Thursday, July 18, 2024
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Your troubled dad’s Final Fantasy

Gene Park

THE WASHINGTON POST – My father acted just like the guys in Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. He was the kind of person who would declare loudly before opening a box, “Let’s see what’s inside, shall we?”

I see my dad everywhere in the latest action game by Team Ninja, which uses the Final Fantasy franchise name to spin a pure action-packed and violent celebration of the series.

He’s present in the way the protagonist tells other characters to shut up when they get a bit too long winded. It’s in the way Jack, a tipsy dad of an anti-hero, is obsessed with the song My Way by Frank Sinatra, the go-to song for my pops during karaoke.

My dad and I used to try to play role-playing games together. It was my favourite genre, and he wanted to understand it. While he was an avid manga reader, he preferred action-packed stories focussed on sports or fighting, so we often played sports or fighting games.

Final Fantasy games simply required too much reading to hold his attention. Often, as a character spouted his monologue, my dad would just say, “Ah, shut up”. Here too, the hero of Stranger of Paradise is an echo of my father. When one of the four main antagonists starts monologuing, Jack simply rushes them, yelling, “I don’t care who you are!”

That’s when I began to appreciate this strange spinoff title for what it is – and stopped focussing on what it wasn’t. It’s a Team Ninja game, containing the kind of bloody, high-octane action a tipsy dad could love.

Despite its Final Fantasy name, this game is an action brawler that gives players different combat styles and weapons to play with. PHOTO: SQUARE ENIX/TEAM NINJA

For anyone familiar with the Nioh series by Team Ninja, it’s best to consider this game Nioh 3.

Both games control the same, even when it comes to its fast animated combat that prioritises a player’s split-second timing, rather than the more punishing, weighty combat of Elden Ring and Dark Souls. There is no roaming, and barely any role playing.

Despite its Final Fantasy name, this is an action brawler that gives players different combat styles and weapons to play with as they rush through very linear levels with two party members, controlled either by AI or other players. Jack is joined by four other warriors to kill the entity named Chaos, which threatens the kingdom of Cornelia. Stranger of Paradise pretends to retell the first Final Fantasy game from 1987. The difference now is Jack’s desire to kill Chaos doesn’t come from any sense of altruism. From the start, it’s an obsession without rhyme or reason. And his friends just happen to play along, for reasons the story will tell eventually.

The plot heavily foreshadows its conclusion, but unfolds like a disjointed memory. Beyond the inebriated rage of Jack, there is a story that further twists the original’s time travelling narrative by introducing multiple dimensions. As the level-based game wears on, one might realise that this game isn’t just a retelling of the first game, but a celebration of sorts of various locations throughout the series.

Too bad, then, that this is probably Team Ninja’s worst level design work to date, even accounting for the 2004 title Ninja Gaiden. Here, iconic locations from classic games, even the sixth and seventh ones, are indistinguishable from each other.

Even in Nioh, Team Ninja’s art direction and level design played with architecture and open space in ways that Stranger of Paradise simply doesn’t. Instead, it’s just long corridors laid out like NES levels. Perhaps that was always the intent, but in practice it’s not only hard to navigate but also boring.

The game drowns the player in armour and weapons every few minutes, requiring constant maintenance. The Nioh games did this too, but those played with colour and variety. Due to the edgelord themes of Stranger of Paradise, almost every piece of gear found here looks like a ninja- or wizard-themed bondage suit. You’d get the occasional throwback to classic 1987 designs, but even those are often darker in tone. Worse yet, they become disposable as you gain more powerful fetish fashion-inspired outfits. Make no mistake, this is no role-playing game. It’s a strict, level-based action game. You fight from levels 1 through 19, burning through hundreds of outfits.

The game’s classes, named after the Final Fantasy “jobs” system, keep things engaging as different weapons yield different moves, much like in the Nioh series. It’s worth stressing and warning Final Fantasy series veterans once again: This is barely a Final Fantasy game at all.

In all but name, this is a more online cooperative sequel to the Nioh series instead. And online with friends or random players the game becomes a wildly entertaining Diablo-esque loot chase – while it lasts. To what end? I’m not sure. The endgame seems lacking; The only thing to chase are harder battles and more powerful gear.

The story of Jack begins with him forgetting about himself. Stranger of Paradise is a drunken, belligerent game in both concept and design, and would’ve been better served if it was less adherent to its Final Fantasy origins, and, well, did things its own way, like Ol’ Blue Eyes sang.

Despite its level design flaws and a crowded gear system that adds little to the experience, it was hard not to find Jack’s testosterone-fuelled journey charming and full of surprises. Just don’t be surprised if it also farts in your face every once in a while.