When rumors first arrived about Team Ninja making a Final Fantasy game with Nioh gameplay about a month ago, I was instantly ecstatic. Nioh 2 is one of my favorite games ever made, a true paragon of the Goopy Goblin Gamer Brain genre, and the idea of mixing that tight combat with traditional trappings was enough to make me salivate.
Fast forward to mid-June, and I got my wish. As soon as I saw the combat in the trailer, I was blowing out my voice chat party's sound levels - this was some Nioh-Ass Final Fantasy, and I was absolutely here for it.
It wasn’t until after the Square Enix showcase concluded that I realized I was standing on the platform for the hype train pretty much alone. Most of the internet was too busy clowning on the protagonist to give half-a-damn about what sort of game Stranger of Paradise was going to be. To be clear, I fully understand that: the trailer wouldn't make a great first impression to anyone that doesn't know about its pedigree, and even to some that do.
But we know what they say about assumptions. And after spending a few hours with the Alpha, I’m pretty confident that Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is going to be another absolute banger from Team Ninja.
The first thing you’ll notice starting Stranger of Paradise - which I'll refer to as Origin from now on, because it's quicker - is that Jack looks like a bit of a dweeb in that Abrecombe t-shirt. Luckily, it takes about 30 seconds to get him a new one. This is because Origin adopts Nioh's loot system, colored tiers and all. You'll find yourself dressed up and looking like an actual Final Fantasy character in no time.
The second thing is that, like I said, this is a Nioh game in all but name. It’s very clearly running on the same engine, and even reuses some of the same animations. I have less than zero issue with this — Nioh could be rereleased forever with a few new enemies and environments, and I’d buy it at full-price. It’s that good. Luckily, Origin is aiming to be more than that, and it wears its Final Fantasy branding on its sleeve.
It starts with the Job system. Jack, the protagonist, starts with a greatsword, which gives him access to wide-swinging attacks and skills. A bit into the demo, you gain access to the sorcerer job, which allows you to fling out classic spells like Fire and Thunder, and turn into Fira and Thundaga the longer you charge them. There was also a Lancer job available, and judging by Jack’s party of dudebros, Thief and Monk will become available as well.
Defeating enemies gives you job points that you can spend to upgrade whatever jobs you have equipped. Some upgrades give you new abilities, some give you passive bonuses for that particular job, while others provide passive stat bonuses to your character no matter what job you have equipped. I thought the tree for each job was a tad limited, until I realized that each one could upgrade — Swordsman to Warrior, Sorcerer to Black Mage, etc. — which opened up a new tree that could be upgraded.
You can swap between two jobs at any time during a fight, even chaining the switch between attacks and skills. All of these abilities require the use of MP, which is what takes the place of the Stamina you more commonly see in these sorts of games. You regain and extend your MP bar by Soul Breaking enemies. Rather than dropping a souls-like currency when you die, you instead lose the MP bar you’ve built up by Soul Breaking.
Soul Breaking is that edgy QTE-looking thing in the trailers, but it also stems from a surprising inspiration: Sekiro. It feels a lot like the poise system from that game, with breaking an enemy doing massive damage, or usually just outright killing them. Jack has his own Break gauge too, which can be depleted by using his counter ability or blocking too often. Bad news if this happens — you’re wide open for an attack, and enemies hit as hard here as any other Soulslike. True to Final Fantasy’s JRPG nature, it’s easier to break enemies by exploiting weaknesses. Casting water on a Bomb was highly effective, as was using a piercing weapon on the bat enemies in-game.
But wait, there’s more! Remember that counter ability I mentioned? It can absorb the attacks of enemies too. For example, I countered a fireball that a Bomb spit at me, and acquired 3 charges of Fire that I could cast by tapping the Square button. Doing this allowed me to shoot the fireballs back at the bomb, causing it to self-destruct at a safe distance. It’s basically an abridged version of being a Blue Mage, and could lead to some very interesting scenarios.
All of these mechanics were immediately interesting, and made combat feel fantastic. The pacing is definitely a bit different from Nioh, as there were often many more enemies on-screen in this game, but you also have a lot of options to defeat them. Black Mage especially was ridiculously fun to play as, giving me options to cast spells at the end of a combo, or by hanging back and charing up my most powerful ones.
The demo ends in a fight with Chaos Garland “Chaos?”, and it's here where the combat shines most. I got my behind handed to me quite a few times before I beat him, but a careful combination of attacking, dodging, and parrying finally got me through. The demo ends with very little fanfare - there's no cutscene that makes sense of the word salad that appears in the game's initial trailer, if that's what you were hoping for.
There are a few things to worry about regarding Final Fantasy Origin, and this is one of the main points. The story will more than likely be nonsense and feature a very bland character, if said trailer is anything to go by. This isn’t exactly far from Team Ninja’s norm — Nioh 1’s story is basically non-existent — but Nioh 2’s was at least bearable, and it helped that it featured a character you created yourself. There are a few theories that Jack might not be the protagonist, given the way Final Fantasy I worked, but I shant speak of it, lest I ruin the chances of it actually happening.
Besides that, visually the game is rough to say the least. Everything is simply too dark, it feels like the resolution is scaled to 720P, and I found there were a lot of graphical hitches and tears. This I’m least worried about, as Team Ninja has run alphas of this kind before for the Nioh series with the same sorts of issues, and by the time they released, they were gorgeous and running without a hitch.
As far as gameplay, I’d like there for more options to gain MP after death. Losing to Garland after running through an area causes you to drop to one or two MP bars, and I couldn’t find a way to gain more during that fight without either going to beat up a bunch of mobs, or punching Garland halfway through the boss fight to get a few more. The timing for job switch attacks could be a bit more relaxed, and I’d be nice to be able to use the counter ability in any direction, similar to the burst counter in Nioh.
I hope people don’t dismiss Stranger of Paradise right away, and that Square Enix finds a better way to promote it — although, they seem to be doubling down at this point, so maybe it’s working.
Regardless, I am fully aboard the Chaos train. I can already tell that Origin’s gameplay is going to be a banger, but if it can get the story right on top of it, then we’ll really be in good shape.