Final Fantasy is important to Square Enix. I know that’s stating the obvious, but sometimes Square Enix is almost shockingly willing to experiment with it. If Final Fantasy VII Remake wasn’t enough to convince you that the company is willing to greenlight some risky, near transgressive projects, Stranger of Paradise is even more definite proof. Both of these games subvert things that are very much core to the Final Fantasy property. Imagine if Activision were to announce a pacifist Call of Duty, or the next GTA was to be a linear corridor game. Stranger of Paradise is like that… with the only difference is that I wouldn’t have faith that either of those companies would have the creative ability to do the subversion justice. Team Ninja, the developer behind Stranger of Paradise, does.
In theory Stranger of Paradise is a re-imaging of the original Final Fantasy, only wrapped up in Soulslike action combat and level design. And at first glance, you are going to look at this thing and just wonder at the gonads that Square Enix’s publishing team must have to drop this within weeks of Elden Ring. There is no way that this game was ever going to compete for scope, production quality or design with FromSoftware’s behemoth. But then you realise that this game is a foil, not an imitation, and it’s a sharp satire on both Final Fantasy and the FromSoftware formula.
On one level, this satire is both overt and ridiculous. There’s the obsession with “chaos” that permeates just about every line of dialogue. There’s the scene where Jack – yes, a fantasy hero named Jack – tunes out of a very serious conversation by booting up his Spotify playlist. There’s an epic boss battle that finishes with a five-second cut scene of the characters just walking away without saying anything, in one of the most overtly anti-climatic boss battles in history. The game even kicks off with a Frank Sinatra song, which Square Enix surely paid big money to license, and then cuts it off before the iconic chorus. Just think about how incredible that is: the chorus is the entire reason to listen to that track.
Everywhere you look, Stranger of Paradise revels in the opportunity to play on your expectations. On top of the overt comedy, there’s the more subtle satire. The game has a Diablo-like loot system that is so active that, over the course of a single dungeon, you’re probably going to change equipment to use the shiny new (and better) things that enemies and treasure chests spit out a half dozen times. Now, is that because Koei Tecmo wanted to do a Diablo-like combat system… or is that the developers were poking fun at how the Souls series is famous for steeping every bit of junk sharpened metal you find with lore? I’ll let you decide (there’s only one right answer though).
Later, there’s a level that feels like it should be far more open than it is. It’s a forested level, and the landscape that you’re looking out and over certainly suggests openness, but you’re constrained to a very obviously and obnoxiously narrow path instead. It’s almost ridiculous just how overt and arbitrary the level artists and designers have been to funnel your movements through this level. You’ll start thinking to yourself what a wasted opportunity this is… but then you’ll hear the Final Fantasy XIII soundtrack in the background, and suddenly you’re clued into the joke. The entire level becomes very funny then.
Then there are the difficulty settings. Having just bounced off the usual volatile “easy mode” discourse from Elden Ring, we’re now sitting down to play a “Soulslike” that, if you select “easy” from the difficulty settings, the game subsequently asks “you sure we can’t make this even easier for you?” Play on Chaos difficulty and you’ll be sorely tested to master the game’s many systems, so don’t worry if you do like the challenge, because you are covered. However, if you don’t have the patience for that, play on that easiest mode and the game all-but plays itself. It’s absolutely brilliant, and the fact that the game is enjoyable in its own way on every difficulty level is most certainly a commentary from a developer that knows how to make things difficult (see: Nioh, Ninja Gaiden). Now, I firmly believe that FromSoftware has every right, as a team of artists, to refuse to put an easy mode in their games. I’ll defend that to the death, and I also think Elden Ring is a genuine masterpiece, but Stranger of Paradise’s little joke at the expense of FromSoftware does put that bugbear to bed. Easy modes work just fine in Soulslikes.
I can’t talk about the broader narrative for spoilers reasons, but it, too, is satirical in design, and much like how Final Fantasy VII deconstructs the determinism that has been a core philosophical concept of the Final Fantasy series over so many years, so too does Stranger of Paradise. It’s a fun and easy-following narrative, and while it will be a bit brief for some (that’s part of the joke AND source material), it’s actually well-written and an engaging take on the four heroes of light in isolation too.
While the game is an elaborate, layered satire, the game itself is no joke. In combat, the action is pacey and fluid. There’s a wealth of different job classes to choose between, and they all feel meaningfully different. Level design is largely linear outside of an occasional shortcut that will drop you back at an earlier point in the level. That design decision might throw people more used to the labyrinthine design of most Soulslikes, but just about every level has some quirk or mechanic that makes it interesting. Whether it’s flipping the weather between sun and rain to open up new pathways, dodging a massive ballista raining hellfire on you as you assault a castle, or hurling magic into lasers of doom to also open up new pathways, Stranger of Paradise is filled with variety.
There are also plenty of classical Final Fantasy elements, thrown in for fan service and to add another layer of charm for the nostalgic. For me, the big “yes, this is a Final Fantasy game” moment was crashing into a Tonberry. Most levels have at least one hiding around a corner that you don’t want to turn around, and they’re usually protecting some real good loot, but you do not want to fight Tonberry. Those beasts are just brutal in this game, even at the absolute easiest difficulty setting and, frankly, I generally found discretion to be the better part of valour when I spotted one. Fighting cactuars and coeurls was also vintage Final Fantasy fun, and the remixed use of Final Fantasy music is inspired. Overall, from the way the game plays, we can see that Square Enix and Koei Tecmo understand that satire and deconstruction shouldn’t slide into mockery, and Stranger of Paradise does feel like an authentic Final Fantasy experience, even as it’s drawing you into its self-ribbing humour.
Most of all, though, I’m so impressed that through both Final Fantasy VII Remake and Stranger of Paradise, we’ve finally hit the point in video games where nuanced metatextual art can exist. We’re finally at the point where there is enough tradition, history, and creativity that has come before that artists can begin deconstructing and playing with textual form. Do you know that Stranger of Paradise reminded me of most as I was playing? Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. That’s not something I ever thought I’d say about a Final Fantasy title, but just like in Stoppard’s great play, the artists of Stranger of Paradise took an existing Great Work (Hamlet in Stoppard’s case, Final Fantasy 1 here), and found ways to reframe it, re-contextualise scenes so people consider events from a different perspective, and then reconstruct it test the very concept of meaning in narrative.
Take for instance the scene where the party of heroes enters pirate Bikke’s town, only to be met with hostility because Bikke has actually been good to the citizenry. Is that scene both a fun and unexpected twist? Yes, absolutely. Is it also a device to reframe our expectations from Final Fantasy 1, and remind us that the simple and straightforward heroism of that game was naïve? Also, yes. Like Final Fantasy VII Remake, this game tackles the same deterministic assumptions of its heritage – the idea and gameplay structure behind the characters being preordained by fate to be heroes – and that’s just not easy to do in a JRPG where the very genre calls for a linear narrative where characters rise from humble roots to perform great heroics. There are fundamental expectations from players about how these narratives should work and flow that both of these games fundamentally resist. The absurdism (as in literary absurdism, not “absurd” as we generally talk about it in normal language) that is on display in these games is a lot of fun, but it’s also intelligent, more nuanced than people will give it credit for, and a good sign for the maturity of video games as a medium.
I have to wonder if the gaming audience is quite ready for the kind of metatextual experience that Stranger of Paradise presents. It’s not only a game that doesn’t take itself seriously, but it outright challenges players’ expectations on how games are made and how they should be played. It’s hugely entertaining and as experimental as Final Fantasy at its best, but I do wonder how well something so reflective will click and be remembered as a great in the longer term. I only hope that people realise that the nonsense of Jack, his iPod, and his obsession with Chaos is just the surface of this brilliantly smart, layered thing, and they then take the time to dig into what Stranger of Paradise is really saying as a work of metatextual satire.