35 years ago, Final Fantasy redefined RPGs when SquareSoft pushed the boundaries of 8-bit storytelling. As the four warriors of light, you are tasked with rescuing Cornelia’s princess Sarah, who has been kidnapped by a former royal knight, Garland. What follows is a quest to save the world, restore the power of the elemental crystals by defeating the four fiends that drained them, and finally defeat Chaos itself. Simple storytelling by today’s standards, but aging gameplay aside, Final Fantasy 1 remains iconic. There is strength in its simplicity and it felt complete.
So when Square Enix revealed Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin as both an alternate retelling and prequel, that first trailer left me skeptical. Reimagined as an action RPG with a dark fantasy setting, you now played as a different Warriors of Light group: Jack, Jed, Ash, Neon, and Sophia, all determined to destroy chaos. I wasn’t convinced at all, and the broken demo made me worry about the quality of the project. Shortly after takeoff, my curiosity got the better of me, and I’ve never flipped a first impression so drastically.
Though Team Ninja plays loose with the source material, Stranger of Paradise never forgets its roots. Swap turn-based battles for real-time battles. There’s versatility in the job system, enemies dropping near-endless loot for new weapons and armor, while Jack’s brutal finishing moves are an interesting diversion. I thoroughly enjoyed the gameplay – but the story kept me playing.
I’m not going to pretend this is a screenwriting master class, though, and some scenes feel like they’ve been ripped out of a B-movie. When Jack, Jed, and Ash first meet, they meet while out for a walk, show each other their crystals (no euphemism), bang each other’s fists, and suddenly bond. Jack’s infamous “bullshit” response to neon, going out and playing music made me laugh for all the wrong reasons. Stranger of Paradise doesn’t take itself seriously What follows is ridiculously silly, and there are spoilers for both games.
After the opening stretch, the game’s appeal becomes more apparent, but to explain why, the original game needs to be examined. A lot of that depends on characterization, and in FF1, Garland falters significantly. As the first boss, he is quickly defeated and only reappears at the end as the boss of the Four Fiends, after setting up a time loop that allows him to live forever. While Warriors of Light is fine as a blank template for players, Garland’s actions drive this story forward, but his reasoning feels lacking.
It wouldn’t be so bad if Garland was really interesting. Not every villain needs an extensive backstory, sure, but he needed something, anything at all. By focusing on his past life as Jack Garland, an outspoken man with an intense desire to kill Chaos before he did, we finally had that extra something, even if the execution was flawed. More prominent NPCs like Princess Sarah and the Dark Elf King Astos also benefited. No longer a damsel in distress or a throwaway villain, they were driven by love, duty and resignation and fought to save Cornelia’s future.
Stranger of Paradise re-contextualizes the events of Final Fantasy 1 and I loved that Garland isn’t the outright villain we all thought it would be. There was not one moment that turned everything around; It’s more of a quiet build that gradually clicked, and that payout is more emotional if you’re playing the original. The Team Ninja spin-off is a worthy prequel that I never thought Final Fantasy needed and I’m glad I risked it.
Please do me a favor, Square Enix. Don’t ever show me another Tonberry again.
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