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Strangers Of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin Review

Do you have a moment to talk about crystals and chaos?

The Final Fantasy series has been lying about the finality of its fantasies for almost the same amount of time that I’ve been alive. While I’m definitely in the camp of those who know little of what came before Final Fantasy VII, it’s a series that’s near and dear to my heart and a vital part of gaming history. Strangers of Paradise is an odd one for me then, being a prelude developed with modern day technology to the very first Final Fantasy game that kicked things off in the misty before times of 1987. References to that title were destined to be lost on me (and I imagine I’m not alone), but one thing is resoundingly clear – Strangers of Paradise is an incredibly odd beast, and not your typical Final Fantasy fare. Its hack and slash looter gameplay that bravely attempts a slightly trashy imitation of both Nioh 2 and Devil May Cry simultaneously, combined with a bewildering story told in mostly incomprehensible fashion, should doom this prequel to become a mere memory in a bargain bin. But somehow, despite its fundamentally flawed design and the fact it features one of the most unlikeable main characters since Tidus, I kind of love it.

A princess. A castle. Crystals. Chaos. A story as old as time

In exceedingly confusing fashion, the game kicks off with a dark knight laying waste to a castle and abducting a princess. Fast forward (or backwards, who knows?) and we’re introduced to professional gruff bastard Jack Garland. With little prelude, Jack quickly makes the acquaintance of some random people at the gates to the capital city of Cornelia, and they all agree that although they don’t know what’s going on, they are all hell bent on hunting something called Chaos. There are knowing glances and fist bumps all round, it’s a good time. The beginning few hours of the game are a bit of a mess, as you try to come to grips with what our black crystal-wielding amnesiac warriors of light are actually doing in the kingdom of Cornelia, with limited exposition conveyed through stilted dialogue and some fairly muddy in-engine cutscenes. There’s also a baffling tutorial in a wheat field, because why not? It’s eventually made clear that your job is to rid the lands of Chaos, whose dark energy has corrupted the four elements and spread a bit of calamity about the place. While this initial mission outline is simple enough, the actual machinations behind it are more complex, and the path trodden by the warriors of light may not be as straight and righteous as they imagine.

It took me until the dying hours of Strangers of Paradise to actually appreciate its narrative, as up until then it lacked momentum, agency and direction, three things that I think we all agree a good story kind of needs. It doesn’t help that Jack Garland and his cohort have the emotional colour palette of pocket lint, with most of their personality conveyed in nonsensical interludes between combat gameplay sections. Jack is by far the greatest problem this game has, with his oft-voiced bloody mindedness about wanting to tear Chaos a new one not exactly the most compelling platform for character development. While there is the requisite amount of anime gasps and grunts to assure you that this is indeed at least partly inspired by the famous JRPG series, it lacks the overwrought melodrama I crave in a Final Fantasy game, choosing instead to wilfully confound the player with near endless faff about crystals before getting to the good part. Seriously, it’s like striking up a conversation with the purple-haired lady who reeks of patchouli doing yoga in the park, soon enough you’re going to end up talking about crystals. It’s a bit of a pity the narrative spends so long either barely existing or floundering in a catatonic state, because at its heart the game’s story does have interesting elements revolving around the cyclical themes of chaos and control, but let’s just say it takes a good long while for that part to shine.

Even Cornelia was not immune to the ravages of coronavirus

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…it’s like striking up a conversation with the purple-haired lady who reeks of patchouli doing yoga in the park, soon enough you’re going to end up talking about crystals.

If you took Nioh 2 and Devil May Cry, popped them in the blender and then set it to high, the lid would inexplicably come flying off and Strangers of Paradise’s gameplay would come spewing out. Despite the fact it’s a bit messy, the combat is actually the most compelling part of the package, with a highly addicting (if extremely exploitable) loot system and quite a few interesting mechanics keeping the experience alive. At the heart of combat is the job system, whereby different equipped weapons will give you access to different classes called jobs. Jobs will determine your basic and special attacks, and you’re able to level up each individually, with abilities and stat buffs unlocked at a steady pace for a dizzying and varied amount of jobs. You can switch between two on the fly, and I experimented liberally before settling on the Mage job and its more advanced variants. With access to healing and destructive magic plus the ability to regenerate MP by landing blows with a big ol’ mace, it’s objectively the most versatile, but there are plenty to choose from and you’ll no doubt find a couple that resonate with your style.

A key mechanic in Strangers of Paradise is the break gauge, common to both you and your enemies. Depleting an enemy’s break gauge using flashy attacks and abilities will stagger them and open them up for a colourfully animated finishing blow called a soul burst, where you turn them into crystals and summarily smash them to smithereens. Similarly, having your own gauge depleted results in a lengthy stun that can spell the difference between life and death. You can perform a normal block, which will mitigate physical damage and deplete your gauge a bit, or you can do a well-timed soul shield, which will sacrifice a chunk of your break gauge depending on how long you hold it down, but also blocks 100% of incoming damage (including magic damage). It also has the added bonus of opening enemies for a quick counter attack, while simultaneously replenishing your MP and increasing its maximum amount, feeding into being able to use your special abilities more often. Furthermore, certain enemy abilities can be absorbed by soul shield and thrown right back in their dumb faces, making it one of your most valuable combat tools.

Tell me honestly, does this fedora look terrible?

Solid shoutouts at this point have to be given to your party members, who are more than capable of taking the fight to the enemy and can draw away heat if you want to take on a support role or heal up. They may have the personalities of a faded couch cushion, but in combat they are indispensable.

Surrounded by droves of familiar enemies from the Final Fantasy universe including Cactuars, Marlboros, Bombs, Lobos and Goblins, the on-screen action can very quickly descend into a frantic state, with named special attacks appearing everywhere and colourful crystal explosions festooning your view. Eventually though you’ll find a rhythm between attacking and soul shielding that will make you a weapon of mass destruction, and I gleefully threw myself into every battle as my power grew. Solid shoutouts at this point have to be given to your party members, who are more than capable of taking the fight to the enemy and can draw away heat if you want to take on a support role or heal up. They may have the personalities of a faded couch cushion, but in combat they are indispensable. The two other party members can be controlled by other humans in online co-op, but the AI does a phenomenal job if solo play is your jam. I recommend playing on hard if you’re a veteran of action-RPGs, as it offers a meaty and steadily increasing challenge, particularly the amazing boss fights which are found at the end of each vaguely linear mission. These boss fights are a real highlight (as they should be in a Final Fantasy game), and even if the rank and file enemies stopped giving me any real grief after I got the hang of things, I always treated the bosses with respect (and of course the shambling terror that is a Tonberry. Always treat them with respect. Always). On the subject of bosses, some mechanical script flipping in the final battles was highly questionable (although ultimately surmountable), but if a Final Fantasy game isn’t pulling a sly one in its final act then is it really a Final Fantasy game?

Comparisons to Nioh 2 are not simply to make a metaphor about blenders, anyone who has played that title will immediately see the parallels. Killing enemies will see brightly coloured loot spew forth from their corpses, and the rate at which you gather new weapons and armour for you and your party is nothing short of breakneck. Depending on the level of the mission, you’ll be upgrading to better gear almost every encounter, and while this is exciting, it also partially breaks the game. Not only will you be swimming in gear that you’ll have to discard or dismantle in the clunky menu to make room in your inventory for more, the whole system of upgrading your gear is rendered completely pointless by the fact it is destined to be replaced in an instant. The game knows it’s gone a bit wild with the loot, and has mercifully given you the option to equip you and your entourage with the best gear at the click of a button. You can exploit the system too by taking on quests above your level and then bask in the fountains of high-level gear that eject violently from even the lowliest enemies. The balance is completely skewed by this fact and sullies an otherwise fun loot-based experience. Even Chaos difficulty (unlocked after completing the 20-hour campaign) is a bit of a breeze using this trick, but that didn’t stop me from revisiting the game after the credits rolled for some more action.

Crystal explosions are the soupe du jour…every day

Final Thoughts

Within the first few hours of Strangers of Paradise, I was ready to write off the experience; a spectacularly unlikeable protagonist, a bewildering, garbled story and slightly derivative combat made me wonder what on Earth Square Enix and Team Ninja had set out to achieve with this frantic action-RPG. But surrendering to the painfully bad dialogue and embracing the ludicrous loot system created sites of nucleation for crystals of purpose to grow within me, and I was drawn into the janky experience in profound ways (it’s even got me making crystal metaphors for Christ’s sake). Objectively and fundamentally it’s flawed, but it turns out that’s not enough to stop me loving it just that little bit.

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Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher

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Strangers Of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin Review
Crystal Method
Strangers of Paradise is a loveable action-RPG despite its best efforts to spoil itself with a story that only becomes interesting in the last hour. The action is a little messy and not all of the moving parts gel together perfectly, but it's got a compelling janky charm that is hard to ignore.
The Good
The job system is cool, and thoughtful combat mechanics keep the action varied
The loot comes thick and fast, feeding into a burgeoning sense of power
Boss fights are universally challenging and excellent
The story manages to get interesting in the last hour...
The Bad
...but the preceding 19 hours are an exercise in aimless, abstract incoherence
The loot system buckles under the weight of its extreme drop rate, and is infinitely exploitable
Final battles pull a bit a bit of a sly trick
7.5
Good
  • Team Ninja
  • Square Enix, Koei Tecmo
  • PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X&S / Xbox One / PC
  • March 18, 2022

Strangers Of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin Review
Crystal Method
Strangers of Paradise is a loveable action-RPG despite its best efforts to spoil itself with a story that only becomes interesting in the last hour. The action is a little messy and not all of the moving parts gel together perfectly, but it’s got a compelling janky charm that is hard to ignore.
The Good
The job system is cool, and thoughtful combat mechanics keep the action varied
The loot comes thick and fast, feeding into a burgeoning sense of power
Boss fights are universally challenging and excellent
The story manages to get interesting in the last hour…
The Bad
…but the preceding 19 hours are an exercise in aimless, abstract incoherence
The loot system buckles under the weight of its extreme drop rate, and is infinitely exploitable
Final battles pull a bit a bit of a sly trick
7.5
Good
Written By Kieran Stockton

Kieran is a consummate troll and outspoken detractor of the Uncharted series. He once fought a bear in the Alaskan wilderness while on a spirit quest and has a PhD in organic synthetic chemistry XBL: Shadow0fTheDog PSN: H8_Kill_Destroy

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