Image is taken from https://www.square-enix-games.com/sopffo/en-us/
The Final Fantasy series has had a myriad of mainline entries and spin-offs over the years, each one attempting to add something new and interesting to the turn-based JRPG genre. However they have had their share of entries breaking away from the traditional RPG style such as the turn-based strategy game Final Fantasy Tactics on the PS1 and the action RPG Final Fantasy Type 0, initially released on the PSP in Japan and rereleased on the PSVITA and PS4 internationally.
In 2021, Square announced their new spin-off project to hold fans over till the release of the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI, a reimagining of the one that started it all, by of all studios Koei Tecmo, known primarily for the Dynasty Warriors and Dead or Alive series. More recently, and relevant, however, they have also become known for their Nioh series, a foray into the "souls-borne" action RPG subgenre. The team behind it would be working on this new Final Fantasy title called "Strangers of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin."
After its announcement many took note of its edgier style, likening it to M Rated games from the mid-2000s such as The Darkness or Gears of War. These comparisons turned out to be accurate with the release of the limited demo, allowing players to go through the first dungeon. Many would go on it make memes about the writing and the infamous scene at the end of the demo where the companion character, Neon, gives her whole monologue about Chaos not being a physical entity, to which the protagonist, Jack replies with "bullshit" and proceeds to walk away as he blasts some 2000s butt-rock on his MP3 player. While many took to the internet to ridicule it, I was quite excited about this modern blast from the past. I am a lover of everything "so bad it's good" so I made sure to preorder the game as soon as I finished the demo, and to little surprise, I was instantly hooked.
The Opening Hours
The game starts you off in the first real dungeon you go to in the original Final Fantasy, Chaos's temple. You're told almost nothing, other than that you and your companions have these crystals that lead everyone to believe you are the chosen heroes who will go and save the kingdom. Jack, our main character, is a simple man with a simple goal: "To kill Chaos." Players of the original game and fans, in general, know that Chaos is the big bad of the original game, an evil creature hellbent on creating disorder in the world, however, someone who doesn't know this will go into this thinking "oh okay."
You're thrown into this dungeon with mountains of loot and different shortcuts to unlock. Upon completing the dungeon, you get to "KILL CHAOS" only not really as you defeat him and find out that it was a woman named Neon, who was possessed by Chaos. What follows is the exact same cutscene as in the demo only now, you are free to explore the rest of the map in a linear fashion. The whole world is at your disposal through a neat little menu that allows you to go back to whatever dungeon you completed.
Strangers of Paradise will seem familiar to returning Nioh players in its structure. Rather than a large interconnected world like Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and the recent Elden Ring, you instead navigate individual and enclosed levels with linear beginnings middles, and ends collecting loot along the way that you use to make your character more powerful (and stylish). What is different here of course are the Final Fantasy elements. One such element for example is the stagger system which was introduced back in Final Fantasy XIII and has since been improved upon in later entries like the more recent Final Fantasy VII Remake. This is a major aspect of the combat as a good chunk of battles relies on the player building up an enemy's stagger meter, either through using a weapon type or element they are weak to, then breaking their armor, making them open to an onslaught of attacks.
Another element brought over is the job/class system. Not dissimilar from the one introduced in Final Fantasy V where you can have your character switch to any job in the game through the menu, then as you level each job, you receive permanent skills that carry over to other jobs. Here, you have your starting basic jobs such as a Swordsman, a Duelist, and a Mage, but as you level up each of those skill trees, you unlock more advanced jobs that you can switch to at any given moment.
Some of these will require you to max out multiple different job types to unlock and will end up being a hybrid of the two, for example; to play as a Red Mage you need to max out the Swordfighter and Mage trees, but then you find that you can max out the Red Mage tree to unlock the Void Knight job, but then you also need to max out the Knight tree which is unlocked by maxing out Swordknight and Swordfighter. This becomes one of the pillars of SoP's gameplay loop as you play through the dungeons multiple times, both to complete the sidequests as well as grinding enough to unlock those jobs you wanted.
Now, the word "grinding" can be scary to some players, but SoP makes this part of the game engaging as each job plays vastly differently from one another. The Black Mage for example is more focused on elemental damage and using an enemy's weakness to stagger enemies quicker, or you can choose to play a Dark Knight which is more focused on dealing heavy damage at the cost of some health.
To top it off, each of the later jobs allows for multiple different weapon types, giving a lot of room for experimentation with finding your own playstyle. I for example really took to the Tyrant class which allows you to imbue your weapons with elemental damage, but I also used fist weapons allowing for higher DPS and faster guard breaks through said elemental attacks. The possibilities are seemingly endless.
If there is any fault I can give to the gameplay, it would be to the mission structure for the sidequests. Going through each dungeon was a lot of fun, especially seeing all the nods to the previous games hidden throughout, however, the sidequests as I stated before have you going through these dungeons again, only this time in reverse. Now thankfully you won't be going through all of it again for every dungeon, but some will have you completing some pretty tedious and often times boring missions, such as killing 10 Tonberries, one of the most infamous enemies in the series for their ability to "insta-kill" your entire party.
Now, these quests are absolutely optional and you can skip them on lower difficulties if you wish. However, if you're like me and like to be a little challenged by your games, then you will likely be playing this game on hard since at least for me, the game felt too easy even on this difficulty. Of course, I was also shooting for a really broken build, but I felt justified in doing so as the game goes through a heavy difficulty spike halfway through, and going through these sidequests is an absolute must if you want your jobs to be nicely leveled by the end of the game.
Another little dent in this game is the inventory screen. You must be thinking to yourself; "how can they mess up an inventory screen?" And they really don't, but there is a limit to how much loot you can hold, and in a game where weapons and armor spill out left and right, this ends up being a big problem because about a third of the way through the game you'll end up finding yourself constantly having to go in the inventory menu to see what you need and get rid of what you don't. Thankfully, there's a select button so you can get rid of large sweeps of trash you don't need pretty easily, but it still doesn't change that you're going to be visiting this screen very frequently, especially by the last third of the game. Thankfully, I had a method of dealing with this, which was just selecting every piece of equipment that was more than 3 levels less than what I and my party was and just getting rid of it all, which was semi-effective, but it still only barely alleviated the issue.
The Flawed but Neat
All games have a little quirk to them, something that may be considered bad or flawed but add something to the overall experience and for this game, I would say it's the story. Strangers of Paradise claims to be a reimagining of the original game's story but it is honestly so much more, and I can't tell you what that is without spoiling the game's ending. I will say this, however; the story and characters at first glance can appear to be insultingly simple, and the writing at first glance could be called bad. And perhaps in retrospect, it is, but there is a reason for it. All I can say is if you choose to play this game, be patient. Stay along for the ride and see what this game becomes. It was something that I wasn't really expecting, and the way it is executed at the end I would describe as being clumsy, but breathtakingly exhilarating, and the way it all wraps up made for one of my favorite endings in any video game.
Strangers of Paradise is a very particular kind of game. The gameplay takes many ideas from its own parent series as well as the developer's previous works and throws it all into a blender without any regard for how it will actually turn out. What we got was a game clumsily, but passionately stitched together with love. There are some crevices in the seams, some moments where I felt like they didn't really take into account the ways players could break the game, and yet also having those Tonnberry sidequests as roadblocks for those mindless going through the campaign. The game isn't an experience that goes down smoothly and yet there's this nice bittersweet aftertaste to it after each session that always kept me coming back, and eventually rewarded me with a very solid conclusion to the whole affair.
Overall Score: 7.5/10
Personal Score: 9/10