Few franchises have the legacy of Final Fantasy, a series with dozens of games released over 36 years. That puts Final Fantasy in a unique position to use its history and examine how the tropes the first game established influenced the rest of the franchise. While games like Final Fantasy 7 Remake toy with the series’ history, nothing goes as meta as Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, a deceptively subversive action game that examines the very nature of what it means to be a Final Fantasy game and puts a fantastic action combat system on top as a bow. It’s a fascinating experience that fully embraces campy storytelling. And it’s a must-play now that it’s free on PS Plus Extra and Premium.
Stranger of Paradise is ostensibly a “retelling” of the very first Final Fantasy, but it also functions as a bit of a pseudo-sequel that examines and subverts the role the “Warrior of Light” trope has played in the series. You follow Jack Garland, a man with no memory of his past who bears a mysterious crystal and finds out he’s one of the prophesized Warriors meant to save the world from darkness.
Stranger of Paradise follows the same story beats as the original Final Fantasy, but it hugely embellishes events, twisting things around in new ways. What’s fascinating about the game’s storytelling, however, is its shlocky, almost tongue-in-cheek approach to humor. Stranger of Paradise knows its premise is ridiculous, and it runs headfirst into it.
There’s a B-movie style to the whole thing as Jack and the rest of the cast embrace a mid-2000s kind of edginess that’s all about being moody and dark. It would be easy to write off some of the game’s dialogue as poor writing, but in actuality, it feels more like an intentional aesthetic the development team embraced. Everything in Stranger of Paradise feels so laughably over-the-top and dialed up, and it works. For instance, one story section has a major boss deliver a lengthy monologue before being unceremoniously interrupted by an expletive and roundhouse from Jack.
More than anything this isn’t a “hero” story, rather it’s an examination of how the expectations thrust upon heroes can warp perceptions. Every piece of the story contributes to that deconstruction of the original Final Fantasy and that includes the very structure of the game.
Each level is presented as a different “dimension,” but these dimensions are all locations from other Final Fantasy games, complete with new renditions of music. In one level, you explore a twisted take of Sunleth Waterscape from Final Fantasy XIII, and another has you delve into a bizarro version of the Crystal Tower from Final Fantasy III.
Stranger of Paradise uses past games as a tool to tell its story, seeing the main cast realize the truth as they make their way through the series’ history. All those narrative ambitions are great, but the glue holding the whole thing together is Stranger of Paradise’s combat, which uses one of the best versions of Final Fantasy’s trademark job system ever seen.
There are 28 jobs in the game, and you can equip two at any time. Each one has different attacks and skills like Black Mage’s elemental spells and Dragoon’s jump attack. The depth of the system comes in the different job combinations you can use and how they play off each other. For example, a White Mage can heal and buff then switch to a Warrior to maximize damage.
Layered on top of this is Soulslike action that emphasizes timing your attacks right and parrying enemies. It’s a fantastic system that encourages speed and maximizing damage, but there is one important downside. Stranger of Paradise has a big loot problem, throwing dozens of pieces of new equipment at you constantly. You’re constantly swapping out equipment, and the easiest way to deal with this is simply to use the auto-equip option. The propensity of loot is an admittedly baffling design decision, but everything else about combat surrounding it works superbly.
It’s so rare to see a game that doesn’t just use nostalgia as a crutch but instead harnesses that feeling into a statement about what the series has become. Stranger of Paradise may not be perfect, but seeing such an established series get so experimental and meta is fascinating. There’s a strong action game at the core of Stranger of Paradise for genre fans, but anyone who’s stuck with Final Fantasy for decades will appreciate the wild leaps the story takes. Either way, getting this gem for free is a steal.