Games of 2022: Stranger Of Paradise was the best prequel we never knew Final Fantasy needed

35 years ago, Final Fantasy redefined RPGs when SquareSoft pushed the boundaries of 8-bit storytelling. Playing as the four Warriors of Light, you’re tasked with rescuing Cornelia’s Princess Sarah, who’s been kidnapped by a former royal knight, Garland. What follows is a quest to save the world, restoring the elemental crystals’ power by defeating the Four Fiends that drained them, and eventually defeating Chaos itself. Basic storytelling by today’s standards but, aging gameplay aside, Final Fantasy 1 remains iconic. There’s strength in its simplicity and it felt complete.

So, when Square Enix revealed Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin as both an alternative retelling and prequel, that initial trailer left me sceptical. 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, each determined to destroy Chaos. I wasn’t convinced at all, and the broken demo left me concerned about the project’s quality. Soon after launch, my curiosity bested me, and I’ve never U-turned on a first impression this drastically.

Despite Team Ninja playing it loose with the source material, Stranger of Paradise never forgets its roots. Swapping turn-based battles for real-time combat. there’s versatility in the job system, enemies drop near-endless loot for new weapons and armour, while Jack’s brutal finishing moves are an interesting change of pace. I enjoyed gameplay considerably – but the story is what kept me playing.

I won’t pretend this is a master class in scriptwriting, though, and some scenes feel ripped from a B-movie. Jack, Jed, and Ash’s first meeting sees them run into each other during a walk, show each other their crystals (not a euphemism), fist bump, and suddenly team up. Jack infamously replying “bullshit” to Neon, walking away 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’s spoilers ahead for both games.

After the opening stretch, the game’s appeal becomes more apparent, but explaining why requires examining the original game. Much of this comes down to characterisation and, in FF1, Garland significantly falters. As the first boss, he’s quickly defeated, re-emerging only at the end as the Four Fiends’ boss, having established a time loop that lets him live forever. While the Warriors of Light are fine as a blank template for players, Garland’s actions drive that story, but his reasoning feels lacking.

That wouldn’t be so bad if Garland was actually interesting. Not every villain needs an expansive backstory, sure, but he needed something, anything at all. By focusing on his earlier life as Jack Garland, a blunt man with an intense desire to kill Chaos before becoming it, we finally had that something, even if the execution was flawed. More prominent NPCs like Princess Sarah and the Dark Elf king, Astos benefitted too. No longer a damsel in distress or throwaway villain, they were driven by love, duty, and resignation, fighting to save Cornelia’s future.

Stranger of Paradise recontextualises Final Fantasy 1’s events and I loved that Garland’s not the outright villain we all thought. There wasn’t one moment that turned everything around; it’s more of a quiet build-up that gradually clicked, and that payoff’s more emotional if you played the original. Team Ninja’s spin-off is a worthy prequel that I never imagined Final Fantasy needed, and I’m glad I took a chance with it.

Just, do me one favour Square Enix, please. Never show me another Tonberry ever again.