I am loving this new subversive streak from Tetsuya Nomura and Kazushige Nojima. They’ve worked together plenty as a creative director/scenario writer duo and often push the bounds of creativity (whatever jokes you want to make about what Kingdom Hearts has become, it remains a fascinating concept). But more recent years have seen a growing self-awareness that flourished with Final Fantasy VII Remake: what’s set up to be a remake of one of the most beloved games of all time instead becomes a fascinating conversation with that legacy. A couple of years later, the original Final Fantasy gets similar treatment with Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin: an origin story of sorts, but one that’s far more interested in exploring the mark that the original left on the world.
“When darkness veils the world, four Warriors of Light shall come.” That’s the iconic line of prophecy that sets everything in motion in FF1: four Warriors of Light do indeed arrive, each holding a crystal (or an ORB, if you prefer), and they set about to push back the forces of darkness and stop the demon Chaos once and for all. Where these heroes came from and how they happened upon their crystals wasn’t important; what matters is their journey and their triumph over the darkness, and the way they become enshrined in legend in the process.
Stranger of Paradise opens in a similar way: a group of strangers arrives in Cornelia, the crystals they carry and their insatiable thirst to kill Chaos convincing them that they must be the Warriors of Light the prophecy speaks of. Like FF1’s Warriors of Light, we don’t know much about this group beyond their purpose—but neither do they, having lost all the memories and being driven only by this primal urge to fulfill Lukhan’s prophecy. Also… there are only three of them (to start with, at least), but the legend clearly states that four Warriors of Light shall come.
This opening paves the way for a journey that broadly mirrors that noble quest from 35 years ago, but—in a way strikingly reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII Remake—isn’t so much a retelling as it is a conversation with its own legacy. (Yes, it’s an origin story, but for a tale that was already established in the original as being cyclical). Stranger of Paradise is the familiar Warriors of Light quest, but one that constantly questions the assumptions that hold the original together, be that in main character Jack’s more abrasive personality and violent motivations, in the slow build-up to a far more sinister background to this particular journey, and in the way it sows seeds of doubt in the whole prophecy business right from the jump.
I don’t want to get into spoilers, but suffice to say that what begins as a familiar tale (if a slightly hazy interpretation of it) morphs into something that holds a mirror up to that original journey—and its audience, and its creators—in some intriguing ways. The whole concept of Warriors of Light and the Final Fantasy series’ long-standing Crystal mythos get caught in the crosshairs, to be deconstructed and reassessed in ways that are delightfully chaotic and overblown but also clever in their subtle details. A lot of people are going to write off Stranger of Paradise as something goofy and self-indulgent—comically brazen at best, cringeworthy at worst—but there’s far more depth to it than you might expect from something that, at first glance, seems like it’s trying so hard to be edgy that it makes Dirge of Cerberus seem refined.
Which isn’t to say that it isn’t this absolutely chaotic thing that takes “Angry Man, Kill Chaos!!!!!” energy to ludicrous extremes. It certainly is that, but in a way that is deliberate and self-aware, that doesn’t take itself too seriously as it satirises a certain popular breed of videogame hero. Sure, it doesn’t do it with the sort of overt winks to the camera and broken fourth walls that have apparently come to define satire over the years, but the “edginess” is so laughably overblown—and tempered with an undercurrent of genuine heart, and situated within the whole game’s subversive attitude—that it’s hard to see it as anything other than a deliberate joke.
What’s remarkable about Stranger of Paradise is the way it turns all of the above into a cohesive, compelling whole. Is it an origin story? A retelling? A deconstruction? A reflection on the mark left by the original? A balls to the wall action game? A playful satire? It’s all of the above, the pieces all working together to create something mesmerising. And the way the ending ties all those threads together, and connects the dots with the original game? It’s nothing short of masterful, to the point that it’s shifted my whole perspective on that fateful first outing for the Warriors of Light.
My only concern is a missed opportunity to push even further in its commentary on the Final Fantasy series as a whole, despite setting itself up exactly for that. Though the game takes place in the world of FF1 (or a version of it, at least), almost every dungeon is based on another game: the Water Shrine is a Mako reactor from Final Fantasy VII; Bikke’s hideout, the “Pravoka Seagrot”, is drawn from Final Fantasy XIV; the Mirage Tower channels Final Fantasy III’s Crystal Tower; and so on. Every numbered Final Fantasy to date is represented, and beyond simply being a stylistic choice, the source of these designs being other dimensions is specifically acknowledged in lore notes within the game. Each of these locations, in the history of Stranger of Origin’s world, is based on other dimensions representing other Final Fantasy games.
That is a fascinating setup, especially in the already subversive context that the rest of the game builds up, but it’s one that never really goes anywhere beyond slightly intriguing, sometimes slightly-playful lore notes. There’s a certain novelty in playing a version of FF1’s quest with dashes of other games thrown in, and it prompts some fun imagination about what a full, all-out remake of some of the older games in the series might look like. But with the way it’s set up, it feels like this approach should be more than the gimmick it ends up being.
It does make for some interesting locations to fight your way through, though, and with Team Ninja’s action prowess driving the combat, Stranger of Paradise hits all the right notes. It shares its foundations with Nioh in tempo, mobility, animations, and general ebb and flow—which, coupled with the foreboding atmosphere that’s rife throughout the game, has drawn many to the conclusion that Stranger of Paradise is a Final Fantasy “soulslike”. There’s an element of truth to that (again, it’s built on Nioh’s foundation), but it’s very much its own thing, and an extremely satisfying one at that.
A clever job system—loosely based on classic Final Fantasy games, but with a few new ones thrown in—brings a whole new dynamic to combat. In a game like Nioh or Dark Souls, where weapon animations are such a big element of combat, your choice of weapon is a key factor in playstyle. That remains true in Stranger of Paradise, but the added wrinkle of job-specific special attacks, and the ability to switch between two jobs on the fly, adds a wonderful new layer to the mix. There’s a lot of interplay between job actions and weapon skills, to the point that a dagger-wielding Ninja feels completely different to both a katana-wielding Ninja and a dagger-wielding Thief. Exploring those different combinations is a reward in its own right, even before you start digging into the nuances of the ones that really click. And for the number crunchers out there, the possibilities for character builds, between passive job bonuses and the inordinate amount of loot that drops, are near limitless.
Beyond that, the combat manages to balance frenetic energy with methodical precision, danger with excitement, finesse with a sort of chaotic aggression. Boss battles are the obvious highlight, as they always are in a game like this: epic, two-stage encounters with strange and terrifying beasts, both familiar to FF1 fans and unknown. But even outside of those dramatic encounters, the systems are so innately satisfying that simple fights with goblins and skeletons usually prove satisfying. And when you run into a cactuar or a tonberry? Well, that’s when things start to really get interesting…
Multiplayer—good, old-fashioned real-time coop, instead of this summoning business that a lot of soulslike games lean towards—kicks things up a notch. As much fun as Stranger of Paradise is alone, playing with friends and being able to coordinate more than you can with AI companions is always welcome. Even playing with random players, which is often a source of frustration in coop games, is generally smooth and satisfying, if slightly more chaotic. The bonus experience you get from playing multiplayer is a nice touch, too, and on harder difficulties, being able to revive other players can be a lifesaver.
For all the soulslike DNA it carries from Nioh, Stranger of Paradise also deviates in one major way: it’s forgiving, even easy, if you want it to be. On its easiest setting, there’s a lot of room for error, and even when you do die, you lose nothing other than whatever progress you’d made towards your destination. Harder settings ramp up the difficulty of the encounters, and death is a little more costly—your max MP gradually increases as you kill enemies, but resets when you die—but is still far from the pain of losing a whole lot of souls you’d been hoarding. In combat, stamina (called Break here) only affects defensive moves, so you can swing your weapon to your heart’s content without having to worry about not having enough left in the tank to block your foe’s next big attack.
I’d even go as far as saying Stranger of Paradise isn’t really a soulslike, despite some superficial similarity—not from any sort of elitist, “git gud” place, but just in the way it chases a different appeal and scratches a different itch. That said, the Chaos difficulty that unlocks after you complete the game is more akin to Nioh’s level, and is a welcome challenge for those looking for it. (If anything, Stranger of Paradise makes a strong case for “easy” modes in soulslikes. I know that, after playing through on easy mode and being able to just enjoy the story that way, I’m enjoying the challenge of Chaos mode a lot more than I would if that was my first and only way to experience the game.)
“Final Fantasy meets Nioh” is in easy assumption to make about Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, given appearances, and while that’s not exactly inaccurate, it’s an incomplete description. Team Ninja’s pedigree and inventive riffs on Final Fantasy staples makes for an action RPG that’s hard to put down, but what really sets Stranger of Paradise apart is the subversive way it approaches its source material. This isn’t your typical origin story; it’s a deconstruction of that first Final Fantasy and a reflection on the legacy it left in its wake—one that’s entertaining, often funny, sometimes biting, but above all, is willing to question its own canon in a way that you don’t often see from a series as high-profile as this.