A dark and crumbling castle. A protagonist with a heavy, slow sword. Overwhelming enemies that respawn whenever you check in at a save point. Boss encounters that feel impossible on the first try.
These are a few of my favorite things.
You’ll find all of these features and designs in every one of developer FromSoftware’s games, most notably Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and almost certainly in the upcoming Elden Ring. You wouldn’t expect to find them in a Final Fantasy game, which is one of the most shocking — and best — things about Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin.
Even early Final Fantasy Origin leaks hinted that it would be a gritty “Soulslike,” but the demo outright feels like Dark Souls “Easy Mode.” It copies so many of the same game systems. It has the same grim brutality. It even feels the same. In all this, it scratches a hyper-specific itch that many gamers, this writer included, have wanted for a long time.
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In Final Fantasy Origin, you play as Jack, a guy who used to work at Abercrombie & Fitch but he go too old so they had to let him go. (Not really, but that’s his vibe.) Through reasons unknown, he winds up at the Chaos Shrine — a major dungeon from the very first Final Fantasy — hellbent on killing Chaos, a demonic monster who’s sort of known for time loops. Despite wearing a skintight henley (from his former job?), he wields a massive sword and magic powers like Soul Burst that cause enemies to explode in blood-red crystals when he rips them apart.
The whole execution is very edgelord and gnarly for Final Fantasy, particularly how blood smears across Jack’s weapons as he slays poor little goblins. Soul Burst is almost identical to Kratos’ Rage kills in God of War (2018). It may be rated Mature, but it doesn’t exactly feel mature in execution. Despite that, pretty much every other mechanic, feature, or design choice oozes Dark Souls with several modifications that make it even easier.
This makes sense considering the developer Team Ninja is also behind the Nioh games, a spirited series of riffs on the subgenre that launched in 2017. Like Nioh, combat in Final Fantasy Origin is a touch faster-paced than the slow and methodical nature of Dark Souls. Yet you could argue that Nioh is even more difficult because of this. Weapon-based Jobs like Swordsmen, Mage, and Lance in Origin offer more nuance in terms of magical abilities or special combos, but it’s the overall difficulty that makes it more accessible.
The way you approach combat encounters and exploration in Origin is exactly like in Dark Souls, however. Save points reset the entire world and replenish a limited stock of healing potions while also respawning enemies in the same locations every time. Not only do you have to memories the layout and spawn points of each enemy, but you also have to keep track of individual attack patterns. Otherwise, you can be quickly overwhelmed, killed, and sent back to your most recent save.
Origin departs furthest from the Soulslike formula in its treatment of death, and it’s here that it truly becomes “Easy Mode.”
Permadeath in your average Soulslike is one of the most frustrating video game experiences imaginable. You collect some sort of currency — like “Souls” — from killing every enemy, and you spend it to upgrade weapons, unlock abilities, and level up your character. But if you die in combat, you lose it all. You can reclaim it from your dead body, but if you die before doing so, it’s all gone forever ... even if that means losing a small fortune.
Final Fantasy Origin instead wonders, “What if we eliminated everything that makes Dark Souls frustrating?” When you die in battle, the only thing you lose is a little bit of dignity and progress since your latest save point. Experience and items persist.
It incentivizes aggressive risk-taking, an approach that’s often rewarded in games of this ilk, just not to this extent. You want to get up close and personal with every enemy so you can use Jack’s Soul Shield to parry attacks, boost your MP, and then spend that MP to activate Lightbringer. This empowers Jack’s attacks so enemies “break” easier, meaning you can use Soul Burst more often. Once you get the flow of things, this combat loop is fairly easy to execute, and it’s a total power trip.
For anyone who’s long avoided Soulslike games for their difficulty, know that people love them because they feel too difficult at first. If you can get by that first werewolf in Bloodborne without dying, you’re either immensely lucky, very skilled, or both. The process of mastering combat maneuvers with twitchy reflexes makes you feel like you have an otherworldly skill, which makes the power trip that much more intense.
The Final Fantasy Origin demo delivers a similar, albeit diluted form of the same satisfaction. For Final Fantasy fans who want something a little more accessible than a full-on Souls game, it’s a perfect compromise. Can the final product deliver? We’ll have to wait and see.
Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is slated for release in 2022.