I don’t often pre-order video games. When I do, it’s usually either because there was a pre-order discount or to improve the likelihood that Amazon ships my copy on day one (Amazon still does not always ship my copy on day one). Once in a while I will fall for the ol’ “you get some extra in-game items” ploy. I pre-ordered Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin because Square-Enix sweetened the pot by giving players who pre-ordered it access to the game three days before launch (and also some extra in-game items). It’s a silly thing to do, but it worked on me!
Now, alls that I knew about this game, before booting it up for the first time, was that it’s an action-focused retelling of the original Final Fantasy. Which is more than enough to get me on board! If I had to rank each numbered FF game, I would say that Final Fantasy the first would be the thirdst on my list. You should all know what number one is by now, but I’ll let you ponder which entry gets the silver medal. Hint: It is a hot take!
Stranger of Paradise, as it turns out, was developed by Team Ninja. Take a moment to let that statement colour your perception. It also straight up ganks a few key mechanics and some stylistic choices from Dark Souls. I would not, by any means, call this game a Souls-like, since the only major commonality is the bonfire mechanic. That being: you find save points scattered throughout the land, and when you touch a save point, your potions are refilled and all the monsters that you’ve killed come back to life. And also you respawn there when you die. And it’s where you’re allowed to level up.
Aside from that, mechanically speaking, this is Final Fantasy truly reborn as an action game. Hence the Team Ninja. Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy VII Remake were veering strongly in that direction, but this time around, the battle menu has been excised completely. All the things what you can do is on buttons, and if it ain’t on buttons, you’d can’t be doin’ it. Speaking of buttons: another comparison to Dark Souls: potions are bound to D-pad Down, and the Estus Flask is always on D-pad Down in the Souls games. Perhaps they are more alike than I’d originally thought.
Possibly the most important thing to note about Stranger of Paradise, to any Final Fantasy-lovin’ gamer, who is interested but not wholly on board yet, is that there is no world to traverse. There is a world map, yes, but it exists as an image from which you choose points of interest to which you will travel, much like Final Fantasy X. This is the thing I was most curious about pre-launch, and while I am slightly disappointed that I cannot fully explore an HD-rendered version of Final Fantasy’s world, I am more than understanding of the monumental amount of extra work it would have taken to craft said world. And so, the game is broken up into missions. That’s fine! I am fine with that.
Now that all the differences are out of the way, let’s focus on how this is, very clearly, a Final Fantasy-ass game. Namely: jobs. Jack, your playable character, has access to a variety of jobs, which will expand as you progress through the game. Each job gains experience, levels up, has a skill tree full of abilities and buffs to unlock, and will restrict you to certain weapon and armor types. Jack can have two jobs equipped at any time, and can flip between them with the press of a button. It reminds me a lot of Lighting Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Certain abilities can also be carried over from one job into another, allowing you to mix and match to suit your preferred play style, much like Final Fantasy V. You also get an affinity rating for each job, which can be increased by unlocking affinity nodes on the skill tree and equipping the right gear, and higher affinity levels grant all kinds of stat boosts and passive bonuses. This affinity system, to my knowledge, is unique among Final Fantasies.
Party members, at least at the beginning of the game, are locked to their default job. I presume that they eventually gain access to advanced jobs, but cannot provide any evidence to back this up. Call it a hunch.
All of that said, your characters themselves never actually level up. Their combat strength is entirely dependent on job levels and the gear they have equipped. Fortunately, this is 100% a loot-’em-up type of game, and you’re likely to get at least one drop from every monster you defeat. After completing the first mission, my inventory was bursting with almost 200 equippable items. So, if you don’t like micro-managing gear, this may not be the right video game for you. There is an auto-equip button, of course, which just mashes all of the stuff with the highest stats onto your mans and ladies. That’s how I’ve been doing it. Mine are not fashion-conscious heroes.
Finally, and most important to this here fanboy, the story has mysteriousness in spades. To reiterate, this is a reimagined version of the original Final Fantasy, and to that end, we have all the elements we expect. The first mission sees you heading to the Chaos Shrine to defeat a real bad dude. Your party members are referred to as warriors of light and must bring light back to the four faded elemental crystals. Chaos is the big bad… maybe? The first cutscene in the game shows Garland storming castle Cornelia and kidnapping Princess Sarah, which is right on brand, but then when you start playing, it kind of seems like that didn’t actually happen? The princess is right there, safe and sound and playing the FF1 Opening Theme on her lute, and she is the one who asks you to find Garland (her maybe-boyfriend?) and bring him home safe. But Garland doesn’t even seem to exist, as the Garland-looking guy you end up fighting turns out to be your fourth party member, a little girl named Neon. So there are some twists are turns ahead! As much as I delight in seeing all of the elements that are retained from the original game, I am much more excited to see what ends up being different.
More importantly than anything else, though, once you’ve cleared the Chaos Shrine and started off on the real quest, you are treated to this visual:
I played Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin for three hours last night, and while it has a very wonky control scheme that I am still not quite used to, I have been having an absolute blast with it. There is still a lot of game left to see, and only time will tell how I feel about it on the whole, but so far so good. Honestly though, between the strong early impressions and the expectations that come with its lineage, I could absolutely see this one ending up on my GOTY list.