Last year, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin seemingly came out of nowhere to become something of a cult hit among discerning RPG fans. The premise is all you really need to know: a prequel to the first Final Fantasy, mixed with Dark Souls-style challenging combat and 3-player online co-op. Sounds amazing, doesn't it? Stranger of Paradise launched on Xbox, PlayStation, and Epic - but not Steam. Finally, the Epic store's timed exclusivity has expired, and PC gamers can buy the game on Steam.
Stranger of Paradise begins with a tutorial in which the main protagonist, Jack, learns combat by battling goblins in a field. Jack soon heads to the kingdom of Cornelia, where he meets Ash and the unfortunately named Jed. All three heroes are intent on destroying the mysterious Chaos, and all three possess a black crystal. The king of Cornelia grants the three his blessing to enter the Shrine of Chaos. There, they seemingly encounter Chaos as well as meet the fourth Warrior of Light - and their quest is only beginning.
While a few surface details like Jack's boring character design or some goofy names might be off-putting at first glance, Stranger of Paradise is a genuinely impressive action RPG. The slow, deliberate combat and gorgeous gothic environments add a weight and seriousness to the world of the first Final Fantasy that the more cheerful, simpler original game didn't have. It's tougher than your average Final Fantasy as well, but the difficulty options can reduce the challenge to sub-Dark Souls levels.
Naturally, playing with friends makes for a better (and easier) experience. In multiplayer, one player controls Jack, and the other two control Ash and (ugh) Jed. Players can choose freely from unlocked classes in co-op, so you can mix and match playstyles in a way that can't be done solo. Jack, as the primary player, is the only one who can use cubes (healing checkpoints that also cause enemies to respawn) or Soul Burst (dramatic special moves) on bosses.
Those restrictions aren't too big a deal, but be warned that Stranger of Paradise can't just be played from start to finish in co-op. Oddly, some missions must be done in single-player, so starting them will disband the party. The idea seems to be for players to deal with certain NPCs and watch certain cinematics on their own before jumping back into multiplayer. Someone who has unlocked a bunch of missions can play a lot of co-op uninterrupted, but you'll still need to hop off to single-player in order to advance the story at times.
Despite the weird single-player/co-op requirements, Stranger of Paradise is still a huge and fantastic game that Final Fantasy/Dark Souls fans will want to play. Be warned that the Steam and Epic versions are not Steam Deck compatible by default. There is a workaround that lets the game run on Steam Deck, but cut scenes apparently won't display correctly (a common Steam Deck issue). If I ever get a chance to try the Steam version for myself, I'll report back with more details. Also, note that the Steam and Epic versions can't play multiplayer with each other at present, but this might change in the future.
Stranger of Paradise supports 3-player online co-op. The game sells digitally for $39.99 on Xbox, PlayStation, Steam, and Epic. Physical versions for Xbox, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5 are available at Amazon.