We were recently able to sample two levels from the upcoming Souls-like.
A hybrid between the punishing and methodical combat of Nioh and the fantastical world of the Final Fantasy series should have had fans foaming at the mouth, but that's not exactly what happened when Stranger of Paradise was revealed. Whilst its concept did receive praise, many fans felt disappointed by its dated visuals and leading character that felt massively out of place in a Final Fantasy game. This was followed by the rocky launch of its demo, which was broken and inaccessible for many users until a fix was later applied. It's fair to say that it didn't have the smoothest of reveals and that's why I jumped at the chance to sample two levels from the game to see whether this criticism was truly valid.
Additionally, I was also given the chance to speak to several key figures involved in the title's development. These were producer, Jin Fujiwara, director, Daisuke Inoue, and Koei Tecmo's Fumihiko Yasuda, who also acted as a producer on the title.
With Strangers of Paradise featuring the same antagonist as the original Final Fantasy, many fans were confused whether the title was a faithful remake of the series' first outing. The team told us that Strangers of Paradise isn't a "carbon copy of the original" and the catalyst was that they wanted to explore the backstory of Garland and what drove him to become a villain. It might follow the original in its opening act, but then it spreads its wings and takes things in a completely different direction. Fumihiko Yasuda also detailed that it's not essential to have played previous entries to jump into Stranger of Paradise, but he did note that there are "references that [returning fans] will be able to smile at."
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The story this time focuses on the adventure of Jack, a brand-new protagonist that hasn't featured within any previous Final Fantasy entries. You might remember Jack from the trailer due to his obsession with killing Chaos and his strangely out of place everyday attire. In the interview it was teased to me that Jack and his allies Ash and Jed purposely have very simplistic names and this and their gender had been thought out very specifically. The reasoning behind this and why they all decided to team up together is said to become more apparent within the story.
The first level I was able to sample in the demo was the Chaos Shrine, which is the very first level in the game and it acts as a training ground of sorts to teach you the fundamentals. If you were able to play the PS5 demo then this one should be familiar to you, as it's the same area that was previously made available. The Chaos Shrine is a direct remake of the level of the same name in Final Fantasy, and it's a dreary gothic castle that is literally crumbling to pieces. The highlight from this one was the concluding boss fight with Chaos which essentially acts as a skill check. This fight I found to be an intense first brawl, as Chaos had no trouble putting me down with his fire sword if I missed his cues and got caught in the path of one of his combos.
The second level instead took place within a luscious green forest and it had a pretty interesting mechanic that allowed me to change the weather. Here, for example, I had to transform the weather from pouring rain to clear and sunny, so that the water level beneath me wasn't too deep to walk across. I liked that that demo showcased a contrast between environments, but I found both these stages to feel a little linear compared to other Souls-likes. Here I just walked in a pretty straightforward path from A and B and there was little opportunity to veer off the main path in search of secrets. Sure, there were some chests to be found containing loot, but these were rather predictably placed in areas that didn't directly lead to the objective.
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The combat here is, of course, a mesh of both Final Fantasy and Team Ninja's action RPGs, as it takes the flexible Job System from the former and blends it together with the latter's unforgiving action-based style. In true Souls fashion, you'll find yourself blocking and dodging incoming attacks and swinging your sword once an opening has become available to slowly chisel down your opponent's stagger bar. Once their stagger bar has depleted, you can then perform a pretty eye-catching looking finisher where you turn your enemies into crystals and then shatter them to dust. Whilst looking cool, this move also enables you to replenish your MP bar.
There are six different character classes here and through the Job System you can change between them on the fly. This means that if you're stuck within a particular area, for example, you can easily switch from a melee-focused Warrior class to a magic casting Black Mage to see whether it improves your chances of survival. You also have the freedom to change the roles of each character within your party and there's no class-specific gear that you'll pick up that you'll be locked out of. Each class also has their own specific Job Tree where you can learn new passive abilities by spending Job Points. Some of these increase core stats like your Strength and Stamina and others unlock brand-new abilities for you to use in combat.
A combat mechanic that I really enjoyed here was the Soul Shield. If you time a block using the Soul Shield at the right moment, you can learn your opponent's attacks and use them against them for a limited time. I felt almost like a Ditto from Pokemon when I was able to throw stones like a Goblin and sling fire balls like the floating Bomb enemies. This mechanic cannot be abused either, as it requires precise timing and your stagger bar starts to deplete whilst you're using it.
Okay, you knew I was going to have to address this at some point. It might not be a surprise to many of you that I didn't find the visuals to be one of the demo's more alluring aspects. I'll admit, things didn't look as rough around the edges as the initial reveal trailer, but I did find character models to look dated and attack animations to feel clunky. That said, the team has acknowledged this issue and plans to work on it before launch. In my interview with them, they said: "We went through and we found opinions about points that were detracting from the game experience and those were the bits that we focused on improving."
Sure, it might not have made for the best first impression, but I actually walked away from my time with Stranger of Paradise feeling optimistic about the Souls-like title. The combat here feels fluid and familiar and the Jobs Systems allows for plenty of flexibility with you being able to switch your character class on the fly. I was also a big fan of the Soul Shield mechanic that enables you to use your opponent's special attacks against them. Let's hope that the developers use the five months between now and launch to address some of its widely criticized aspects such as its dated visuals and unreliable party AI.
Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is set to release on March 18, 2022, on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series. The demo that we sampled as part of our preview is said to be made available to the public sometime in the near future.