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Stranger of Paradise teaches Final Fantasy fans how to enjoy Souls-likes

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How the game tries to lure long-time fans of the franchise

jack from final fantasy origin slays a monster. there’s blood splattered all over his face. Image: Square Enix

Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin, the new action game from Koei Tecmo’s Team Ninja and Square Enix, immediately feels different from its Final Fantasy predecessors. Just one hour into the game, I found myself clawing through a magical forest as its protagonist, the manly-man Jack, slew a beautiful griffin by grabbing it by the head and then body-slamming it to the ground with a well-timed finisher. As the beast died, blood-colored crystals burst from its body, and then the creature evaporated into thin air. A Final Fantasy game has never felt so brutal.

This high-difficulty Souls-like spinoff will be a “bold new vision” for the Final Fantasy franchise, according to producer Jin Fujiwara, and one that will take the tone of the franchise in a notably darker direction. The result is a stout gameplay challenge and a first for the Final Fantasy franchise. Polygon played a PlayStation 5 preview build that allowed us to explore Stranger of Paradise’s first two maps — one a dark and twisting castle, the other a magical forest. Then we got to talk with three Team Ninja developers to learn more about their approach to making Final Fantasy’s hardest game yet.

Stranger of Paradise tasks Final Fantasy fans with a new kind of challenge: mastering Dark Souls-like combat. This isn’t the first action game among Final Fantasy’s main series or spinoffs, but it is the first one to be so deliberately difficult. During the preview, I was quickly thrown into the action after a brief tutorial explaining how to time my blocks, parry attacks, and use the game’s Soul Shield. I soon found that, thanks to my Soul Shield, I at least didn’t need to time everything perfectly. The shield provided a tiny cushion that helped ease me into more precise attacks, like a quick block and parry.

Initially, the developers were unsure how such an action-driven title would be embraced by both long-running Final Fantasy fans and others who might not be as skilled with action games. “We definitely did have a lot of conversation regarding that,” game director Daisuke Inoue said. “And one of the answers that we came up with was to have separate difficulty levels to accommodate different players.” There are three difficulty settings, one of them a very light “story mode.”

Jack unleashes a flurry of sparkling attacks in Stranger of Paradise Image: Square Enix

From there, developers brainstormed other ways to incorporate more Final Fantasy elements and themes into Stranger of Paradise. Eventually, the team landed on a jobs system, where players could take roles such as White Mage, Monk, or a Dragoon, the same as they would in other franchise games like Final Fantasy 14. So, although the combat is new to them, players still have a familiarity with the powers each role will bring.

Still, the team didn’t always agree as to how to make the new entry feel like a Final Fantasy game. “While creating some of the stages, such as the Shrine of Chaos, apparently, there were fights between the developers,” Yasuda said. “Because they grew up playing Final Fantasy, like the original Final Fantasy, and they had their own vision of what this shrine should look like.”

Yasuda understood that Final Fantasy is special to fans, on a very personal level, for very different reasons. Thus, there were many ways to make Stranger of Paradise feel like a part of the Final Fantasy universe for them. In one of the preview’s goofier moments, a vibrating plant bumped into me in the middle of the forest, and then ran all over the screen. I quickly realized that it was the Cactuar, a fan-favorite Final Fantasy enemy. I tried to chase after it, but it beat me up, and then left.

“Even for the past titles, like the FF titles that I have been a part of, people have told me ‘Oh, you just incorporate some playfulness with Cactuar,’” Yasuda said. “So with that, with the game being a very dark game, we kind of made an exception for our Cactuar.”

In my time with the preview, if there was a single moment where Stranger of Paradise truly felt like a Final Fantasy game, that was it. Not the elaborate roles, and certainly not the difficult fighting. The fact Stranger of Paradise’s makers thought to include such a scatter-brained moment made me feel most seen as a Final Fantasy fan.