When the dreadfully named Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin was revealed during Square Enix's E3 showcase, we didn't know what to think. Right out of the gate, it looked like the kind of grimdark, PS2 or early PS3-era action game that wore edginess like a badge of pride. Add the fact that main character Jack said the word "chaos" approximately 87 times in a three minute trailer, and you've got the recipe for a potent E3 meme.
But with Nioh developer Team Ninja behind this inexplicably odd project, we found ourselves wondering whether it would play a lot better than it looked. Fortunately, thanks to the game's Trial Version (which was somehow broken upon release, before being patched), we're confident in saying that Stranger of Paradise certainly has potential.
This is an action RPG very much in the same vein as Dark Souls, and the aforementioned Nioh. The demo has you trek through a large castle, fighting off various beasts along the way. In true Souls-like fashion, there's a punishing difficulty curve at play, where mashing buttons and mistiming your actions will get you killed very quickly. Dying sends you back to the last healing checkpoint that you activated, but beyond that, the penalties aren't very severe.
Indeed, Stranger of Paradise isn't quite as brutal as its peers. There's even an "easy" difficulty level that makes the whole thing much more manageable. We played through the demo on "normal", and having only died a handful of times (primarily thanks to the boss at the end), it's safe to say that this isn't trying to be as hardcore as From Software's genre-defining series, which is, admittedly, somewhat refreshing.
The gameplay itself is pretty solid. The demo gives you a lot of tools to work with, including multiple character classes, weapons, and abilities to mix and match. Again, combat is very methodical — it's all about watching your opponent and reacting accordingly — but the addition of combo-finishing special moves gives the title a hack-and-slash edge.
What's more, you have a range of defensive options: a simple block, a magical kind of parry, and a standard dodge into dodge roll upon double tapping the button. Put all of this together and Jack's a rather versatile fighter — you can even switch between character classes, or jobs, mid-battle, allowing for some on-the-fly tactics. There's clearly a degree of depth here, and as you level up, you gain ability points that can be spent on additional attacks and stat bonuses.
It's weird, though, that Jack is accompanied by two other, AI-controlled warriors. Ash and Jed are a curious inclusion, as you have no say over how they act, and sometimes, they don't act at all. From what we can tell, the twosome only engage enemies when you're up against multiple foes or a boss — otherwise they just sit back and shout things like "get 'em, Jack!"
The problem with Ash and Jed is that they're just not very smart. They often refuse to evade explosions and other area of effect attacks, while also wading right into the heart of the battlefield during bigger brawls. If they get caught between monsters, they don't last long, and to revive them, you need to use up two whole potions — limited items that are also used to heal your own health. You're better off just leaving your allies face down in the dirt, since they recover automatically once the fight is over.
Honestly, we don't know why Ash and Jed are even there. We assume that they have some part to play in the game's story, but when it's time for action, they're borderline useless — even if they do draw the attention of the aforementioned boss every now and then.
Loot is also a major factor, by the way. The loot system is very similar to what you'll find in Nioh; enemies drop various pieces of equipment at random, and the weapons and armour that you pick up have randomised perks. It's the kind of thing that makes repeated runs more fun, because there's always a chance that you'll stumble upon a better greatsword, or the last piece of a cool-looking armour set. This may be a demo, but it's already got us thinking about all the ways in which Jack could be adjusted according to your style of play.
So, while it is easy to sh*t on Jack and his generic friends, Stranger of Paradise has left a positive overall impression. Although we do think that it's a bit derivative of hardcore action RPGs that have come before — and we're not really sure whether it has a defining personality — it is fun to actually play, and there's clearly depth in its character-building systems. Smooth out the framerate, and we could be onto something.