Thoughts on Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin
Contributed by DJMMT
I have not actually purchased Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin yet, but I did spend several hours with the demo. Going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The prospect of yet another Soulslike was daunting, as I already have multiple sitting in my backlog. (Looking at you The Surge 2) But the concept of that gameplay genre mixed with Final Fantasy lore and monsters was quite appealing. At the same time, I have been very unhappy with the last three Final Fantasy games I’ve played. Those being FFXV, FFXIII-2, and FFXIII, in backwards chronological order. So I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into this demo.
Let me start by saying that the demo sold me. I will buy the game at some point. But the demo did not sell me enough to make it a day one purchase. I have played several Soulslike games, so I have a lot of experience with them and a lot of thoughts about them. Most recently I beat Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Honestly, playing this demo after that game gives me hope for the genre. While both are Soulslikes, these games are the antithesis of each other in just about every sense of game design. If I could describe Stranger of Paradise in one simple sentence it would be “Imagine playing Dark Souls with actual Quality of Life features.”
For years now, there has been debate about what defines a Soulslike game and whether or not FromSoftware games should have an easy mode. From a purely ethical standpoint as a creative, I say no FromSoftware should not add easy modes to their past games. If they eventually choose to include an easy mode in their future games, I’d fully support that. But going back and changing their vision to suit the demands of a vocal minority of internet users is not the kind of thing I want to see happening in the Japanese gaming industry. I qualified it by saying Japan because we’re already seeing this happen in American and some European development teams and publishers. That being said, I do not agree that FromSoftware gets to define what exactly constitutes a Soulslike game. Yes, they are solely responsible for inventing the genre but, as with all genres, it has evolved, and I’d argue been improved, past their original vision.
What I love about Stranger of Paradise is that it dares to be different while ultimately still being a Soulslike game. They’ve essentially taken all the things that make a Soulslike game at the foundational level and built a game around that without being locked in to all the superfluous things that don’t define a Soulslike game so much as happen to be commonly occurring within them. The game also clearly takes inspiration from other Soulslike franchises that weren’t created by FromSoftware, such as Nioh and The Surge. By taking pieces of all these games and applying a Final Fantasy coat of paint, they haven’t created something necessarily original, but they have created something very enjoyable. So I wanted to discuss the features that made this demo so fun for me compared to other Soulslike games.
Flexible Difficulty Levels
Unlike most Soulslike games, Stranger of Paradise has difficulty options from the start. There’s easy, medium, and hard, though they aren’t given those names, and it even has an additional function that transforms easy mode into very easy mode. While I always play games in this genre on the normal difficulty, I appreciate being able to choose my difficulty, whether it’s easy or hard, from the beginning. A lot of games require you to beat them once before you can access other difficulty modes. I find the inability to play a game on hard from the start to be no better or worse than an inability to play it on easy from the start.
It's not the fact that the game has difficulty levels that I love so much as the fact that they’re flexible during play. Stranger of Paradise is a rewards-based dungeon crawler, if we’re being totally honest. It took a lot of inspiration from Nioh in that it’s broken down into separate missions with the completion of each one netting the player gear-based rewards. The major difference from Nioh is that this game lets you choose your difficulty per mission. Meaning you can play on hard, until you don’t want to. Then you can switch to medium or easy. Then go back to hard later. At the start of every mission, you choose the difficulty you want to play just for that mission without your overall story progress being affected.
What I specifically like about this flexible difficulty system is that you can lower, but not raise, the difficulty level in the middle of a mission. Meaning that players who are playing for the story never really have to get stuck, even if they chose the hard difficulty at the start of the mission. While I prefer not to lower the difficulty, I tried it out, since it was only a demo. This mechanic let me enjoy a Soulslike exactly the way I’ve always wanted. The truth is that I hate boss fights in Soulslike games. Absolutely hate them. My least favorite thing about every game I’ve played in the genre. What I love about Soulslikes, and why I continue to play them, is the journey to the boss fights. The reappearing enemies. The discovering new paths. The resource management. The reaching new bonfires. That’s what makes a Soulslike. The boss fights are actually the least original thing about the genre, because every other single player combat focused genre already has/had them. The only difference is that the general gameplay in a Soulslike makes the boss fights even harder than they already generally are in games.
The thing about Stranger of Paradise that works so well for someone like me is that I can play the mission up to the boss fights on hard and then, if I just can’t be asked to care about a boss fight I find annoying anyway, I can just shift the difficulty down to medium or even easy without having to restart the entire mission. It’s super convenient. And the losses to your rewards aren’t even that significant. Because you collect gear, based on your difficulty, all throughout the mission. So the only rewards you miss out on for shifting the difficulty down for the final boss fight of the mission is the rewards you would have gotten for that single boss fight. This system allows me to have my cake and eat it too.
Simplified Gear Management
Gear management is always pretty annoying in these games. RPGs in general often have this problem. While Stranger of Paradise still has a lot of gear management to deal with, it’s very streamlined compared to the likes of Nioh. It reminded me of The Surge in some ways. Armor has very clear levels and stats coupled with class bonuses. You can dive deeper and try to craft the absolute best build, but really all you need to do is pick the gear with the highest level and the best bonus for whatever class you’re using.
The other thing I really like is that, most of the time, all gear is universal. Meaning that any character in your party can use any piece of gear. There are a few exceptions, which I find stupid because they’re based on cosmetic limitations. For instance, one of the characters has his hair tied up in braids. So he can’t where helmets. While I understand what they were going for, that’s just stupid for an RPG like this. But by and large it isn’t a serious issue. You don’t have to try to manage gear separately for four different party members. You can mostly just prioritize classes and levels.
My one major complaint about the gear system is that you can’t save sets. Depending on the class you’re using, a character can wear up to seven pieces of gear at one time. You can equip up to two classes at one time. But there are literally 27 classes that can eventually be unlocked. Chances are you will change your gear in some ways every time you change classes. You weapon, for instance, will change for sure. Different classes make sense at different times. But that means you need to alter your gear every time you switch. The ability to save gear sets by class would make this process way easier and more efficient. Thankfully there is an instantly equip the best gear command, but that assumes your build isn’t specifically tailored to your playstyle with gear that might appear as sub-optimal to the AI.
An Actual Story
I want to be very clear in saying that the story in Stranger of Paradise is not good. Like not at all. But it is present. The game is an actual RPG following an actual plot. It’s not just gameplay with a bunch of lore shoehorned in to appear like there’s a story. Nor is it just a bunch of atmosphere that has you pretend there’s a story being told. There was real effort put in here to actually tell a story. I appreciate that, even when the story is bonkers and totally ham-fisted. I’m here to kill chaos. It’s a simple life, but it’s a life none the less.
There’s a reason Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice won GOTY. It was because FromSoftware put in the effort to write an actual story. And the reason that even happened is because of the success of Nioh. Another Soluslike with an actual story. Story in a single player game is important. All the world building and lore means nothing if I don’t actually care about the characters.
Truth be told, I only play coop in Soulslikes made by FromSoftware. I played through all of Nioh and Nioh 2 without summoning other players to help even one time. The Surge and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which is by FromSoftware, don’t have coop options. So it’s not necessarily an important part of the genre for me. I used it in Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls 1 – 3, and Bloodborne only in boss fights, because as I already said, I don’t particularly care for the boss fights in this genre. One of my biggest complaints about the coop in FromSoftware games is that it’s always super inconvenient to use. They actively make the entire process burdensome. There are always gimmicks and multiple hoops to jump through to use coop in FromSoftware titles. Nioh has a bit less trouble to summon, but it’s not nearly as conducive to coop play, because the system of joining coop in Nioh is really inconvenient. What Stranger of Paradise gets exceptionally right is how to initiate cooperative play.
There are no gimmicks when it comes to setting up coop play in this game. You simply create a lobby, pick a mission from your world map, and set the parameters for joining. Then anyone searching for a coop room that matches your room’s parameters can easily join. Players can even join after the mission has already started. You can use coop to play uncompleted missions or to go back and play older missions to grind. While I haven’t experimented with the system much, there didn’t appear to be any annoying limiting mechanisms like level scaling or specific states. Coop is just a mode of play you choose to participate in.
The coop also makes the party based gameplay more manageable. In single player mode, if Jack, the main character dies, it’s game over. But in coop, all three party members have to die before you get game over. And party members can revive each other. This makes things way better, because it gives everyone on the team an equal amount of importance. There’s nothing more annoying than fighting a boss in Dark Souls as a summoned phantom and having the host die when the boss is almost dead, knowing full well you could have killed it. This doesn’t happen in Stranger of Paradise coop, so you never feel like your time is being wasted. You can also keep the room open after you complete a mission. Meaning you can keep playing with the same squad of players even after you defeat a boss. It’s just an all around more convenient system.
At the end of the day, the thing I like most about Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is the fact that Square Enix tried to, and arguably succeeded, make a game that takes the Soulslike genre and makes it convenient and accessible for a majority of players. FromSoftware titles are often described as niche. That’s a fair judgement, but it shouldn’t be considered a compliment this far along in the studio and genre’s history. FromSoftware has now made seven Soulslike games going all the way back to 2009. And they had already made several mainstream titles before that. This isn’t some small indie company barely scraping by with a diehard fanbase. This is a AAA caliber studio that makes games that sell in the millions of copies on launch. If their mainstream launches with years of development time are still being called niche, then something has gone terribly wrong. That’s why several other franchises in this genre by other companies have been able to pop up and succeed over the years. FromSoftware let this happen by actively choosing not to apply general gaming standards to their iterations of this genre over time. That’s why the likes of Koei Tecmo, Deck13, Respawn Entertainment, and now Square Enix have thrown their hats into the ring and made money doing it. Both Nioh and The Surge released successful sequels and it’s already been announced that there will be a Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order 2 as well.
As I said at the beginning, I like Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. Without even taking the time to try the coop, which from what I have read is great and way more convenient to implement than that in FromSoftware games, I was sold after playing through the demo one time. It was also a pretty long demo, which implies that the game has a lot of content. I was skeptical when I first heard about a Final Fantasy themed Dark Souls game, but it seems that Square Enix pulled it off. I need to beat The Surge 2 and maybe Lords of the Fallen before picking it up, but I’m definitely planning on getting it at some point. This was a solid demo experience.