By Quentin H. / June 24th, 2021
STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN is an upcoming 2022 action/RPG that is being developed by Team NINJA from KOEI TECMO GAMES and published by SQUARE ENIX. This E3 2021 surprise announcement has a number of SQUARE ENIX veterans, including Tetsuya Nomura (KINGDOM HEARTS franchise director, PARASITE EVE main character designer) as Creative Director and Kazushige Nojima (FINAL FANTASY VII scenario writer, Glory of Heracles scenario writer) for Story and Scenario, returning for this latest FINAL FANTASY franchise offshoot title.
During E3 2021, a demo was released for PlayStation 5 consoles for a limited time only. I went hands-on with the demo (and spent hours playing it over and over again as the protagonist Jack) to get a feel for how the gameplay works, where it falls short, and if there is more to STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN than just shouting “CHAOS!” over and over again.
One of the things that I want to make clear is that this impressions piece will not address the STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN demo’s graphics. This demo was clearly meant to be an early build of what gamers can expect the final game to be, and I simply do not expect a 4k resolution title at this point. It is not uncommon that when a game is showed behind closed doors to the gaming media, the graphics aren’t at the level you would expect for a published game. As a result, I will just say that they were good enough to service the gameplay so it didn’t look like a modern-day take on the Virtual Boy’s Red Alarm with its incredibly all-red wire graphics.
“Unlike either the Sphere Grid in FINAL FANTASY X or FINAL FANTASY XII’s License Board, […] I personally loved this skill tree system as it made me feel like I would be able to quickly build the best possible character.”
Any FINAL FANTASY game (other than FINAL FANTASY XV) has a central focus on the jobs system, and so that is where I will start too. At the beginning of the demo, you start out with the Swordsman job. As you hack and slash your way across the demo, you will soon unlock both the Mage and Lancer jobs as “New Jobs”. As you kill enemies on these various jobs, you will earn EXP that soon translates into levels and Job Points. These Job Points can then be redeemed on a skill tree. The more points you earn and spend, the more cool things and buffs to your stats that you get. However, at the end of each of these “New Job” trees is an Advanced Job. Swordsman unlocks Warrior, Mage unleashes Black Mage, and Lancer activates Dragoon.
Unlike either the Sphere Grid in FINAL FANTASY X or FINAL FANTASY XII’s License Board, this system of enhancing characters, leveling jobs, and unlocking more powerful jobs is intuitive and easy to grasp. I did not feel like I was risking unlocking something that was terrible in lieu of something better for example, that would only hinder me. Part of this was due to the simplicity of the various trees, granted, but also due to the fact that the game simply funneled you down to the Advanced Job as you gained more Job Points. I personally loved this skill tree system as it made me feel like I would be able to quickly build the best possible character.
All of the jobs play differently too. Warrior is hack-and-slash, Mage beats things down with a club and magic spells, and Dragoon will use distance attacks with the lance. The various enemies are also weak to different weapons and different magic spells. This encourages you to pick up more than one job and level it as you’re playing, and soon I was effortlessly switching between Black Mage to kill off skeleton enemies before going back to Dragoon to take down bats. Unfortunately, the demo for STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN only lets you equip and freely switch between two jobs at a time while playing. As a result, I was constantly going back into the menu to pick a new job to utilize when the situation calls for it, which I did not care for. I honestly think a third job (switchable using the Triangle button in default settings) would have made this system even better.
“To be blunt: tying combo attacks to a fluctuating MP bar in an action/RPG is a terrible idea.”
Combat itself is interesting but flawed.
STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN places a huge emphasis on blocking attacks and then ‘punishing’ the attacker in a counterattack. While you can get away with just hacking and slashing enemies as they try to swarm you in large groups in the early parts of the demo, you cannot pull that off towards the end against the final demo boss. The final demo boss, Chaos?, forces you to block and retaliate with a combo attack consistently. While I also had the dodge ‘roll’ move as well, the game clearly expected me to block and ‘punish’ instead in the fight if I didn’t want to lose a lot of health. It is an interesting choice that reminds me of Sekiro’s focus on parrying attacks, and it was utilized to (somewhat) great effect here. There were times when there were too many enemies on screen for me to effectively block them, and so I would get swarmed until I managed to get away. This is something that I sincerely hope Team NINJA will fine-tune before the game’s release.
Tying into this is the difficulty modes. I played through on both Easy and Medium (I also tried Hard but didn’t finish it), and there could not possibly be a larger gap in gameplay between these modes. Easy is very, very forgiving, while Medium (the Normal Mode), clearly expects me to have flawless timing in the Chaos? fight for blocking and ‘punishing’ if I don’t want to have the floor wiped with me. Hard? Forget about it. This is a game that really needs more of a sliding scale option for players to figure out what they are comfortable with than a hamfisted ‘one size fits all in three’ gameplay mode.
Back to combat: combo attacks (fired off by pressing various controller buttons in sequence- you can assign various combos to various button sequences in the menu once you’ve unlocked them in the skill trees) are quite powerful. That said, you can only use them when you have MP. Each combo attack drains a certain amount of MP, so the game discourages you from utilizing your combos too much because you will otherwise be stuck with just basic attacks. The only way to restore MP (other than at a ‘cube’ aka save crystal, which I will talk about at the end) is to perform a finishing move that will both restore some MP and potentially grant you a temporary MP bar extension. That MP bar extension will, however, partially go away if you die and you’re sent back to the prior cube.
To be blunt: tying combo attacks to a fluctuating MP bar in an action/RPG is a terrible idea. I found myself, even with performing finishing moves, frequently running out of MP and having to resort to basic attacks until I could find another cube. Furthermore, as I played on Normal Mode and would continually lose to Chaos? at the end, I would frequently find my MP bar whittled down to the bare minimum as I got ready to take on the fight again. So instead of tackling Chaos? as I learned a little bit more of how to handle the fight immediately after losing, I would have to go backwards in the demo and farm up enemies to rebuild my MP bar. That is ridiculous and is a very un-fun gameplay design. Tie MP into spellcasting, sure. But basic attack combos? Come on. A lot of the fun in Bayonetta (a game that relies upon attack combos) was unleashing attacks in sequence to pull off special combo moves. It is a shame that STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN did not follow suit.
And if that wasn’t enough, the game also introduces Command Abilities. There are special abilities that are brought up by holding down the L2 trigger and pressing one of the face buttons (Circle, Square, Triangle, Cross). These skills, requiring at least one full Magic Bar, can have one of a variety of effects on gameplay. For example, Mighty Strikes (unlocked through the Warrior skill tree) boosts your own attack type and hinders enemy resistance. The intriguing part of these Command Skills is that you aren’t just limited to using them on the job you unlock them with. I ended up using Mighty Strikes with Black Mage, for example, to lower the enemies’ resistances to spells before obliterating them with spell casting for more damage than I would have otherwise caused. These Command Abilities really push your STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN demo character to experiment and see what they can come up with to crush your enemies as quickly as possible. That said, because combos also use up MP, I could only use these Command Abilities sparingly as a result, since my MP was better spent using combo skills.
In all of this combat, you’re also fighting around the environment obstacles that can get in your (or your enemies’!) way. The fact that I could not jump over even the tiniest obstacle was very surprising, since it is something you would expect in action/RPGs in 2021. I was permanently glued to the ground and I simply didn’t care for it.
The equipment loot system is fairly standard: kill enemies, get drops, hope that that drop is better than what you’re currently wearing. There are certain enemies, such as the Cactuar, that can drop better loot for you to equip. The gear is also tied to the various jobs that you can play as, and I found myself mildly grinding to get better gear drops so I could more easily take on enemies at the demo’s end. One of the cool things about this gear, however, is that a lot of the gear pieces let you get EXP on other unequipped jobs. So if I am killing bats as a Dragoon, I can also get a side of Warrior EXP. This solves one of the biggest issues of leveling, which is how to try to keep everything fairly close together in levels. The gear also comes with different bonuses to each one, such as Elemental Damage % given/received, MP Recovery Rate, and more. While I would frequently just take the higher level item, no matter what the bonuses were, it was nice to see that there were some small perks available to incentivize farming multiple of the same weapon or armor over and over again.
“The cube’s enemy reset system is, simply put, a great way for Team NINJA to put in a risk/reward system that is fairly unique to this genre of games.”
There are three more things to talk about, and the first is the Break system. If you do enough consistent damage to an enemy, or they do enough consistent damage to you, then that entity will enter into Break status. This really did not play a role with enemies in the STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN demo, as I simply killed everything too fast (even at lower levels). However, it absolutely mattered when fighting Chaos?, as I would be put into Break status if I got pummeled too often. However, I would also put Chaos? into Break status as myself and my AI partners wailed on him during the fight with attacks and (for me) counterattacks. It’s an interesting concept, and I can’t wait to see how it is implemented into the final game.
Second, there are portions of the STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN demo where there would be environmental obstacles that you would need to solve before you could progress. The one that stuck out in my mind (and doubtlessly will for anyone else who played it) was that you had to activate Mage/Black Mage and cast Water/Watera/Waterga (all of which have the same MP cost but take slightly longer to cast) to put it out. This was a really, really cool effect that I enjoyed utilizing. I hope that there are certain obstacles that take advantage of all the things that the different jobs have to offer in order to progress in the game.
Lastly, there is the cube. No, not the 1997 Canadian independent science-fiction horror film that spawned a franchise, but the game’s system of save crystals. Touch a cube, and your HP/MP bars are refilled and you go back to the last cube you touched when you die. However, there is a caveat: all of the enemies you’ve killed have now respawned. In the STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN demo, I would touch them anyway and I never had to backtrack (except for one minor part when you can optionally activate a ladder to access a save point), so that really didn’t matter to me. However, in a full game, this can force the choice of whether or not it is worth it to activate a cube if you have go back through the gauntlet you just cleared of enemies. The cube’s enemy reset system is, simply put, a great way for Team NINJA to put in a risk/reward system that is fairly unique to this genre of games.
The only concerning part I have about this cube is that, in the STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN demo at least, if you exit the demo, you automatically go back to the beginning of the dungeon. It doesn’t matter if the last cube you touched was outside of Chaos?, if you exit the game, you’re coming back to the dungeon start. I’ve trudged through the demo dungeon close to twenty times now to level and loot gear, and I find it a terrible design choice to have the game dump you back inevitably at the beginning of the dungeon, no matter where in the run (even if you don’t clear it) you’re at. I am very hopeful that this is a design choice that is only for the demo and that it will not be carried over for the final game, because it is a terrible, terrible game design concept that fits right in with charging people’s health points to dash in Lunar: Dragon Song for the Nintendo DS.
Of course, it all comes down to: am I excited to play STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN when it is released in 2022?
The answer is a qualified yes. I love the leveling system more than anything since Dresspheres in FINAL FANTASY X-2, and I cannot wait to see what jobs they give us in the final game. Personally, I am pulling for the Mime class from FINAL FANTASY V to make a triumphant comeback. I want to see how STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN fits into the overall FINAL FANTASY mythos and how overpowered I can make my character by the end of the game. I think that if the issues I’ve listed above are addressed, then STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN has a solid shot at being a successful offshoot of the series in a way that FINAL FANTASY FABLES: CHOCOBO TALES (Nintendo DS, 2006/2007) and CHOCOBO RACING (PlayStation, 1999/2000) were not.
And if nothing else, hopefully I can continue to exclaim “CHAOS!” in Ul’dah /shout chat in FINAL FANTASY XIV: A Realm Reborn until this game is finally released.
STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN is set to release for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, and PC in 2022.
What do you think of STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN’s demo? What jobs do you hope make it into the final release?
Let us know in the comments below, and if you need help playing the demo before it disappears, be sure to check out SQUARE ENIX’s gameplay tips!
ChaosE3E3 2021Final Fantasy OriginJackKoei TecmoPlaystationPlayStation 5Square EnixStranger of ParadiseTeam Ninja