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Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is a game about a band of heroes seeking out magical crystals in order to save the world. It’s not the first time a Final Fantasy game has told this story: The very first Final Fantasy game has the same premise. As do Final Fantasy 3, 4, and 5, and a plethora of other games in the franchise. Almost 35 years on, the series is now more than 100 games deep, and the crystals are still a mainstay. At times, there are four elemental crystals at stake; at times, there are eight. Sometimes the crystals are less central to the plot; sometimes more. Sometimes they’re called magicite, nethicite, or eidoliths. No matter what they’re called, or how many there are, or how important to the story they appear to be, crystals live are at the heart of the Final Fantasy franchise.
But it must be said: The crystals don’t deserve the hype. For all they’re talked up and splashed all over the series’ branding, they almost always function as nothing but a plot device—recovering, cleansing, or destroying them serves as a tangible roadblock to progressing through the story. What was originally a useful MacGuffin to keep 8-bit heroes trotting around the world map has long since become a ubiquitous yet meaningless element throughout the Final Fantasy series.
Nowhere does this concept feel more tired than in Stranger of Paradise. The series’ latest spinoff is a gritty action-RPG set in the world of the first Final Fantasy game from 1987; it’s a remake but an explicit, contemporary nod to the series’ legacy. You play as Jack, a blond badass and the personification of a furrowed brow, along with his band of companions, each of whom carries a mysterious dark crystal. After a prologue, they seek out the four elemental crystals scattered across the world in order to defeat an enemy named Chaos. These characters, and Jack in particular, are deeply obsessed with Chaos, especially destroying Chaos, despite not having any idea of what Chaos actually is. Also, they are all amnesiacs and conveniently cannot remember any of the useful exposition that might help them understand why the hell they care in the first place.
At first, this all plays like outright camp: so ridiculously over the top as to almost be self-parody. There’s a laugh-out-loud moment early on when Jack is tired of hearing one of his comrades jabber (which, fair!) and so puts in earbuds and starts listening to music that must be described as butt-rock, despite the game never establishing earbuds or butt-rock as elements of this universe. Other moments from early in the game have already become memes, and they initially appear to show a level of self-awareness by leaning into its dude-bro schtick, but this fun turns out to be front-loaded. The early promise that the game might be ironically bad, or even so-bad-it’s-good—like the video game equivalent of The Room— is quickly dashed as the story plods along to the most rote beats possible. The inevitable, telegraphed third-act twists continue to be dull, but they’re also so confusing as to make the entire affair both boring and incomprehensible.
On Jack’s journey, his companions repeatedly comment on their senses of déjà vu. This is part of a time-loop plot, tied into the original Final Fantasy, but I could also relate to this feeling, because I had been here before as well. That’s because all of the locations in Stranger of Paradise are pulled from past Final Fantasy games. The Mako Reactor from Final Fantasy 7 is here, as is the floating continent from Final Fantasy 6. It’s in these nostalgic locations that the bulk of the game plays out: Select a mission from a menu, run through murky corridors from Final Fantasy’s past, smack down enemies, get loot, solve a basic puzzle, fight a boss, watch an inane story cutscene; repeat. But hey, at least you’re doing it in that place you kinda remember from Final Fantasy 12! In this way, Stranger of Paradise is both a nu metal throwback to the series’ beginnings and also a kind of half-baked greatest hits compilation—a groan-worthy sum of the series’ least essential parts.
Of course, this is not the first time a Final Fantasy game has mined the rest of the series for nostalgia. The Dissidia fighting games, the Theatrhythm rhythm games, and the more playful World of Final Fantasy all use the Final Fantasy IP and its various locales, monsters, and mythos to imbue them with a pre-existing, wistful warm glow. Here that glow is stone cold. The levels you know are often so muddy looking as to be difficult to discern, and they’re either boringly linear or confusingly twisty, full of totally interchangeable loot as disposable as it is plentiful. There is obvious, bankable nostalgia to Stranger of Paradise’s approach, but it’s also creatively bereft. The mash-up of other games’ parts leaves this game without any coherence or logic. What it does leave us with is bizarre dissonances, like how Jack and friends all dress like contemporary pop singers (a la modern Final Fantasy heroes), but the townspeople look like the 19th-century fops that dominated the series’ entries of yore.
Combat is the one element of the game that feels properly developed, adapted not from Final Fantasy’s past but from another, modern-day series: the Nioh samurai action games, which Stranger of Paradise developer Team Ninja created over the past 5 years. Those games were themselves more technical adaptations of the combat from the Dark Souls series, and Stranger of Paradise puts a more forgiving spin on the Nioh template to its own benefit. There is fun to be had in the different weapons and jobs available to the player, even if many of them do end up feeling quite same-y over time. The thuds and smacks of swords and maces are satisfying, and playing on the default level of difficulty the game can be satisfyingly challenging. But it’s hard to stay engaged when you know you’ve still got a number of crystals yet to find and another scene with Jack being a jerk to one of his personality-less companions for daring to think about why they are doing this insipid crystal quest.
Stranger of Paradise is an attempt to harmonize the breezy simplicity of the earliest Final Fantasy games with a more modern, cynical attitude. But the result is completely atonal. It’s as though Final Fantasy HQ assumes the things people liked about the series’ classic early entries were those mythical crystals themselves—as opposed to the actual good stuff, like projecting yourself onto their flat, pixelated worlds to imagine something richer. Stranger of Paradise serves a familiar-looking world up in three dimensions, but it turns out to be paper thin.
Slate reviewed Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin on PlayStation 5 via a prerelease copy provided by Sony.