At this point in the series' life, what exactly is a Final Fantasy game? Sometimes it's nice to be reminded, as we've been a couple of times in recently, it's whatever the hell it wants to be: a colourful karter with chocobos and moogles going wheel-to-wheel across lysergic race tracks, or a dour action game smeared in early noughties edginess.
I'm not here to talk about Chocobo GP today I'm afraid - though good lord am I looking forward to trying that out - and rather to provide a brief update on Stranger of Paradise, Team Ninja's muscular Final Fantasy spin-off that debuted to much bemusement at Square Enix's E3 show back in June.
The concept's simple enough to get your head around - this is Nioh in Final Fantasy cosplay, effectively, a solid core of combat put to use against griffins, harpys and elementals, all excused by some absolute nonsense about four crystals. I sort of adore how Stranger of Paradise leans into the nonsense, something which made it the target of much ridicule after its reveal but something that ensured this particular spin-off instantly earned a place in my heart.
The new demo that was presented to go alongside this week's Tokyo Game Show - and that surely, in better times, would have been playable somewhere in the cavernous halls of the Makuhari Messe - showed a more traditional Final Fantasy backdrop to the action, and didn't let up on the nonsense either. There's a moment when our hero Jack is told something about chaos that he doesn't want to hear, so he shouts 'bullshit', reaches for his Android phone and plays some nu-metal while skulking away - and I laughed out loud so much I was sort of grateful I wasn't on a showfloor and was spared some blushes.
What followed was just as entertaining, though for different reasons. Taking place in the Refrin Wetlands - a damp forest more typical of the series, and another of Stranger of Paradise's nods to more classical Final Fantasy - this particular demo sees a fully fleshed-out party, and a wider array of jobs and skills to tinker with.
It's Stranger of Paradise's oh-so-malleable combat that's its strongest suit - and why Square Enix is so eager to get the game in people's hands, with a refreshed demo going live today - with the ability to equip two jobs from a generous list effectively allowing you to roll your own. Being a simple sort I went route one, unimaginatively pairing a Swordsman with a Warrior, but the messy chaos that ensued was a pleasure.
The rhythm of combat here pushes towards Devil May Cry-esque excess, but with those RPG elements bubbling away near the surface slowing it a little and making it distinct. Oh, and this is one of those RPGs that keeps a steady stream of loot flowing your way, forcing you to go back and forth between menus as you juggle not only jobs and skills but also what outfit suits best. I couldn't help but lean into Jack's edginess by giving him a nice jaunty hat to wear into battle.
Outside of battle - which is honestly best experienced for yourself, and if you've the slightest interest I'd encourage you to sample the recent demo - there's a fairly unimaginative but gentle going action game, the exploration of the Refrin Wetlands interspersed with light puzzling as you switch orbs to control the weather, the rainmaking branches extend and retract to open up new pathways.
It's gently reminiscent of past Final Fantasy dungeons, but delivered in Strangers in Paradise's own unique style. Whether you find that grating or not is going to be a matter of taste, but personally speaking I'm keen on the knowing trashiness of it all - a far cry from some of the more solemn entries, and a tone befitting of the scruffy, satisfying combat it showcases. This leans into parts of the series that tickle me just as much as all that grandeur and splendour of the mainline entries, and I'm totally there for it. I'm eyeing that March release date that's just been announced with some interest.
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