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Square Enix lifts the lid on the full weirdness of Final Fantasy spin-off Stranger of Paradise

"I can't say it was the reaction we were expecting."

Stranger of Paradise is a funny old thing. Revealed last year with an eyebrow-raising trailer in which chaos reigned and with a playable demo stumbling out soon after, it soon became the butt of online jokes - though over time and with a little bit of added context a fascinating retelling of the original Final Fantasy has emerged, with Garland, the evil knight of the first game, cast in the starring role.

With Koei Tecmo on development duties, there's more than a touch of Nioh to its hard-edged action, while Square Enix keeps the Final Fantasy references coming thick and fast, from the FF5-inspired job system to familiar locations that draw upon the likes of FF13's Sunleth Waterscape.

Stranger of Paradise's nuttiness is all its own, though, and is pushed to the max in the latest trailer, below, that's just been put out ahead of the game's 18th March release date. A mad, sprawling thing that culminates in Frank Sinatra's My Way, it's perhaps the most promising look yet at this unhinged and novel spin-off.

I had the chance to talk to producer Jin Fujiwara and director Daisuke Inoue from Square Enix, and producer Fumihiko Yasuda from Koei Tecmo about the genesis of the project, the reaction to it to date and what to expect come launch.

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I'd like to rewind to talk about the genesis of the project and how it came about first of all. Why choose now to go back to the origins and do this alternate take?

Jin Fujiwara: First of all, obviously, Tetsuya Nomura had in his mind that he wanted to visit the character of Garland from Final Fantasy, and he wanted to do something with that character as a motif. Then there's also the fact that this year is the 35th anniversary of the Final Fantasy series.- that seemed like a good time for us to revisit these origins.

That makes a lot of sense. The reception to it has been interesting, especially when it was first announced. It became a meme of sorts, and all the 'chaos' captured people's imaginations. Then the most recent demo had those anachronistic moments like Jack with his iPod. I thought they were quite funny moments myself. Did those moments get the kind of reception you anticipated?

Jin Fujiwara: Honestly speaking, I can't say that was the reaction we were necessarily expecting from our side. But I suppose it is true that the world we've created for Stranger of Paradise is quite quirky, and some of the main characters are as well. For example, as you pointed out, they're wearing rather more modern attire than the more mediaeval atmosphere. I suppose that people were drawn to that contrast and that seemingly incongruous nature of those two settings, and that's why there was such a reaction perhaps. For us we know what the entire story is supposed to be, we know all of the background that people haven't seen yet, so for us it didn't really stick out in that same kind of way. But I suppose that's just the nature of the way we revealed it.

Yeah, totally. I like how you've embraced it with later trailers - especially with this one that's just been released as well. Was it frustrating when the reaction might have been not so positive and you had to bite your tongue because you couldn't necessarily go into the deeper story reasons behind these choices?

Jin Fujiwara: Yes, I suppose one of the things that did come from it was we considered how we should reveal information going forward in light of the reaction. For example, our original plan was that we were going to focus on the question of who Jack is, and who this main character is. But in light of the reaction, we did also decide to tweak that slightly and reveal that he was garland and reveal that this was a story with a villain as a main character at perhaps an earlier stage than we had originally been considering in order to clear up some of that understanding there.

You've been quite upfront with the game itself as well, and we've had two quite generous demos. How did the response to those demos adjust your approach to development?

Fumihiko Yasuda: Let me answer this from our team's perspective. As you say, we had two trial versions, there were certain points that we also improved between the first and the second trial version. But to focus on the feedback we received for the second most recent trial version, there were three main points that we saw coming up quite a lot. Firstly optimization, including, for example, the frame rate and other points like that. The second was that multiplayer matching was quite difficult. It didn't necessarily work as easily as we'd hoped it would. And then thirdly is the behaviour of the AI for the NPC party characters wasn't as good as we wanted. And so for the release version, we have been working on lots of improvements, but we've been focusing on these three areas in particular, and I think we've been able to do some balancing around those areas.

Daisuke Inoue, Jin Fujiwara and Fumihiko Yasuda.

Perhaps the only constant with Final Fantasy as a series is that it always reinvents itself - no two games are ever alike, they've all got different mechanics - which must be exciting as developers because you almost have a blank slate. Did you have any other ideas for approaches to this in terms of combat and gameplay, or was it always going to be this kind of action-focused game?

Daisuke Inoue: So yeah, first of all you're right. As a developer it is always really exciting to go in and think what kind of Final Fantasy can we make - can we make something completely different. In terms of why we went with action for this - primarily, of course, it was Nomura and his idea that he wanted this to be an action game. But initially, we did look into a few different approaches, including making it a little bit closer to an RPG in terms of the gameplay. So perhaps a little bit closer to Final Fantasy 7 Remake where you have a little bit more time to analyse the situation and then try and give out commands as and when you see fit. But essentially, after trying that out for a little bit, we had a lot of feedback from people that this isn't quite what we're going for, so that's how we ended up with what we've got at the moment.

The first Final Fantasy is obviously a huge influence and what Stranger of Paradise is framed around, but did you look elsewhere in the series' history as well? I'm just thinking in terms of my own observations - the job system you have is hugely deep and broad and that reminds me a lot of Final Fantasy 5. Was that an intentional nod, and are there any other games in the series that you've looked towards for inspiration?

Daisuke Inoue: You're quite right that there is some influence from Final Fantasy 5 in terms of the job system. That's because I personally really like the job system in Final Fantasy 5, and I wanted to get that in there. But in terms of other inspiration, and other influences for other past instalments and Final Fantasy series - there was a bit of this in the second trial version already, actually.

Some stages and some different levels may use past Final Fantasy games other than the first as a sort of motif. And then obviously, when we approached that we thought about how can this location be translated and interpreted into the world of Final Fantasy Origin? There are quite a lot of those reinterpreted locations in the dungeons and in the levels. We had to then think about how they would be interpreted into an action game, what was the best way to depict them, etc, etc. So, I do think that there are quite a lot of elements that people will be able to pick up on.

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That's quite exciting. I guess it goes back to what you said earlier about this coinciding with the 35th anniversary of the series, and it feels like a celebration of the series in some ways. Is that how you pitched it as well, to be able to celebrate the series and explore different aspects of it?

Jin Fujiwara: That wasn't necessarily a consideration from the beginning. It was from the very beginning we intended to include different levels and different inspiration from past instalments in the series. And as we were going forward with it, it was like 'Oh, actually, we're going to be launching it in the 35th anniversary period!' So that may have been slightly after the fact but it still has become an important part of the project.

Okay, I'm going to wrap up as time's running out. I just wanted to ask how development is going at the moment, and what are your hopes for the game upon its release? And do you think this is an approach that might work for other Final Fantasy games that you might be able to return to?

Jin Fujiwara: First of all, to answer your question about development status, it's 100% done. Second point, this might not be a particularly interesting answer for you, but I just hope that people think it's fun. If Final Fantasy fans in particular, you know, maybe if they're the kind of people who've often played RPG games, if they give it a go, and they go actually action games are not bad, I quite enjoyed this, then that would be really gratifying. Or if action game fans were to play it and go, Well, you know what, I've never played a Final Fantasy game. I'm not really into the whole RPG kind of thing. But then they give this a go. And they're like, actually Final Fantasy as a series is quite interesting. I quite like this as a thing, then again, that would just make us really happy that would make it all worth it.

For your third point, at the moment we're thinking of this as a one off and we're just focusing on Stranger of Paradise. But if the reaction does happen to be incredibly positive, and there's a lot more demand for something similar, then I would like to explore not so much a sequel perhaps but doing something similar within the series. That would just be my own personal dream, though.