Final Fantasy turns 35 this year, and Square Enix has lined up a bunch of stuff to celebrate the series’ birthday. The biggest and most obvious piece of the celebration so far is Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, a new spin-off that’s both forward and backward-looking at once.
A lot of what’ll make the biggest splash this anniversary is likely stuff we don’t officially know about yet, of course. We’re yet to have a formal announcement of the next installment of Final Fantasy 7 Remake or console versions of the Final Fantasy 1-6 Pixel Remasters; things that are obviously coming. We also lack a release date for Final Fantasy 16, which presumably will land somewhere in the ‘anniversary window’, even if it doesn’t quite make this year.
But so far, three months in and with FF’s December birthday creeping ever closer, we’ve got two key celebrations. The return of Chocobo Racing is one in the form of Switch-exclusive Chocobo GP - the other is Stranger of Paradise, a curious new collaboration between Tecmo Koei’s Team Ninja and some of Square’s most significant creatives.
Stranger of Paradise is basically two things. First of all, it’s an attempt to graft Soulsborne-style gameplay onto the tropes and worldview of Final Fantasy. Team Ninja also developed Nioh, arguably the most successful Soulsborne developed outside FromSoftware, and you can definitely see the connective tissue between Nioh and FF Origin. As Dom says in their review, it’s a competent enough attempt at this sort of game – though I’d argue that if you dial the difficulty down into the more casual modes designed to allow FF fans who aren’t comfortable with crushing difficulty action RPGs, the house of cards collapses. There’s also too much damn loot; like Nioh, it throws useless crap at you constantly and I really wish it didn’t.
Excuse the tangent, sorry. The second element of the identity of Stranger of Paradise is perhaps the more interesting one to fans – as the name suggests, it’s an origin story to the first Final Fantasy, of a sort. Trailers depict some familiar characters and locations from the first FF, and the name of the game is quite clear; its subtitle is ‘Final Fantasy Origin’, after all. No spoilers here but suffice to say the game lives up to its name in terms of what it tries to do with its story.
And you know what? It’s fine, but… I don’t like it. In fact, I think this game’s connection to other FF stories and worlds are hands-down its worst element.
In terms of being a 35th anniversary celebration, Stranger of Paradise brings two things to the table. First, there’s its connection to FF1, where it’s set in the same world and features locations with the same names. Second is the reason locations only have the same names: each FF1 locale has been paired to a stage from another Final Fantasy game, with lore dumps explaining that these places have been built ‘based on’ areas from other dimensions. When you visit an overgrown forest, for instance, the loading screen straight up notes that this forest resembles a location from ‘dimension 9’. When you load into the level, lo and behold, it has the music of and bears a striking resemblance to Final Fantasy 9’s Evil Forest dungeon.
This stuff is cool for about ten seconds every time Stranger of Paradise pulls this off – usually when you first hear the area’s iconic musical refrain. But the truth is that it’s a cheap trick that has no real significance. After getting excited for this feature before playing the game, it fell flat in reality.
Where the game’s creative leads have tried to find significance is in tying this story to the first Final Fantasy – which is a game with a simple NES-era plot that has one clever time travel- and time loop-related twist that, in turn, opens up a fair amount of latitude for experimental ‘insertions’ into the canon. This has even been done in a previous anniversary game: the 20th anniversary game Dissidia Final Fantasy (and its 2011 sequel). But, to be honest, I don’t think it works. What begins as fan service gives way to dissatisfying delivery where those who don’t know FF1 won’t understand what’s being referenced, and those who do will feel like what’s been presented often doesn’t really fit.
What I’m saying, really, is that in this sense Stranger of Paradise feels like the best of no worlds. It’s not a particularly effective anniversary celebration nor a strong tonal prequel to FF1. It has crunchy, fun, deep RPG systems – but I sort of wish it had just created its own FF universe to live in. Its story, which is gloriously camp and stupid (though I’m not convinced the developers were in on the joke), is practically hamstrung by its need to adhere to FF1. Many of the best FF titles are spin-offs that have found their success in all-new worlds, like Final Fantasy Tactics and the much-maligned but genuinely lovely Crystal Chronicles. I wish this game did that.
As for the anniversary celebration? Well, I just wish for something more… basic. There’s nothing wrong with just leaning into the fanservice, especially if that’s the point of the game. FF has a rich history that is worth celebrating.
I want a Final Fantasy celebration that gives me the same feeling that the first Hyrule Warriors gave the Zelda fan in me. That game created a new version of a familiar world, then threw locations and characters from classic games together in a ridiculously fun, non-canon romp filled with punch-the-air moments and callbacks. Unbound by needing to ‘connect’ to any other canon, it just has fun. I bring that game up specifically, of course, because it too is a Team Ninja game.
Final Fantasy got close to this with Dissidia, but its formatting as a one-on-one fighting game for PSP really hamstrung what it could do. When Dissidia went HD, Square Enix missed the point entirely and tried to build a weird team-based esport.
Anyway. If you want a Final Fantasy story and aren’t interested in Soulsborne-style games with deep systems, you should probably skip Stranger of Paradise, or wait for a sale or the inevitable Game Pass inclusion. If the story stuff doesn’t bother you and you’re in it for the combat, you’ll probably have a blast. I liked the systems, but I’ll keep wishing for the sort of fanservice mash-up the series deserves. Maybe for the 40th anniversary, yeah?