A Final Fantasy souls-like is a great idea, but Stranger of Paradise has a tone problem

It’s fair to say that Square Enix didn’t have the greatest E3 conference ever. This E3’s Square Enix Presents was frankly a bit of a deflating mess, even if it did deliver an announcement of a good-looking Guardians of the Galaxy game and long-awaited Final Fantasy 1-6 remasters. It seemed there was always a catch; there was too much Guardians, with it taking up half the broadcast, and the FF pixel remaster announcement that should’ve been an easy slam dunk was so pathetic that the most dedicated fans have spent hours trying to figure out what those remasters will actually be like.

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None of these are the elements of the show that people are hugely talking about, though. The star of the show on social media ended up being Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin. This, again, should’ve been a slam dunk, a backboard-smasher. A combination of Final Fantasy’s sensibilities, the world of the first game, and bloody, heavy-feeling Souls-like combat from Team Ninja. When word of it leaked out early, the fanbase vibrated with excitement. Forums filled with speculation. And yet… well, the reveal has been met mostly with memes.

The memes are pretty good, to be fair. The more realistic looking boiler-plate video game white dude that stars in the game has been compared to the cast of Fast and the Furious and Eminem. The fact the word Chaos is said eight times in a two and a half-minute trailer also came in for some mockery. And mostly, I don’t think anyone is being all that mean: it was just a bit of a silly reveal.

In media blasts, creative lead Tetsuya Nomura said that he had been thinking about “a new series of Final Fantasy titles revolving around ‘the story of an angry man’”, deadly serious, and somehow feeding into the meme narrative about the brooding, grunting, generic violent white dude protagonist presented in the trailer.

Scratch past the surface of the memes, though, and I think a more general problem with Stranger of Paradise is revealed. The game talks of being a “bold new vision for Final Fantasy”, and it is that – but the vision feels practically incompatible with the game it’s based upon.

Any return to the original Final Fantasy should, by rights, be rooted in the art of Yoshitaka Amano. When FF1 characters and locations have been recreated in games like Dissidia, it’s always felt like lip service has been paid to this with colorful characters, ornate armor and more traditional fantasy locations not generally seen in the modern version of the FF series.

That’s what’s so off-putting to me when I look at Stranger of Paradise and its gritty vision of Chaos/Garland from the first FF and the Chaos Shrine, a pivotal location from that game. Let’s look past the fact that it visually looks a bit naff (I’ve seen people compare it to a PS3 game, which is certainly silly hyperbole, but it doesn’t look good) – let’s assume the visuals get fixed up. There’s something about the vision itself that just doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t particularly look or feel like Final Fantasy 1, or Final Fantasy in general. They’re saying words and names I know, but those words ring hollow.

A few days later, after Square Enix fixed the demo that was initially corrupt-on-download (‘cos that’s another thing that happened, making this the perfect reveal), the game is playable. Frustratingly, the same problem with the tone is borne out in the game. In fact, it’s arguably worse as presented in full in the demo.

Final Fantasy is all about reinvention – and I would never dare tell anybody, leave alone Square Enix, exactly what the series should be. With that said, it’s fair to say that there’s a certain energy and feel that runs right through the FF series like a stick of rock – and it just doesn’t feel particularly present in what’s been shown so far of Stranger of Paradise.

To give a specific example from the playable segment of the game, let’s talk about music. Most of the demo is set in the Chaos Shrine, which carries with it a memorable piece of music from the original FF. Stranger of Paradise does this – but the mood just all feels off. The music is great, to be clear – but the way the Chaos Shrine melody is woven into it feels forced, which ultimately matches up with the rest of the game. It’s the act of cues being used to tell you that this is a world you know, rather than simply feeling like it really is the world you know.

I’m not saying you can’t experiment and do a dark, violent, bloody vision of a Final Fantasy world, either – you obviously can, but a balance has to be found. There’s no point in it just feeling entirely alien.

There’s sure to be an explanation for some of this. Protagonist Jack is being roundly mocked for his generic name and appearance, but notably key art of him and his compatriots shows them in regular, real-world street clothes. That could be a hint that this is in fact an Isekai story – a genre where people from the real world are transported to another world.

It’s a very popular story format in Japan, and if this game is indeed that – which would track with the ‘Stranger in Paradise’ moniker – it wouldn’t even be the only one of these Square Enix has on the go, as it certainly appears that Forspoken is also an Isekai. If that’s the case, it explains the appearance of these guys – and tellingly, protagonist Jack’s streetwear slowly disappears beneath layer after layer of traditional and visible RPG gear as you pick up and equip loot.

Even if we put the characters aside, though, the mood of the game still feels little like the genre-shaking classic it evokes by calling itself a Final Fantasy Origin story.

That really bums me out, since as a Souls and Nioh fan I can absolutely see how that formula could be applied to Final Fantasy and its myriad tropes. Indeed, the demo shows incredible promise with flexible combat and Final Fantasy abilities adapted smartly to fit the Souls formula, which has been easened and made much more accessible to fit FF’s mainstream appeal.

The way you can switch jobs on the fly is a brilliant marriage of Nioh’s stance system and FF’s classic focus on jobs. Immediately you can see how many jobs might work in this combat system, which is forgiving enough to feel more like a traditional action RPG without losing some of that weight and the structural design of a Souls-like.

It’s difficult to get past the tone of the game, though, and how it looks. To some degree it feels like the game fell out of a time warp from the 360 and PS3 era heyday of muddy, grimdark Unreal Engine 3 games. It’s more technologically advanced than those older games, obviously – but the sheer energy Stranger of Origin has is straight out of that era – and that is not an element of that time I look back on with nostalgia.

Stranger of Paradise prompts one to consider an interesting question that has been asked many times before: what makes a Final Fantasy a Final Fantasy? Series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi once jokingly said it was ‘blue text boxes’, but that rule was broken with the eighth and ninth entries. 34 years on from the original and with innumerable fingerprints all over the series, the answer is undoubtedly more complicated than ever before.

It’s fair to say that in the FF pantheon, some titles probably have more of this energy than others. But they’re all steeped in it, from Crystal Chronicles, to Mystic Quest, or My Life is a King. The saddest thing about Fortress, the cancelled western-developed FF12 sequel, is its concept art seemed to ‘get it’ despite the cultural shift in developers. And, yes – somehow, even Chocobo Racing had it, somewhat.

FF’s identity isn’t about having Moogles or Chocobos. It’s not about big swords, over-the-top hair, or magic spells that go aga and aja. These days it isn’t even about Nobuo Uematsu’s music, something which in the PS1 era would’ve felt unthinkable. I consider it something deeper, something spiritual. Something I think often its creators aren’t even very aware of – they just coincidentally add that secret sauce. The ill-fated FF movie The Spirits Within is utterly soaked in this energy, by the way – for all its flaws. Indeed, that energy might even be the direct cause of many of its ills.

But playing Stranger of Origin, my overwhelming thought is: whatever that nebulous Final Fantasy energy is, this game’s visual design and tone doesn’t have it. And that’s probably a problem, if this story is to be a prequel to the original Final Fantasy.

With that said, I still hold out hope for Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin. I’m interested in what it’ll do with classic FF enemies, in how it’ll interlace into the established FF1 world and story, and in a combination of Souls-like combat with FF sensibilities. How it actually plays is always the most important element of any video game, and Stranger of Origin has a solid enough foundation in its demo – but what’s been built atop it so far isn’t speaking to me much at all. I hope to be proved wrong.

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