“I don’t give a fuck who you are!” a generic but handsome blonde man screams before punching a boss in the face, rudely interrupting their villainous monologue.
This self-aware humor permeates throughout Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin, and by and large, it works really, really well. Any fears I had about Stranger of Paradise were dispelled after a dozen or so hours with its phenomenal combat system, strange but genuine story, and a surprising commitment to celebrating everything Final Fantasy — all through the eyes of an angry edgelord named Jack.
While the game might initially appear as a “Soulslike” take on Final Fantasy, it actually falls much more in line with a straight-up action game like Ninja Gaiden. That makes it far more accessible than even something like Elden Ring. Stranger of Paradise is a good time, but it does have some forgivable flaws.
Don’t be a Stranger
At the highest level, Stranger of Paradise is a re-imagining of the very first Final Fantasy: The prophesied Warriors of Light endeavor to save the Kingdom of Cornelia. But it weaves in a wild story with some bonkers sci-fi elements you won’t expect. Tetsuya Nomura’s effect on the game is clear. Whether or not that’s a good thing likely comes down to how you feel about Nomura’s work in general. If you like the style of modern Final Fantasy games and the narrative complexity of Kingdom Hearts, then you’ll enjoy this.
Protagonist Jack Garland and companions Jed and Ash are all drawn to Cornelia for reasons they cannot explain, but they’ve got some crystals and a hankering to kill “Chaos.” As they journey across the world, two more Warriors of Light join them. Why five when there should be four? This is a good question to ask.
Stranger of Paradise’s story and characters aren’t quite as intricate as a mainline Final Fantasy, mostly because of the game’s structure. You don’t explore an open world, but rather a series of missions that are initiated from a world map. The party banters a lot as you go through missions, and the story often plays around with Jack’s absurd machismo.
There’s a sense of surrealism that develops as you get further into Stranger of Paradise. You’re on this quest in a high-fantasy world, but you find these notes about other “dimensions.” Jack also listens to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” on his phone. It’s utterly absurd, but somehow it works.
In between missions, you can head to Cornelia to talk to a few NPCs. None of this is vital, or even very important, but there are some hilarious lines, like an absolute idiot named Fred that jokes about the Warriors of Light “relieving his back pain.” The story is disorienting for a long time, but once you get a bit more clarity, it gets better.
Get a Job
Each mission in Stranger of Paradise has your party trekking through a new dungeon based on an area from one of the 15 mainline Final Fantasy games, looping in elements and musical themes from each.
The Evil Forest from FFIX has springs that restore your health, while Sunleth Waterscape from FFXIII lets you use orbs to change the weather. Each has a unique element that makes it stand out, and some degree of exploitability. The soundtrack evokes past games but provides a more modern spin, delivering a convenient victory lap of Final Fantasy’s greatest hits — just in time for the first game’s 35th anniversary.
Stranger of Paradise’s combat system is eye-wateringly fast and brutal, clearly taking inspiration from Team Ninja’s pedigree of action titles. One of the most unique elements of the game comes with Soul Shield. You can expend your stagger gauge to block an enemy’s attack. If timed correctly, you can restore MP or even absorb your enemy’s attacks to use against them.
Enemies also have stagger gauges, and when depleted, you can use an incredibly violent Soul Burst move to make them explode and restore MP. There’s a certain kind of grim glee that arises from seeing Jack brutally explode the various iconic Final Fantasy creatures, like having Kratos use Spartan Rage in God of War.
The job system is at the heart of the game’s combat and progression with skill trees and more advanced jobs to unlock. Black Mage, Thief, and Dragoon are here, but there are a few new additions as well, like Void Knight and Tyrant. The amount of variety offered is truly staggering, and it’s easily one of my favorite instances of the job system in the entire Final Fantasy series. Your party members also have different jobs they can use, and during battle, you can press left or right on the D-pad to make the assigned party member attack with more intensity for a time.
Stranger of Paradise does a fairly good job with its enemy variety, and as you might expect it can be quite the challenging experience. Enemies are relentless, and dungeons often put you in disadvantageous situations. Boss battles are where the combat really shines, however, as they feel like immense challenges that truly put your skills to the test. Each battle requires you to carefully select the right jobs, master the timing of using Soul Shield, and work together with your allies.
The good news is that you can lower the difficulty at any time if you’re having trouble, and there’s no punishment for doing so.
Loot loot riot
An abysmal loot system is really the only glaring thing holding Stranger of Paradise back. You can equip various weapons and pieces of armor, some of which can boost your affinity with certain jobs and unlock abilities. But Stranger of Paradise absolutely overwhelms the player with hundreds of pieces of loot.
Every few minutes you’re collecting a dozen new pieces, forcing you to smash the optimize button and run to the Smith to dismantle equipment constantly. Dealing with the torrent of mediocre loot that gets thrown at you really ruins the immersion of trying to kill Chaos with angry red crystal magic.
Stranger of Paradise visuals also straddles a weird line between gorgeous art design and almost PS3-era textures. Environments have some imaginative details that riff on past Final Fantasy games, but characters models are downright ugly sometimes. I also had to spend a lot of time fiddling with the HDR in order to get it right, and even then some areas looked a bit too dark. Luckily, performance-wise, I ran into only a bit of slowdown playing in Performance Mode on PS5.
If you watched any of this game’s trailer and thought “I’m into that!” then you absolutely will not be disappointed. Strange of Paradise is a bizarre experience with a kitschy appeal, leaning into its assumed cult status with gusto. While it may not be perfect, Stranger of Paradise is one of the most fun Final Fantasy spinoffs in a very long time — and easily one of the most surprising things that Square Enix has published in even longer.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? And, are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure. And as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.
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