‘Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin’ preview: The ‘Shadow the Hedgehog’ of soulslikes could be a smash hit

When we were first introduced to Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, the entire internet laughed in unison. Protagonist Jack, in his Topman v-neck from 2005, couldn’t shut up about chaos and how much he wanted to kill it. Oh how we joked. But I’ve played more than just the demo of Final Fantasy Origin now, and I’m convinced that the soulslike genre is about to have its Shadow the Hedgehog moment.

If you were worried that the edginess was going to be focus tested out of this game after the divisive first trailer, then boy have I got good news for you. During a Discord presentation we were shown a new cutscene from Stranger of Paradise, and I’m glad I was muted, because I was making a lot of noise.

After the events of the demo, Jack and his buddies meet up with a new party member, Neon. From what I can gather you’ll be able to mix and match from a pool of characters in the full game. Neon tries to tell Jack something about chaos, but Jack doesn’t like that one bit. He says something to the tune of “that’s bullshit,” before brandishing his smartphone, playing some nu-metal out loud in the middle of a fantasy castle and walking away from the situation. Everyone just follows him out, unquestioning, as the music subsumes any chance of conversation.

Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin Credit: Square Enix

I cannot tell you how happy this made me. It feels like we’ve forgotten about 20 years of video game storytelling and we’re in the early 2000s again. The aesthetics are back and so are the edgelord characters, and it’s such a novelty to see a modern game own it like that. Jack is just a bonafide bad dude, a big chunk of meat with the emotional depth of a suitcase. It’s fascinating stuff.

But don’t worry about the story. It’s bonkers, and goes on about warping biospheres and darkness generators. Knowing Nomura, I’m sure it will all come out in the wash. Apparently, from what I can glean from all the Final Fantasy nerds on the internet, it seems to be a reinterpretation of the first game, strained into a soulslike? The good news is that everything beyond the story is being handled by Team Ninja, who recently put out the most accomplished soulslike I’ve ever played, Nioh 2.

This means that the combat is really good, and actually quite innovative too. It would have been fine for Team Ninja to transplant their tried and tested Nioh combat system onto Final Fantasy Origin, but the studio hasn’t settled for a simple reskin. A lot of systems have been reinterpreted to fit the new source material. For example, you can catch enemy abilities and throw them back at their face, which is super handy because the creatures all appear to have elemental weaknesses and strengths.

The reason for this is that Final Fantasy Origin adapts the job system that made the mainline series so popular and shunts it into the framework of a soulslike. At all times you can swap between different vocations like Dragoon or Monk, complete with contextual attacks on the triggers that elevate your combos and make you embody the spirit of that class. The Dragoon leaps into the air to avoid attacks before coming back down hard on foes, and the Monk can use focus to restore health before blasting bad dudes into the air. Elsewhere, the Knight class lets you take out the garbage with nimble air slashes and blessings.

Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin Credit: Square Enix

But the super cool part of all this is that Origin’s job system also lets you be a White, Black or Red Mage, complete with the ability to cast classic Final Fantasy spells at your enemies. And because you can carry two classes with you at all times, you can let out a Meteor salvo or hit an enemy with Fire, Ice and Thunder in quick succession, then swap to your Thief class, dash behind a stunned enemy and start chopping them up with your twin shanks. The Thief class quickly became my favourite, as the special move lets you steal attacks from your enemies like you’re playing Rubick in DOTA 2.

To use these special attacks you will need to take care of your Mana pool though, which operates similarly to the Ki system in Nioh. You can parry enemies to get some of it back, and turn creatures to crystals with a cool soul crush mechanic when you break their stagger, a bit like Sekiro. If you’ve ever wanted to snap a Sahagin’s back, Bane-style, then here’s your chance! When you die in Stranger of Paradise you’ll come back with reduced MP as a punishment, but getting to the game’s many bonfires and using special items will also restore it. There’s a lot going on with the mana system in Stranger of Paradise, and not all of it is essential, but I’m sure it may become more important later in the game.

My main problem with the combat system at the minute is that it feels a bit bloated. I did play the tutorial before starting the preview, but the amount of systems in play in Stranger of Origin meant that I kept forgetting about certain ways that I could help myself. There’s now another new system called Resonance which lets you power up your allies in battle to take the heat for you. The problem is that it’s a bit awkward to pull off given that it’s mapped to the D-Pad.

Certain enemies can also pull you into unskippable animations where you have no control, which feels unnecessary for such a fluid game, and can be really frustrating if you’re trying to string together a combo. I also figured out that big groups of enemies can be instantly destroyed by focusing on killing the portal that spawned them, which seems a bit cheesy, and does let you speedrun levels if you buff your health and just go to town on the portal of darkness.

Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin Credit: Square Enix

There are a selection of weapons in play at present, including a Halberd, Dual Swords, Knuckles, Club, Claymore and Sword. Some of them can be used across multiple classes, and your weapons will gain affinity with your preferred job as you play. This tracks for your armour, which is all modular (always a big bonus to any game with loot!). You can optimise your equipment to the class you’re using with a quick button press in the menu which is a pretty solid way to streamline it. When I swapped out to the Dragoon class, it put a fedora on my head, which made a lot of sense, actually.

The missions take place on a big world map, again, much like Nioh. You have main missions that are story-driven, and side missions that compact the dangerous environment into something more fast-paced and tricky, with special rewards on offer. Apparently, there’s a multiplayer mode too, but I didn’t get to try that out because of the remote streaming situation. Nioh 2’s soulslike co-op is one of my favourite parts of the game, so I’m sure it would only elevate my excitement for Stranger of Paradise if the set-up is indeed similar.

As well as the original demo’s setting, I got to trial a new level which took place in a lush verdant jungle full of oil slick chromatic crystals, weird worms and hovering harpies. It was striking to look at, even over the Parsec stream. I’m excited to see it for real on my own PlayStation 5!

The level had an interesting conceit you don’t see all that often in soulslike games, where Jack had to interact with special crystals to change the weather and open up new pathways through the map. It had me scratching my head at some points, and helped cut through some of the mindless slashing. The elemental considerations I mentioned earlier came to a head with the boss battle that wrapped up the demo, where Jack and his crew had to face off against a big evil ball that spawned humanoid fire and ice elementals.

Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin Credit: Square Enix

Having to think about what spells to use within the grand scheme of a boss battle made it heaps of fun and quite challenging. Eventually, I had to drop the difficulty to Story Mode to surpass it purely so that I could finish the preview in time, which showed me how big of a gulf there is between the game’s difficulty settings.

Story Mode understandably makes everything quite trivial, but Normal can be pretty hard if you don’t know what you’re doing. Focusing on depleting an enemies stagger bar over dealing big damage seems to be the route to success, making Stranger of Paradise more tactical and less mindless than your typical Dark Souls experience.

Ultimately, I came away from my time with Stranger of Paradise pleasantly surprised. Final Fantasy lore aside, its main audience is clearly those of us who are still on the hunt for more of that delicious From Software nectar, and Team Ninja has consistently proven itself to be the best at replicating the series’ systemic magic. If you can vibe with the charming edginess, I get the feeling you’re going to really enjoy this game when it launches next year.

Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin will launch on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X and S in 2022.