Stranger of Paradise Review[link—standalone]
It's been a good long while since the original teaser trailer came out for this game. Being among the fervor was something I'll never really forget. It was hilarious to everyone onlooker who had never seen something so autistic in vidya. Square Enix (SE) has had a really odd reputation in recent years with pushing Tetsuya Nomura - the famous (or more so, infamous) creator/director of Kingdom Hearts, onto many projects. That, and the writers of those teams as well. This has become evident not only with Kingdom Hearts (obviously), but with projects like the Final Fantasy VII Remake, which had a pretty similar plot. Needless to say, Nomura's influence on the company cannot be understated, especially with regards to how SE's games are written nowadays.
Nomura is a fan fiction writer. I don't think anyone in their right mind would dispute that. Again, Kingdom Hearts is an obvious example (constantly introduces weird characters that his "OCs" get along with just fine and act in a "just-so" sort of fashion), but Final Fantasy VII Remake is especially egregious in this regard. Not necessarily that it's terrible mind you, but it relies heavily on your knowledge of the first game and is very much written accordingly, and shakes up certain story beats and gives in-universe reasoning as to why the events of the actual original game are being changed this time around. Again, this happens for interesting, but rather contrived reasons. To say these games have a real lack of grounding is an understatement. They float on cloud 9 constantly and almost never come down. Let me just say that again, I don't necessarily hate this, but you have to keep it in mind going into a Nomura game. It has it's pros and cons and they're is a lot of fun to be had with this more fantastical writing.
Nomura had a large part to play in this game's development, as he seemed to come up with the original concept and was even credited first in the credits roll. Right before the director (lol). We'll get into Stranger of Paradise's writing a bit later, but for right now, know that this game, despite it's low budget and (I'm assuming here), rough development cycle, has a lot more going on under the hood then most of you probably thought initially. First, let's talk specs.
I played this game on my PS4 Pro in 4K (upscaled, ofc). I considered playing at a lower resolution, and I did at one point, but I find that the performance was actually better at 4K (i.e. it maintained a stable 60fps). That still doesn't excuse that fact that it looks like a PS3. The textures, lighting, and cutscenes all reflect this, as well as the overall look of the game. It seems to lack a lot of texture detail, which is particularly odd.
Did you know? This game takes up 80GB of storage? Now you do. That is enormous for a game of this nature, even with all it's textures, and I can only imagine how bloated this game became due to lackadaisical development. Speaking of development, I think this game was originally developed for the PS3. Unironically. Now, I don't have any official proof, but I look at this game and I just see that they had to cut so many corners. Some cutscenes are outright replaced with in-engine dialogue (significantly cheaper looking btw), and a bunch of other thins seem cut as well. NPC dialogue got relegated to a sub-menu (which you have to actively look for btw) and the over world is just a map connecting dungeon to dungeon. Not to mention are LOADS of performance bugs and graphical glitches. There are just some areas that look downright awful (please reference the stage with the Astos fight) all things considered.
Now, my PS3 theory only holds water in the sense that it explains how the game looks. It's more likely that the case is that it was just a side effect of the poorly managed development. However, considering SE's track record for having games put in some serious dev hell (FFXV and the VII Remake come to mind), I wouldn't put it past them. However, considering the game does actually function, I think I can let it slide a little.
This aspect of the game is important to consider as it affects the game as a whole. Had it been properly managed, Stranger of Paradise probably would have been a very different game. Maybe Jack's dialogue wouldn't have looked quite as absurd had their been more context. Maybe there would have been a lot more character writing, or cutscenes. Maybe they would have padded out the game even more than it was padded. So many possibilities... but what we have is what we got. We have to live with it now.
Yeah yeah, Combat
Combat is very competent. People have made comparisons to Nioh, and I won't say it's not true. The big difference in the job system, which really helps keep the game from becoming stale. Had it just been the kind of weapon combat for 20 hours, I probably wouldn't have made it through. It has some good heights; it's very satisfying to break enemies into tiny little bits, and it really never gets old. The thing that does get old is the bosses, which are unfortunately a weak point of Stranger of Paradise. Not necessarily because they're super bad, but it's because they fail to be that meaningful overall. The only bosses with any story significance are Bikke, Astos, and the fiends, and even then it's not that much. That has the unfortunate side-effect of making every boss in the game feel just like another stepping stone to get to the ending. They all could have used some better writing and general design tune-ups. Personally, I kinda wanted them to have some Metal Gear Rising Revengeance-type writing. I know that's a tad unrealistic, but I'd be lying if I said that I never wanted that. It almost comes close to, with the Kraken, who'd I'd have to say is the best boss overall in terms of design, demeanor, gameplay, and writing. It wasn't even a lot of writing; it was just a measly three lines and yet it added so much.
The dungeons are... ok. Really nothing too special about them. I was literally going through them and in the back of my head the first thing I wanted to compare it too was XIII. That's not really a fair comparison, considering it's not quite that linear, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't secretly thinking about it the whole time. Your basic dungeon is you fighting through it with a bunch of monsters with your two NPC buddies who take all the hits for you while you cast magic from the back. Now you have no questions why I mastered every mage ability in this game. It's not necessarily foolproof; enemies will still target you, but it's rather effective strategy, especially in the early game.
Looks vary. They're based off of the Final Fantasy games of yesteryear (referenced in their descriptions as "Dimension 2, Dimension 4," etc.) Some of these locations look pretty stunning. The Chaos Shrine is obviously a highlight, as well as Mount Gulg and Hallowed Massif (lava and snow areas respectively). However, Terra Tortūra, despite having a cool Latin name, is downright one of the worst looking areas I've ever seen in a video game. I'm not disgusted by it, but I'm constantly questioning why it looks like Satan vomited on my screen. It just looks awful. It genuinely looks nothing like the Floating Continent it's based off of. Overall though, these dungeons are fun at times, but ultimately forgettable. That goes for the monsters as well, despite them being based off of old Final Fantasy mobs as well.
Is there something else I'm forgetting... oh yeah.
I hope you like Diablo
because this game has a good ole' Diablo loot system, complete with a shower of equipment that is pretty useless because they all do the same thing; making sure you don't get completely torn up by enemies. Literally just press the auto-optimize button at every save point in the battle settings and forget about it. Actually, now that I think about it, this is probably where that 80GB came from. All the excessive bloat from these highly interchangeable weapons and armor. Say what you want about Diablo, but it's looting system is a trend I've really disliked in vidya ever sine it was popularized. In a better game, I'd probably have to say about this, but as it stands, it's inconsequential enough that I'll let it go.
It's worth noting that there's stuff like dismantling weapons and customizing them, and they effects like Job affinity and stuff. There is actually a fair amount of complexity to be had with the gameplay. It really doesn't matter though. Again, auto-optimize and forget.
Before I address the Chocobo in the room (which, funnily enough, are not present in Stranger of Paradise), there are some brief things I'd like to preface. In general, the sound in this game is pretty great. That's not usually a point you see addressed much in games, but the sound engineering is genuinely pretty good. Whether it's the cracking of crystals or the clanking of swords, it generally sounds pretty pleasing to the ear. The music itself is decent. It's not outstanding or anything, but again, it's pretty pleasing to the ear.
The voice acting is actually pretty great. Yes, even Jack's VA is really good. The script obviously needed some work, but I'm jumping the gun. Some particular stand-outs in the cast are Jake Eberle as Capt. Bikke, and Todd Haberkorn as Astos. I never got tired of the voice acting in this game, and I particularly liked these two characters and the life they brought to their roles.
I have saved the best for last. Get ready; much to Jack's chagrin, this is gonna be long.
The Strange Writing of Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin
To begin, let's have a brief plot synopsis, just to get on the same page. Don't be worried about spoilers or whatever; no amount of plot details could ever take away the downright surreal experience of playing this game firsthand.
Jack and his two pals Jed and Ash just kinda spawn outside Cornelia with funny glowing rocks in their hands with no memory except that they want to kill Chaos. This, unlike most things in this game, will be explained later. They go to Cornelia and showcase Jack's antisocial personality, which is assumedly tolerated because they want him to restore the land to it's former glory by restoring the four crystals of light. First up, they gotta kill heckin Chaos who abducted Princess Sarah, so they go and do that except it's not Chaos it's actually some white-haired teenage girl with no pants on. Apparently she was gonna kill Chaos but then Chaos wasn't real so she let the darkness into her heart to become Chaos or something like that. How could this happen you might ask? Jack says this is "Bullshit" and plays some nu-metal on his smartphone which he has apparently. Why does he have a smartphone you might ask? Jack gets outside the building and Neon joins the team because there are supposed to be "4 warriors of light". They all agree instantly that this person just fought should join the team. They head back and Jack gets told again that Chaos isn't real but they disregard this and then focus on going to Pravoka which is overrun by pirates apparently. Why is it overrun with pirates you may ask? They head to Pravoka and fight Capt. Bikke, leader of the pirates, who apparently has information for them about the crystals? He tells them where they can find a guy who knows more and they head towards him. After battling some monster in this weird castle this dark elf is about to talk about something dumb so Jack tells him to shut up and how to find the crystals. He obliges, and they go get some crystals so that they can fight Chaos or something? Wait, what was the motivation here again? I thought we established Chaos isn't real or whatever? Why are they so willing to just go out-
They go to great great lengths to find these crystals and restore them, for whatever reason. Turns out, restoring them actually made everything worse for everyone and chaos™️ is breaking out across the land. Meanwhile while defeating all these monsters, our protagonists get clouded in dark matter and learn more about their past. Turns out they're from some place called Lufenia who sent them here to regulate darkness or something. The crystals hold their memories in order to make them "Strangers", not only to Cornelia, but to themselves. This is stated explicitly in the game, which you'd think is a blatant dis regard of the "show don't tell" rule, which is true. However, considering that this game explains so little, I was actually extremely desperate for exposition. Wait, what is Lufenia exactly? They say it's a different "world" or something but it's not like Cornelia is a simulation because they disprove that.
Anyways all the crystals become restored and the world becomes shrouded by darkness, including the Pravoka pirate crew. Ole' Bikke got possessed by the darkness(?????) and you gotta beat him to a pulp (again). With his very delayed dying breath he tells you Astos knows a lot more than he's probably letting on and then right before the writers decide his last lines, he says that you shouldn't be consumed by hatred or something. I guess that's the moral of story then. I'm sure the game wouldn't just do that to later subvert it by being super edgy or something. Anyways, we follow a little wild goose chase with Astos and this is where we actually get some lore dumping. Finally. Turns out Astos was originally created by the Lufenians and the Jack has actually be here multiple times as the Lufenian "regulator". However, on previous runs, Jack figured out that the Lufenians are bad because they use this world just to basically experiment with light and darkness, which is bad because the Cornelians don't consent I suppose? Anyways I guess it's really abhorrent or something got left out of that explanation because Jack comes up with this whole plan to free Cornelia from the Lufenians grasp, which Astos executes after Jack tells him to do whatever it takes (it's implied that Jack did a multitude of runs before Astos could ever implement the plan fully). With his highly delayed dying breath, Astos explains how racist he is towards Lufenians and how he was so racist he turned them into bats. But not Jack though; he's one of the good ones. Wait, why does he hate Lufenians again? Didn't they bring him to life? What could they have possibly done to him? Well that's ok. Whatever the reason, we hate those gosh darn Lufenians by proxy because Astos is such a good pal. Especially after trying to kill us and all.
With this, Jack and crew head back to Cornelia where all hell has broken loose. Things look pretty grim after Astos' death literally has a "Death Stranding" effect where is basically just created a bunch of darkness and monsters everywhere. They get through it and then Jack punches the princess (but not too hard) before dragging her out of the castle to bring her to safety. Yeah, safety. Y'know, outside the castle is super safe, with those monsters running about and all. You beat up the monsters and with Princess Sarah's last breath, she becomes the Iblis trigg- I MEAN chaos, key. Yeah, something like that.
Anyways Jack's friends have also known more than they were letting on, and they try to beat him up (it's part of the plan). They get pummeled because if there's one thing that Jack knows, it's how to fight. Jack, after killing the only friends he knew, is incredibly overcome with grief and anger. Combined with darkness, this helps him to become Chaos, which is the only thing that can prevent the Lufenians from resetting the world, because Chaos is the only thing they can't control. Despite this, they decided to put the "extraction point" (i.e. the portal back to Lufenia) in the Chaos Shrine, which is the only locale they didn't make. How ironic. Jack uses some dark voodoo magic to go through the portal and bring the Chaos corruption into Lufenia(?????) and battles Darkness Manifest in order to officially become Chaos. After doing that, he gets put back in the Chaos Shrine and sits upon his new throne. Apparently this was all a part of plan, which Jack originally came up with apparently. His friends (now implied to be the fiends(?)), greet him and say that they teleported him back about 2000 years in Cornelia in order to set up the events of the original Final Fantasy. How did they go back in time? How did Jack become Chaos over that time? Are Jack's friends now the fiends? The game ends with Jack sitting atop his dark throne and the silhouettes of the Warriors of Light are seen for a brief glimpse once the door to the Chaos Shrine is open. With Jack ready for the fight, the credits roll to the tune of "My Way" by Frank Sinatra. The End.
Part of the reason I highlighted all that in the first place was to show just how absurd this story truly is. It's hard to fully grasp all of it in the moment, but now you can truly believe me when I say this game's story is ridiculous. I think most people going into this game were expecting that, and I've seen a lot of name-calling thrown around at the story, saying it's "stupid". I'm not gonna necessarily disagree, but I think that's selling a tad short. The basic plot points are actually rather interesting. The story itself is very interesting/entertaining, if only because of it's absurdity. People only call it stupid because it's not a story one can really take seriously. The "just-so" explanations of these types of stories border too much on shattering one's suspension of disbelief that they just disconnect themselves entirely from it. Most people want to be able to just immersed in their media without having to question it or be constantly confused. Naturally, this creates some dissonance to this game already.
Here's the thing though; I think had this game been managed better, it probably would've been great. As I said, the ideas themselves are quite good, and the story does have some particularly great high points. The last few hours of the game are notable for that, and it has some of the best voice acting in the game from Jack and despite the shallowness of character writing in general, actually had a really good emotional core with Jack having to beat up his friends. I didn't even care that much about most of them but Jack's voice acting is so heart-wrenching that I almost teared up a little. There's a great balance of confusion, horror, sadness, and anger in voice that would be really hard to replicate, and I think it goes to show how underrated the VA in this game actually is. It would have been even better had these characters had more fleshed out motivations and personalities, but the moment of brilliance actually showed through, like a candle shrouded in darkness. There are other moments like this, like the Kraken dialogue, the in-game dialogue at Hallowed Massif, and some scenes with Astos, but those are few and far in-between. This leads me to my greatest gripe with Stranger of Paradise as a whole.
This is one of the worst-paced games I have ever played hands-down. It's even worse than something like Spark the Electric Jester 3, which I had the opportunity to play recently. Both of these games try to rather ambitious stories and end up just back loading all the good parts. That's more excusable with Spark 3 considering it's pretty much made by one Brazilian guy. It's a very amateur title all around, and it's more excusable considering it's development context. Stranger of Paradise is a 20 hour game that could have been 10. Most of it is just going through the dungeons, which, on their own, isn't really that enjoyable. Most of the big story beats are just the intro, crystals, and the ending stuff. My theory is that they were going to have more planned for these areas but whatever happened wouldn't permit it. The problem with this in particular is that if this game were around 10 hours, I'd have an easier time recommending this to people because I'd say "well at least it's novel". 20 hours is a harder pill to swallow for most. It's worth noting that 20 hours is on the shorter side for RPGs, but even so that's going to deter more people than it attracts. I made a comparison to Revengeance earlier and that game had a sub-10 hour playtime that I think really helped it from fading into obscurity. Had it have been longer, I doubt so many people would have played it and would've wanted a sequel afterwards. Same goes with Luigi's Mansion. My point being, it's harder for a short game to overstay it's welcome, which is something Stranger of Paradise does.
"But it's meant to be ironic bro!"
Ignoring the fact that I don't think these writers were super aware of the writing rules they were actively breaking in the process of making this game, I don't find this game that satisfying even on a surface level. It leans too heavily on the serious side near the end for that to be the case for me. I'm only addressing this because I know most people who read this are going to tell me that the whole "point" of enjoying this game is to see Jack act unreasonably towards everyone and everything in this game. I'm not saying your story has to be deep or anything to be enjoyable, but this game did try to go deeper and I think it really dropped the ball. More like dropped the ball and tried to pick it up but kept kicking it away from itself, which is a surprisingly apt analogy for the experience of Stranger of Paradise as a whole.
I desperately wanted to love Stranger of Paradise. I refrained from spoiling myself on it and gave it the benefit of the doubt on every turn. I was excited to see something so sincere in a age where vidya has increasingly has become routine, safe, and stale. Although Stranger of Paradise had it's moments, it reminded me that sincere things aren't always necessarily good things. I would have loved to see what this game might've been with more time and effort, but as it stands Stranger of Paradise will fade into obscurity, and will be forgotten by most people as "the funny game with Chaos in it," because in reality, that's mostly all there is to it.Mon, 24 Oct 2022 17:13:57 -0500