One of the most notable and exciting things about Final Fantasy VII Remake was the way it updated the original game’s combat system, merging the feeling of menu-based commands and action game controls. Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin does something similar with a take on the jobs system that’s a big part of Final Fantasy’s history. The ability to switch between combat roles on the fly allows for a whole lot of interesting versatility, adding tactical considerations to protagonist Jack’s angry shouting, slashing, and headbutting.
We recently got a chance to go hands-on with the second playable demo of Stranger of Paradise ahead of its release. This new look at the game includes everything that was in the first demo, with some added story context. It also included another section that gives a sense of Final Fantasy Origin’s take on the series and how expansive the job system really is, as well as how the gear systems and mission-based approach seem like they’ll work on a large scale.
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The new demo for Stranger of Paradise sends you back to the Chaos Shrine, the scene of the original PlayStation 5 demo for the game, but this time adds some new context. That demo ended with you taking on a knight the protagonist characters call Garland, who they also think is some kind of evil entity known as Chaos–and they really want to kill Chaos.
In the second demo, defeating Chaos triggers a new cutscene that carries the story a little further forward and introduces a new character to your party. It turns out that the Chaos Advent boss you fought wasn’t Garland or a monster: It was another hero named Neon. It’s, uh, convoluted, but it turns out that Neon is the fourth Hero of Light. She previously went on a quest to kill Chaos, but lost all her companions along the way. Eventually, Neon decided that Chaos was just a myth, a way for people to blame a single enemy for all their problems. She apparently “prayed to the darkness” to become Chaos herself, so that she could then be defeated by some other heroes to actually make that whole Chaos prophecy come true. So Neon is not Chaos, and she doesn’t even really believe he exists. But at the end of her explanation, Jack literally just says, “Bullshit,” and heads out to find the real Chaos.
Turns out you didn’t kill Chaos, and Chaos was really Neon, another Warrior of Light.
So Neon joins the team to go along to see if Jack is actually on to something, becoming the fourth member of your party. The cutscene is a bit confusing, but it does give a sense of the fact that while Final Fantasy Origin is drawing its inspiration from the first Final Fantasy and the older games in the franchise, it’s going to be anything but a simple story of prophesied heroes killing an ultimate evil.
Anyway, the demo then took us to a second level, the Refrin Wetlands. Though we didn’t get much of a story prompt for this level, it seems like the first stop on the party’s trip is to find a crystal, often common to Final Fantasy, that Jack and co. need for their crusade against Chaos. The interesting thing about the Refrin Wetlands is that, as you work your way through it, you’ll use special interactable nodes to change the weather in the environment. You can alternate the environment between sunny and rainy, with some areas flooding in the rain and barring your passage, and other paths closing off in the sun.
Changing the weather to alter the environment has a more interesting effect, though–it changes how some enemies fight you. Several of the creatures we encountered through the course of the Wetlands have electricity-based attacks. Facing them in the rain created big puddles where their attacks were more effective, but if you had the forethought to find a node and change the weather to sunny before a fight, you could take those abilities off the table before the encounter even started.
The main focus of our look at the demo, though, was the job system. Square Enix gave us a chance to play the Refrin Wetlands mission with all jobs unlocked and leveled up, allowing us to see how they work in action. A few of the jobs appeared in the original demo, like Swordsman, Pugilist, Mage, and Lancer. In the new demo, we saw the addition of Neon as a Swordfighter, who carries both a sword and a shield, and more advanced jobs like Warrior, Knight, Thief, and the classic Black, White, and Red Mages.
The weather affects fights in Refrin Wetlands, giving certain enemies advantages.
Like in Final Fantasy 1 and other FF games, once you advance a given job, you can unlock more varied, in-depth versions of those jobs. You’re free to swap jobs whenever you want, and from what we played, switching frequently seems like a good idea to handle everything the game throws at you. The first demo showed off how tough combat can be in Stranger of Paradise; it takes a lot of inspiration from other Team Ninja games like Nioh. This demo one is big on showing off how jobs are effective in different situations and the depth of what you can pull out of that system.
You can equip two jobs to Jack at a time, which you’re able to then swap between on the fly with a single button press. We found that to be great for combining a melee class and a spellcaster class, which was essential in the Wetlands. In addition to various hungry beasts and electrically charged reptiles hanging around, there were also elemental creatures that used spells like Fire and Blizzard on our group. Having the ability to swap to a Black Mage job to hit fire elementals with water spells made taking them down a lot easier. Magic isn’t a requirement though, thanks to Jack’s Soul Shield ability we saw in the first demo. It acts like a parry that absorbs a lot of different kinds of attacks from enemies, like their spells, so you can throw them back at attackers.
Wielding different abilities and using them in battle in different ways showed Stranger of Paradise at its best. Which class you pick allows you to focus on different kinds of attacks and damage types; for instance, the Swordfighter is big on knocking down enemies’ health points, but doesn’t do much to stagger them, while the Swordsman and Warrior are more about driving up the stagger meter on foes to take them out of the fight and open up the opportunity for a finishing move. Hot-swapping between jobs means you can do things like use the Dragoon’s Jump ability to deal big damage to an enemy, dodge away for a second, then pull out your White Mage abilities and cast Regen and Haste to help your teammates, before swapping back and getting back into the fray. That openness makes Stranger of Paradise’s combat a lot of fun.
The Elemental Core boss is a tough fight, requiring you to use its attacks against it and vary your jobs.
The opportunities for coming up with your own strategies and synergies were particularly prevalent in the Refrin Wetlands’ boss fight, where we fought a big metallic orb filled with elemental energy. The orb would occasionally spit out one of two different elemental bosses: a fire-based one and a water-based one. Adjusting your strategy based on which elemental you were fighting and what attacks they were using was key, because if you let the orb get the upper-hand, it might even spawn both elementals at once. With Jack’s Soul Shield ability, however, it was possible to block and capture one elemental’s abilities to use against the other one if you weren’t set up to start slinging magic spells of your own.
Stranger of Paradise also rewards you for building “job affinity” in your characters, which opens up even more cool chances at combat customization. Certain weapons and armor increase your job affinity, as does spending experience points to level up a job. The more affinity you have with a job, the more bonuses you accrue, but you don’t need to equip a job in order to have affinity for it–allowing you to mix the upshots of one job with the fighting style of another. You might get stat bonuses, like an agility boost from raising your affinity for Lancer even though you’re playing as Swordsman, but higher affinities can unlock actual job abilities to use even when you don’t have that job equipped.
And we also saw hybrid jobs like the Red Mage, which you can unlock as you climb other job trees. All those elements working in tandem mean the job system feels pretty vast, giving you a whole lot of different combat abilities, combos, and options for how you want to deal with fights.
In fact, you might be a little too spoiled for choice in Stranger of Paradise, because the job system is big almost to the point of being overwhelming. Swapping to a new job lets you set combos and battle abilities, and coupled with your standard melee and spell-casting abilities, your dodge, block, and parry mechanics, your finishers, and your special Lightbringer fighting mode, I straight-up forgot about a lot of the things I could do in a fight. Executing your special job abilities usually requires remembering relatively simple button combos, but in the heat of battle, you can never just stop and think about what you want to do. It seems like eventually a lot of those combos and reactions will become second-nature, but it’s going to take time to build up that muscle memory.
Spellcasting is very useful in Stranger of Paradise, but the interface can be a little tough to deal with on the fly.
This also made playing as a mage kind of annoying. Your spellcasting interface is a radial menu you adjust with the thumbsticks while you’re charging a spell. You have to pay attention to spell selection, spell charging, and spell targeting all at once, while still being attacked, and it means I found myself accidentally swapping Blizzaga when I meant to use Firaga, or focus on picking the right spell and accidentally send it to the wrong place.
There’s also Stranger of Paradise’s big emphasis on loot, an RPG staple that feels like it’s been turned up very high here. To some degree, Stranger of Paradise is an action take on Final Fantasy tropes, so it makes sense to see some traditional elements reimagined in a more action-oriented way. The mission screen for Refrin Wetlands shows you the rewards you’ll earn for completing it, for instance, and that suggests you can replay missions over and over to grind better gear and increase your stats. The only trouble is, you get a ton of loot, all the time, and like in Nioh, I found myself stopping every few steps to rearrange my stuff as I leveled up. That constant need to hop into a menu to see if the new headband you picked up is better or worse than the headband you’re wearing can kind of kill Stranger of Paradise’s pacing.
That said, the gear system, like the job system, seems cool and expansive, because it gives you the opportunity to be intelligent about how you fight through the game. You’re not just thinking about what gear is giving your characters the best stats, but what bonuses you get from that gear in terms of job affinity, defensive perks, and the like. There’s a huge amount of customization on hand, and from the looks of things, you can return to levels and grind out better gear over and over to make yourself an even more powerful fighter. The drawback, as mentioned, is that you spend a lot of time in menus, and it seems that, like the jobs system, the expansiveness of the gear system might bog down the experience overall.
There are A LOT of things to keep in mind about jobs, gear, and combat abilities.
The hints we’ve gotten at Stranger of Paradise’s story, the details of which have been minimal so far, are also pretty interesting. Neon’s introduction as a character who tried to become Chaos, just so someone like Jack would have a Chaos to kill, is a really weird and fascinating twist on the usual Final Fantasy premise. It sounds like we’re going to be fundamentally questioning the idea of “Warriors of Light” and fighting a big bad boss at the end of the game. It also seems like there might be more than one set of heroes, since Neon had a group of her own, and we might see a new perspective on the franchise’s prophecies driving these heroes on their quests.
My impression from the second demo of Stranger of Paradise is that its combat and systems are fun to play with and interestingly responsive, building a uniquely Final Fantasy take on some of the things we’ve seen from other big action games, like Nioh. But there’s also a lot to parse here, and it can get confusing. That said, this spin on Final Fantasy mechanics and combat is a fascinating one, and I enjoyed pummeling my way through various enemies and tough bosses. It’s a Final Fantasy game where it feels like your strategic choices are just as important as your quick reflexes in combat, and while everything you know about Final Fantasy makes Stranger of Paradise feel familiar, there’s a lot more going on under the surface of what we’ve seen so far.
The second demo for Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is available for free on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S until October 18.