princess thing out of the way upfront and transitioned into a demonic time loop threatening time and space, much less the local kingdom. There’s a lot of space to explore there, especially with the game’s world including all kinds of D&D-style monstrosities.
Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin Preview
We don’t know much more about the scenario, but with the “Stranger of Paradise” title and the Chaos-focused motivation it seems like our crew here might be unwilling participants in that time loop. It’s hard to say if these three are new versions of the Famicom classic’s Warriors of Light, or if something else is going on. Princess Sarah does make an appearance in the demo, as does “knock you all down” Garland himself. But between the locations, musical cues from the original game and other nods, I’m super intrigued to see where that all goes.
The Stranger of Paradise demo didn’t really show us much about the scenario, but it did offer a few hours of gameplay. And it was a pretty open-ended few hours as well, with no time limit outside of an ending boss fight. Up until then there’s freedom to explore the area, grind, and try out three different Jobs and their Advanced Job forms. The demo also shows us what the game’s current structure is, such as how it handles equipment, enemy placement, exploration, so on and so forth.
I played through the demo on the Normal difficulty, but it’s worth noting that was an option! Discourse aside, we've already seen the Soulslike genre has space for difficulty options (Last Jedi), and it’s just as appropriate here. Final Fantasy has always been about having options, and making room for people who just like to mash buttons and get a cool story.
Normal was no joke! It’s just as easy to kick ass as it is to get your ass kicked, even by the basic goblins and bombs hanging out around the area. But there’s no denying there are several routes to kicking ass, with the Job system giving players plenty of options to play with. With greatswords, maces and lances available, the three starting Jobs Swordsman, Mage and Lancer are available. If you put the time in, you can also grind up to their Advanced Jobs, the more familiar Warrior, Black Mage and Dragoon.
Each of these Jobs has a very different play style, along with their own skill trees you can fill out as you gain levels. You’ll fill out a customizable combo list with abilities you earn, as well as passive upgrades and more powerful abilities such as Lightbringer which sends Jack into a temporary berserker-like rage. There are also various universal abilities such as dodging, guarding, and a “Soul” tool that works in various ways to keep you alive.
The Soul mechanic is definitely the most distinct part of Final Fantasy Origin. By pressing circle Jack holds up a mysterious red orb, which functions as a sort of counter move. If you press it with the right timing before you take a hit, you’ll interrupt whatever was coming, gain some MP and an opportunity to hit back. It costs some of your “Break” meter to use however, and messing up the timing can leave you wide open. That said, you need MP to be your most effective, so Stranger of Paradise really encourages you to be aggressive and learn how to efficiently use your Soul skill in tandem with Breaking enemies.
Breaking is a simple stagger mechanic, the likes of which you’ve certainly seen in other Final Fantasy games and RPGs. It’s a second meter you and your foes have, and emptying it out gives you free license to deal some damage. It also gives Jack access to a finishing move that both restores MP and extends the maximum. Any non-standard ability eats up MP like it’s nothing, so getting in there and Breaking, countering and… not dying are crucial to keeping all your options open.
The loop is really fun! And having that insta-kill reward for chasing Break damage is super gratifying, especially in a game like this. Knowing you can run up on an enemy and finish them off, and get your options against the next enemy sustained makes for a good rush. And if you aren’t able to get the parry timing down, the game isn’t ruined for you either. Dodging and rolling is free, just less advantageous. There’s also a totally worthwhile guard, although you have to be aware of the drawbacks there.
My biggest issue with Stranger of Paradise so far is how equipment works. Sure, Jack’s button-up t-shirt thing is weird, but it really isn’t there long. You’ll pick up all kinds of equipment pieces and quickly have your own look. There are some issues though, which I feel conflict with customization. Each piece has little stat bonuses, stat values and sometimes affinity towards Jobs. And there are quite a few loot drops to sift through!
The problem is similar to early Diablo III. Most of the loot I picked up was not worth paying attention to. By the end of the demo I had tons of crappy weapons and armor clogging up my inventory menu, and once I unlocked the Warrior Job my whole equipment situation really deteriorated. This could be a side effect of me grinding a lot in a demo, but the loot system could use some work.
Overall, I’m totally sold on Stranger of Paradise so far. It’s obviously early, but the team working on this game absolutely has a solid framework set up. Combat feels great, the visuals are cool and the scenario has me intrigued. The loot system was more annoying than exciting though, and I am worried about people rejecting Jack more than they already seem to have.