I am unapologetically a fan of the Nicholas Cage and John Travolta movie, Face/Off. Something about the unbelievable dance between lawman and outlaw Freaky Friday-ing their way into each other’s lives is endlessly watchable, despite its shaky premise and questionable performances. Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin might well be the Face/Off of games, then. It’s stupid, the performances are laughably bad, the levels are irritating, the gear system is convoluted, and the bosses can flit from unmemorable to infuriating. So why the hell can’t I put it down?
I guess it helps that Team Ninja knows how to make a good action game. When it comes to how Stranger of Paradise feels in your hand, you can’t complain. It’s like scoffing a high-calorie, low-nutrition snack – it feels good, but you know it’s bad for your health. You handle Jack – an angry, single-minded strongman straight out the 00’s roster of edgy video game men – as he searches for Chaos. Because he wants to kill it. Naturally.
So you take your testosterone-filled avatar out into the world (or worlds, plural – more on that later) and start smacking things with swords, axes, maces, your fists and whatever else comes to hand in the moment. If you’ve ever played Nioh, the way the weapons handle will be familiar, but now you get to modify each one with a Dynasty Warriors-like special move at the end of each combo chain if your timing is adequate enough.
Dark Souls, Elden Ring, or Bloodborne this is not. It’s more awkward, a bit quicker, and definitely jankier. But it’s fun! Smacking a flan with a mace then laughing as you send it careering upwards in a tornado is fun! Goading a series staple enemy like, say, an Iron Giant, before parrying its sword swing and slicing it in half is funny. And you need moments of relief and good humour like that when you’re bashing your head against the same level for an hour, trying to find levers and dealing with cheap mobs that ambush you with magic and guard-breaking throws when you’re just trying to find the exit.
In boss battles, you can forget about all the gaffer tape and spit holding the rest of Stranger of Paradise together. Facing off against Tiamat, or a tank that looks like the one from the start of Final Fantasy 7, or some other servant of the myopic Chaos… that’s where the game comes into its own. If FromSoft games make you feel like you’re dancing with your enemies, Team Ninja makes you feel like you’re in a mosh pit. It’s a melee of tentacles, limbs, weapons, magic. Timing impacts to negate damage and funnel MP, then letting loose with powerful attacks when your quarry is winding down from a big special move it’s fluffed – that’s a power fantasy.
Jack likes to finish off his opponents with wrestling moves for some reason, so getting a boss eight times your size to low health and then suplexing it into the floor as it turns to crystal and shatters is a scene you’re going to see frequently. And, lo and behold, it's cathartic! It’s a payoff that hits you in the cortex in a surprisingly more severe way than anything from Nioh or Souls. Better yet, there’s all the gear that spills out of it once it’s shattered. Adrenaline and higher-leveled loot? You spoil me, Chaos.
It’s a shame that the valleys in between these peaks are so low, and so murky. Each of the levels in Stranger of Paradise is based on a previous Final Fantasy game – whether it’s Mount Gagazet and its trials from Final Fantasy 10, Raithwall’s Tomb and its sentient walls from 12, the Fire Cavern from 8 or a Mako Reactor from 7, each one has its own gimmicks (and reorchestrations of the series’ iconic music). For a Final Fantasy devotee, it’s like catnip. It’s just a shame the corridor-like levels, backtracking, infuriating enemy placement, and the fact there’s only about seven enemy types with different skins undermines what seeing your favourite tower from FF4 in proper 3D looks like. Oh well.
Then there’s the story. Christ. Nioh fans know that Team Ninja is the polar opposite to From; this is not subtle, non-verbal, or player-directed. Nah. It’s overt and stupid. With all the depth you’d think a Final Fantasy spin-off would have. It draws from a deep well of lore (mostly rooted in the first game in the series) but fails to do anything meaningful with it. The plot is a shaky structure holding a totem pole of boss fights together, and that’s it. Don’t expect good voice acting, good cutscenes, or even graphical splendor from this one – sometimes it looks like a PS5 game, sometimes it looks like a PS3 game. It’s very peculiar.
So why can’t I put it down? Why have I routinely been up until the little hours gobbling up all the side missions, smashing little Tonberry heads in, figuring out how to make Jack into the best damn Dragoon he can be? Perhaps it's the job system – basically a Souls-like class system with a pilfered Final Fantasy trope pasted over it. Leveling up your sword skills to unlock berserker, then leveling the Berserker to unlock (part of) the Dark Knight class tree is compelling. It makes trudging through poison swamps and ripping countless Marlboros apart worth it when you’re tinkering with a build that dishes enemy attacks right back at them tenfold.
Or perhaps it's the satisfaction in getting your allies – of which you can have two on the field at any one time – to help you bully your foes. Unlocking their classes, and getting them to rip apart enemies in tandem with you, is something missing from Stranger of Paradise’s stablemates (except perhaps in co-op). Playing on Hard, using all your potions, then getting a last-minute healing spell from your pal before your other ally teams up with you to stagger the final boss before it unleashes its most devastating attack… they’re the kind of moments you long for in these games, and make the 35 hour death march to the finish line worth it. Almost.
Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is a B-movie game. It’s loud, dumb, and full of fun. You have to ignore a lot – a lot – of issues if you want to extract the joy from its chaotic heart, but once you commit, toy around with the weapons, penetrate its poorly-explained mechanics and forgive Jack for his one-dimensional personality, you’re left with a game that’s part Devil May Cry, part Nioh, and part Face/Off. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to play that?
This review is based on a version of the game provided by Square Enix on PS5, played exclusively in Quality Mode.