We tend to remember E3s not for the moments of triumph but those more commonplace, faintly tragic and often very comic interludes we set our watches by the start of every summer: Kudo Tsunoda’s ‘Bam, there it is’ that killed off Kinect before it’d even properly launched; Mr Caffeine and his poop on your toothpaste; pretty much everything that unfurled in the theatre Konami booked out for its 2010 E3 presser.
Add to that ever-growing list the reveal of Final Fantasy spin-off Stranger of Paradise during Square’s show on Sunday night. I’d assumed the move away from a live show would mean a move away from the awkward theatrics that once defined E3, but how gloriously wrong I was: in the announcement trailer that seemed to stumble forth from a different era entirely, we got an entire conference’s worth of cringe crammed into two and a half minutes. It was spectacular.
It didn’t stop there, either. The PS5 demo that was due to hit the PlayStation Store in the immediate aftermath of the show did turn up on time. The only problem was, it was corrupted – a problem that persisted for an entire 24 hours before finally being addressed earlier today. All of which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, does it?
You’ve seen the memes online, I’m sure – chaos reigns indeed – and upon booting up the demo you can see why so much derision has been thrown Stranger of Paradise’s way as you slash your way through a tutorial set in a murky cornfield, some gruff bastard named Jack curb-stomping goblins in a smear of PS3-era visuals. Yes, Stranger of Paradise does look kind of appalling, and it’s not helped by its dreary aesthetic: this is Tetsuya Nomura through a ketamine hangover (you can tell it’s a Nomura joint soon enough too – after five minutes main character Jack was already wearing five different belts).
For all that, though? I kind of like what I played of Final Fantasy: Stranger of Paradise. In fact, I kind of liked it a fair amount.
Partly that’s because the fundamental idea behind – Team Ninja delivers Final Fantasy through the prism of its hard-edged action series Nioh – is a sound one, and playing through the short demo that’s apparent more often than not. The control set-up is the same – switch to the second configuration and it’s almost a direct lift – and while this isn’t quite as involved as Nioh with its intricate stance switches it has the same crunchiness to its combat that comes alive as you unlock more abilities.
After a mere thirty minutes you’ve become a fascinating clockwork of punishment, grabbing enemy’s magic projectiles and then flinging them back in their face, slamming others into walls or unleashing a delicious string of attacks. Like Nioh, there’s a breadth to its action, and a generosity too, only this time that breadth has been emboldened by a job system that’s enjoyably malleable.
It’s not quite Final Fantasy 5 – not yet, at least – but it does present a wealth of options as you switch from mage to lancer to swordsman, even affording some on-the-fly flexibility as you can instantaneously go from one of two equipped jobs to another. Beneath that dumbass surface, there’s some combat that looks like it might well be surprisingly smart.
“A part of the pleasure with this Stranger of Paradise demo, too, is being able to play a game on fast forward as you rush through the job levels and are showered with new weapons and gear, condensing half a dozen hours worth of progress into a slim 30 minutes.”
Which isn’t to excuse how ugly it all is, and how it feels like it’s been lifted from another time entirely: this feels at times like the kind of second-rate filler in the 00s that you wouldn’t really know about until you came across a dogeared copy on a GameStation shelf and then would happily part with a fiver for a couple of nights of uncomplicated fun. A part of the pleasure with this Stranger of Paradise demo, too, is being able to play a game on fast forward as you rush through the job levels and are showered with new weapons and gear, condensing half a dozen hours worth of progress into a slim 30 minutes.
But still, beneath the disappointing visuals, the awkward edginess and the sheer wtf-ness of a game like this arriving in these slightly more refined times, there’s the flash of something worthwhile in the mesh Team Ninja has come up with that marries Nioh and Final Fantasy together. Will it pay off in the long run? I’m not entirely sure, and there’s definitely plenty of work to be done. A few nudges in the right direction, though, and this may well go on to be more than just another of those amusing E3 moments.