Combining the Soulslike genre with the Final Fantasy license sounds like a recipe for success, but Team Ninja's execution prevents us from recommending the title.
After Team Ninja released The Nioh Collection on PlayStation 5, the developers let their feudal Japanese Soulslike series rest to devote themselves to other projects. Anyone who has played Nioh 2 extensively will likely have interpreted this news as a good sign, because the series has an apparent need for fresh ideas. On behalf of Square Enix, the team put their well-worn gameplay over the magical world of Final Fantasy and in the process created a kind of "accessible Final Fantasy Nioh". That may not sound wrong at first glance, but it should be understood as a warning.
With Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, Team Ninja expands the very first Final Fantasy from 1987 with a multi-layered backstory. If you want to learn more about the beginning of the long-running JRPG series, this adventure will give you insightful perspectives on some of the background themes and characters from the original. To do so, however, you'll have to play until the story is resolved, and that's no easy task due to a number of factors. Firstly, of course, there's the challenging Nioh gameplay that require quick reflexes to survive its regular difficulty spikes. The second obstacle is the exhausting story, which is told in a confusing manner, uses pale characters and makes little sense until the very end.
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The narrative spends a lot of time and energy preparing players for a big twist, which the team manages to pull off well enough but it requires too much investment overall. The un-reflected characters are the big problem, because they do not question their one-dimensionality but rather celebrate it provocatively, making them very unsympathetic. Almost all the characters in this game world are pale decals, but the leader of our grim troupe is in a league of his own. Jack is a soldier driven by hatred who in pursuit a being called Chaos. What this narrow-minded idiot says throughout the game is absolutely unbearable, and his harsh manner is the reason why the story doesn't develop - you could say he holds back the exposition with all his might.
The fact that we get to know him and the other party members better over the course of the game and understand why they behave the way they do compensates somewhat for the time we have to spend with them. However, in the end your connection to the original is what determines, how much you take away from all this. The story only really picks up in the last missions (i.e. after 20 or 30 hours) and then the epilogue is already very close. I am really surprised that the game actually managed to tell something like a coherent story, because for most of the time, the story was frankly obnoxious.
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Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin takes Nioh's complex gameplay structure and expands on certain facets. Enemies not only have a life bar, but also a posture bar (called "Break Gauge"). As soon as that is depleted, you can use the so-called "Soul Burst" to instantly (and unnecessarily brutally) execute foes. Weapons cause different posture damage and you can sometimes use the environment to your advantage, too, to take enemies by surprise more quickly.
An interesting innovation to the formula is the combo system, which expands your attack repertoire in a meaningful way. In practice, it is rarely used, since most of the time enemies won't give you enough time to initiate long attacks series. Still the movements can be used in a variety of ways and those who manage timing and inputs precisely will feel very powerful. In combat, we have three defensive manoeuvres at our disposal: You can defend against most attacks and with good timing perform a parry, some attacks need to be avoided via dodge rolling and there is also the "Soul Shield", with which you catch certain attacks that can be directed against your enemies later.
A big focus of Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is the job system, which is of course reminiscent of the Final Fantasy series. As you gain experience, you unlock passive and active effects in the various talent trees, and you want to have as many of these as possible. Each class dictates what weapons you can use and that in turn dictates the abilities you can access. The decision whether to head into battle with a battle axe, sword, lance, dagger or mace is not as big of a decision as you might think. As a mage, you can cover the enemies with magical attacks, but as soon as your mana pool is empty, you have to switch to melee to replenish your energy. Since we can switch between two sets of equipment at any time, you can prepare for different situations, though.
To cater to a new audience, Team Ninja offers several difficulty levels, which mainly affect the damage scaling. On "Story" you can hold out much longer in the fights and you are able to block all attacks. "Action" is a well-balanced option that can become challenging in the boss fights. If you fail against them, the game gives you very helpful hints via text message, and you can also reduce the difficulty level at every checkpoint. On "Hard" you lose part of your mana bar when you die and you have to collect it in order to make the most out of your active skills. After completing the game, another difficulty option becomes available, but this is only of interest to Team Ninja's hardcore action fans.
Besides the difficulty level you choose, your equipment level determines how much damage you do and how much you can take. Throughout the whole game, your equipment changes every minute, as Team Ninja continues to drown players in a flood of randomly generated items that unnecessarily slow down the flow of the experience. You can let the game choose the best pieces of equipment, so you fortunately don't have to deal with affinities and bonus effects intensively. Optimising your own gear really only makes sense at the very end of your journey, when you complete the very hardest missions on the Chaos difficulty and want to perfect your setup. Most players will therefore only use functions such as the forge to dispose of all the rubbish on a regular basis.
Unlike Nioh, we are not alone in Stranger of Paradise, but are accompanied by two party members. In battle, your companions will rarely make themselves noticed, but sometimes they attract the attention of enemies, which is very valuable in this kind of game. In multiplayer mode, which is unfortunately only possible within the console families of Sony or Microsoft (so there is no cross-play), other players slip into the roles of your companions. These guests can use their own weapons and abilities and they play primarily for equipment and experience.
The boss fights of Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin are the big highlight for sure, but unfortunately they don't have the quality you find in titles like Elden Ring and co. The gameplay of Nioh has been streamlined somewhat, but neither the generic level architecture nor the confrontations against normal foes are particularly exciting. The world is a complete mess, made up of different eras and technologies that make no sense at all for the most part. Team Ninja has clearly overshot the mark with the story, too, which is why I don't think even the fans will have too much fun with this instalment. However, if you are really into FF lore, you will definitely get something out of your time.
6 / 10
Persistence pays off. Fast-paced action game with multiple difficulty options. Final Fantasy fans will enjoy the adventure more likely.
While technically demanding, performance issues are inevitable. The setting of the world and the central story are complete nonsense for outsiders. Why does Team Ninja keeps throwing worthless trash at us?