Final Fantasy VII is a classic JRPG. There's no doubt about that. And for years, fans clamored for a proper modernized remake. And in 2020, that wish finally came true. It looks cool, but I don't know if I'll ever play since I don't have any Sony consoles and I haven't heard any rumblings of it coming to Xbox. But that's not really the end of the world to me, as I've had a love/hate relationship with Final Fantasy VII since it was originally released. So whatever. If it comes to Xbox, I'll play it. If it doesn't, I'll lose no sleep.
The original Final Fantasy is a classic JRPG. Yet it's one that nobody ever asked for a modernized remake. And yet, here we are. Stranger Of Paradise is a kinda sorta remake of Final Fantasy, just without the budget of the Final Fantasy VII remake. And most likely it'll be ignored by most gamers.
Of course, I should really call it a remake in full-on air quotes because Stranger Of Paradise is completely off the rails. Instead of a world map, it basically plays out in glorified episodes. Instead of the blank slate party the original game had, we now have super emo dudes a la Final Fantasy XV. Instead of those glorious chip tunes, we've got Frank Sinatra and nu metal. I'm dead serious. And instead of turn based combat, we've got a crazy complicated and compelling action RPG on our hands.
The story in Stranger Of Paradise is far from faithful. At its best, it's a loose retelling that falls somewhere between fan fiction and prequel. To put it bluntly, this game is a total mess. Yet, for all its misses, I can't help but kind of love it - or at least love that exists. This is the sort of Final Fantasy game that makes me love Square Enix. Not because the game is great, but because they're willing to take such stupid risks on such a beloved franchise all these years later. Look, I've been playing Final Fantasy games for like thirty years now. Good or bad, I'm just happy they're still making Final Fantasy games that are interesting enough to warrant a conversation.
Now real quick, let's try to even define what Stranger Of Paradise even is. When it was originally announced, it was shown off as a straight up modern remake of Final Fantasy - not unlike the Final Fantasy VII Remake. (I still can't believe "Remake" is in the actual title of that one). But upon release, Stranger Of Paradise was referred to as a dark alternate retelling of the original game. But y'know what? Call it whatever you want - a remake, retelling, reimagining, reboot, official fan fiction. Ultimately, it's more a prequel than anything making the "Origins" in its title even more fitting. It kind of doesn't matter, though. The truth is, the original game was pretty light on story, and your party of four characters were just nameless classes. Basically, this game just takes the main quest beats and throws original characters and story on top of it, often while trying to tie it into the rest of the series.
And about those characters... they're pretty awful. But maybe that's part of the charm here. There was a time when Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest felt like sibling rivalries. But in 2022, it feels like Dragon Quest has doubled down on staying true to its early fantasy roots and poetic D&D storytelling and world building, whereas Final Fantasy is fine with going off the rails and featuring insane inaccurisms. To put it bluntly, if you've been following Final Fantasy for the past thirty something years, I don't think you're drawn to the series because of its great characters or incredible stories. So yeah, you're going to see some memes about Jack's inane "Chaos" monologues. But if you're a series fan, then you're not really surprised either.
What Stranger Of Paradise really has going for it is a deeply enthralling job system, and some seriously fun combat courtesy of Team Ninja. Oh yeah, that's the other thing - the Dead Or Alive developer made this Final Fantasy game. Now that's a sentence I never thought I'd type. The systems really started to make sense to me a few hours in, and I've had a blast exploring the job system, unlocking new skills, and mixing and matching them accordingly to make an awesome build for Jack. It's really awesome to tap a button and switch between a heavier melee build and then a red mage who's capable of sending all kinds of elemental magic flying. And Team Ninja obviously knows how to do combat right, so every encounter feels brisk and fun whether I'm parrying oncoming attacks or ending things in a rain of blood via glory kills that finish off weakened foes. While I've always been more drawn to turn-based combat in my JRPG's, I have to admire this flashy take on Dark Souls style combat here.
My main hangup with Stranger Of Paradise is the level design. If you thought Final Fantasy XIII was too linear, then you're not gonna like what this looks like. Though each mission takes place in a different area with its own unique visuals, there's some settings that are just plain ugly. Though there's also some sights to be seen. It's a true mixed bag. But the levels themselves do feel a bit uninspired and backtracking can be a pain because there's no map (unless I'm missing it).
But none of that really matters because against all odds, Stranger Of Paradise has an awful lot going for it. The decision to make this a side-story/prequel means that the stakes are much lower than with Final Fantasy XVI. It means that there's more room for experimentation and expectations are lower. And the game truly benefits from all this. Stranger Of Paradise has a fantastic battle system, a fun job system, awesome boss battles, and - if you stick with it - a story that actually gets pretty dang compelling. I remember years ago pushing through Final Fantasy Type-0 because it was "so bad, it's good." That's not the case here. Stranger Of Paradise is actually a fun reboot (or whatever). And fun is what gaming is all about at the end of the day. It's also always a breath of fresh air to watch the credits roll on an RPG in under twenty hours. Believe it or not, in 2022 there's a Final Fantasy game on shelves that I'd call an honest to goodness hidden gem.