The first 15 minutes of Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin swerve from a cutscene in which a monstrous armored figure murders knights and kidnaps a princess to a six-headed dragon on a spaceship. And it’s only getting warmed up.
The protagonist, Jack, then walks through a dreamy field of golden wheat as Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” plays. After that, the scene cuts to Jack (Jack, not the Chairman of the Board) meeting two other dude-bros in a medieval town, and the three decide to go adventuring together — because they all have the same kind of rock in their possession.
It’s a fever dream of a beginning, and the fact that this all is packaged within an intense and, at times, fiercely difficult action RPG makes it feel all the more delirious. From the very start, Stranger of Paradise had me reeling.
Team Ninja, the Koei Tecmo subsidiary responsible for the Nioh series, teams up unexpectedly with Square Enix as one of the creative forces behind this Final Fantasy spinoff. Stranger of Paradise doesn’t use the turn-based combat for which the Final Fantasy series is known, nor is it even semi-turn-based like Final Fantasy 7 Remake. This is a full-on souls-like, with tough-as-nails bosses that you have to take down with old-fashioned melee strikes.
Stranger of Paradise’s gory, dark, and difficult aesthetic had me battling my way through labyrinthian levels seething with monsters. As a Final Fantasy fan, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for this. But despite Team Ninja’s dense action-gameplay loop, I still found the combat approachable. Paired with its scattered story and absurd character moments, its velocity was more than enough to make me hoot and howl throughout my rollicking playthrough.
The combat will make you feel as assured as the gruff Jack. The game introduces a “Soul Shield,” which is essentially a block mechanic that allows you to counter both melee and magical attacks without needing to land a perfectly timed block. As you fight, you’re allowed unlimited dashes and swings of the sword and aren’t limited by stamina. Your party members join you to gang up on enemies as well. The cherry on top? You also have five potions that get replenished every time you “touch cubes,” which function as checkpoints throughout each level.
Like other Final Fantasy games, Stranger of Paradise pits you against larger-than-life bosses — a six-headed dragon here, an elemental god there, and even a zombie dragon that oozes a tar-like substance. The boss fights required focused play, but cubes placed just in front of their lairs make it easy to try time and time again. The fights, when done correctly, aren’t overlong. If you die, the game will even supply some tips to beat the boss.
Stranger of Paradise’s story follows Jack and his four compatriots on a mission to kill Chaos — although it’s not quite clear what “Chaos” really means. Multiple key characters, including party member Neon (whose silvery hair and slender face is straight out of a Yoko Taro game), assert that Chaos is just a fairy tale. Unpersuaded, Jack says “bullshit,” puts in his little Bluetooth headphones, blasts some rock music, and keeps walking forward.
He journeys across environments that echo the story’s deep thematic questions; think “the coexistence of light and darkness,” for example. Deep caves reveal glittering, coral-like mushrooms with a bioluminescent glow. A warm, sunny forest can turn stormy at the touch of a glowing orb. A dark castle features shining blue ornamentation. And the menacing inhabitants of these environments are much more divergent. They range from pirates to fantastical hippogriffs to sci-fi-inspired soldier-like robots.
Unlike his pretty-boy predecessor, Cloud Strife, Jack’s eyes don’t sparkle with possibility; his face has an errant scar or two. Jack is blunt, emotionless, and ridiculously strong. So strong that he can grab a troll the size of a small car by the arm, slam it to the ground, and kill it. Even when he’s drenched in blood from head to toe, Jack never whines. When he dies, he just says, “This sucks.” (And it totally does.)
Stranger of Paradise’s combat also stars over-the-top finishing moves, which you may trigger after breaking an enemy’s stamina gauge correctly. Every enemy type is finished off in a unique spectacle; as enemies shatter, bloody crystals spill out. After these executions, a blood-spattered Jack simply walks away, unbothered by it all.
Stranger of Paradise supplements its action-adventure trappings with Final Fantasy’s tried-and-true job system. Players may switch among jobs like Swordfighter, Ronin, Pugilist, and Mage, each with its own weapons and unique stat bonuses. This means that menus are king in this game. If you’re aiming to swap in the best gear and keep your skill trees updated, you’ll probably be surfing menus every time you reach a checkpoint. The maps are littered with dozens of items, including armor and weapons, and you’ll accumulate them quickly. (Less than eight hours into my playthrough, I maxed out the 500-item limit.)
Thus, Stranger of Paradise’s biggest downfall is how menu-dependent the gameplay is. For example, you pick levels from a map, but you know nothing about the world it displays. Strangely enough, cutscenes and other story-specific content are also accessed from the main menu, instead of in the world itself, which is what I expected from a traditional Final Fantasy game. The menu-based narrative makes the game feel slightly incomplete.
Despite Jack’s personality and the hyper-exaggeration of the game world, Stranger of Paradise does punctuate some of its more intense sequences with moments of levity — companion Jed might make a joke about peeing, or the party might get ambushed by a springy sentient cactus. There’s also an amphibian-looking mage named Master Tonberry (whom long-term fans might recognize from Final Fantasy 7). However, there’s more than this comedy to balance out Jack. His bluff demeanor forms the butt of the saddest joke, which is that he’s actually the bad guy.
We know from the start that Jack is Jack Garland, the antagonist of the very first Final Fantasy game. Stranger of Paradise is largely about a character who calls himself a hero of light, but then winds up on a dark path. As I played through the game, I piece together just how he goes from trying to be a hero, to being the one to kidnap the damsel in the very beginning of the game. The confusing and chaotic aspects of the game — like random jumps in story and funny character moments — propelled me forward as I reveled in its intriguing world. But also, I just questioned what was really going on.
Jack’s path muddies the idea of the infallible hero, and it’s refreshing. Stranger of Paradise cuts through all the B.S. masking the hyper-masculinity that’s come to dominate who and what we define as a hero. In the beginning of the game, the Queen of the land tells Jack to smile, or he’ll scare her daughter. He doesn’t smile. But moments like this, and the brutal combat, show how Jack is a caricature of the strong, silent type. He knows no chivalry and doesn’t realize he’s about to become the very monster he seeks to destroy.
I didn’t expect to enjoy smashing the heads of monsters like this. I also didn’t expect to enjoy a story about a hyper-masculine man like Jack. But what I’ve come to learn in my time with Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin is that Jack isn’t a knight in shining armor. He’s better.
Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origins releases on March 8 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. These impressions were written using a download code provided by Square Enix. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.