Our Chaotic journey to kill Chaos (so you don't have to)
Updated: Jun 24, 2021
If you had so much as a single feeler out during E3 2021, you would have heard all about Square Enix's announcement for a new Final Fantasy game, Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origins. Whether you got onto the train late, or if you were watching it live, the trailer's opening line has been a rallying call for all who game and meme:
I'm here to kill Chaos. That's my mission.
You see, it's not everyday a trailer like this drops.
Just on credentials alone, this game WILL sell - Square Enix with their biggest IP (which houses the "critically-acclaimed MMORPG FFXIV", but that's not the point today) AND Team Ninja of Ninja Gaiden and, more recently, Nioh fame in the unlikeliest of team-ups. They could have dropped just a title card and I promise the internet would have been hyping it up. Perhaps Kojima has the right approach - why not just drop vague, symbolic visuals instead of gameplay trailers, eh?
Instead, they woke up and chose to meme (unintentionally... probably.) - and so memes we got with a 2 minutes 33 seconds trailer that featured the word "Chaos" EIGHT WHOLE TIMES. And so, when the trailer ended with a call for PS5 players to try out a demo, we thought:
Looks like Chaos has been waiting for us.
But alas, SE and TN screwed the pooch slightly and left us with a a huge problem. The demo file was corrupted and unplayable. Almost too many hours later, the file was finally patched and then another problem occurred. There were multiple versions of the demo so we didn't know which one to download. It took us a few tries to get the one we wanted (Japanese Audio but
You gonna make us go in there and find you?! Guess we'll just show ourselves in.
This was easily the most amount of effort I've put into trying to demo a game that's a year away from its release. But, you see, the trailer really got to me. As a big fan of SoulsBorne games, Nioh always occupied a strange intermediary as a game I enjoyed playing but never really fell deeply in love with. At the same time, Final Fantasy is easily one of the most beloved franchises in the history of gaming... Not to mention, I really, really, wanted to know what the heck this game was about, why the protagonist was so hell-bent on finding Chaos, and what Nioh meets Final Fantasy would be like. In other words, I only knew one thing:
I need to kill Chaos. I need to. It's not a hope or a dream. It's like a hunger. A thirst."
The demo started off pretty OK, as far as such demos go. Jack the T-Shirt Guy (protagonist) spawns in the middle of an open field reminiscent of the first "boss" in Sekiro, except we don't get a Sword Saint for an opponent, just some grubby goblins.
It's good that we only get them, though, as the demo rushes you through the gates of learning a bunch of different game mechanics, many of which will come familiar to Nioh fans, or fans of similarly styled games (of which there are a lot of).
There are attacks and action abilities which varies depending on which portion of the combo you use it, and what you set it to be once you unlock more action abilities. They also change depending on the direction you are holding the left analog stick.
There's a break gauge for enemies and for your character which, when broken, allows you to do a finisher called a soul burst. There's an evade mechanic, and a block/guard, but you'd probably be better of using the soul shield to do a sort-of-parry that charges up your MP as well. Just... stuff you'd come to expect from a Team Ninja game to be honest.
Once the tutorial goblins are handily defeated, the game brings us into THE cutscene you'd find familiar in the trailer. Yes, it's the moment our protagonist and his friends decide to show themselves into Chaos' domain.
A helpful mechanic to the game play is switching Jobs, each with their own skill tree that gives new action abilities, spells, or stats when unlocked. You can preset two Jobs that can be easily switched to, allowing you to have a caster job and a more melee-focused Job that can be swapped in the midst of combat.
Casting is fun and satisfying when done well (such as dispelling a enemy's fire sword with Water), but sometimes frustrating when you need to charge up from Fire to Fira, or Firaga, (they use the same amount of MP, but are "charged up" by holding on to the cast button for longer periods of time). You select spells by holding the spell button and spinning the left analog stick to control a spell-wheel.
In some cases, casting the more advanced spells is almost impossible because the enemy AIs tend to hone in on you, and your two generic NPC party-members do a pretty bad job at basically anything. When I was trying to move away from a particularly dangerous point to instead kill a smaller group of monsters, they stayed to get burnt to crisps (the dialogue even prompts you to 'try to find a way around'). Other times, they continued attacking enemies while said enemies were telegraphing a big attack, and ended up getting knocked out.
Thankfully, Chaos seems to be having a little bit of an employment issue, and you will face only a small assortment of rather manageable enemies in his domain. As a result, it wasn't long before I started wondering:
You sure Chaos is here? I can only squash monsters for so long. I hate doing pest control
You'll have to work through a few groups of goblins.. a few groups of wolves... some bats, some skeletons, annoying firebombs - don't get me wrong, there is actually challenge to the gameplay, and I died a number of times, especially when I forgot to check in on my break gauge. I think what really got me about the environment in the game, though, was how... dank and generic it seemed so far, which I hope will get some of that FF7R-level polish before 2022. The music for the Chaos boss fight was good, though the riffs played within the palace itself currently sounds more like generic waiting room music for an e-sports livestream than anything.
Regardless, there are some pretty cool environmental interactions, although they are mostly highly scripted in the demo - such as using water spells to clear up fire to open up a path, or destroying pillars with summoning gates on them to cause them to collapse and create a path. As we worked through this assortment of environmental showcases, it became apparent, as we climbed higher and higher, that
This is the Shrine of Chaos. He's here. We just have to hunt him down.
The final few rooms offer a bit of a taste of mini-boss or higher-tier monster combat, with a griffin decked out in metal armor requiring a little bit more finesse and awareness to not fall to. There are also some pesky monsters "sleeping" (so you might just run past them without noticing them), who wake up and ambush you in a group if you inadvertently trigger them, but it's nothing veterans to this gameplay style would be massively thrown off by. After retrieving a key, it is now finally time to fight...
The character design for Chaos(?) is quite heavily featured in the trailer, but it's nonetheless interesting to note that it feels almost like a Final Fantasy-ified Dark Souls III boss - and that's not entirely a compliment.
My initial run-ins with Chaos was fun, almost exploratory, and I really liked how the game surprised me with new interactions here and there - from soul shield-ing his Blaze attacks to cast it back, using spells to control his buffs, and also getting into the rhythm of his attack. In a move that would surprise no one, breaking the boss's gauge (or bringing its HP down to a certain amount) doesn't give room for an instant fatality - it only sets up for a second phase in the fight, which tells us that future bosses (or, in fact, future iterations of this boss) could have 3rd, or even 4th phases.
Ultimately, his first phase may become highly readable for a trained eye (mine are honed through too much spare time and conviction rather than skill or talent), leaving the second phase to be the truer test of ability. Some of the enemy's attacks feel unfair at first - like its ice attack that shatters around its swing multiple times in a domino effect, leading to potential gauge breaks, or his transition to a lighting attack almost immediately after already clearing another spell-casting combo. He is also moving at a faster tempo, with more attack combinations and spells, and sometimes even bamboozles by changing up his attack patterns. All in all, a pretty satisfying boss to fight and eventually beat.
So, what did I think about the demo? For one, the writing in the trailer and the demo does not bode well for the game at the moment. I can only hope that it's a matter of poor editing rather than a set of incredibly shallowly-motivated characters. The character design and interaction with the two party members was also quite bland. I have a personal theory that the other two "warriors of light" can be played by friends, in a Ghost of Tsushima: Legends kind of way - we'll have to see if that comes true.
The combat is actually pretty satisfying, to me, and different modes of engagement are encouraged for different combat moments. For example, a good way to dispatch large mobs is by activating Lightbringer mode to deal massive break damage to them and chaining soul bursts while not being staggered by them.
However, I felt there was a bit of roughness in the execution of combat commands, which made it frustrating at times, such as when the selection of spells was not precise, or when the character doesn't switch Jobs as quickly on the fly as one would like, even though it felt like it was intended to be a swift transition.
The post-game survey is a good sign, despite being the most daunting part of the process. It took me a good 10 minutes to fill out completely. The survey asked many detailed questions about the gameplay, music, level design, etc. which, going by Team Ninja's track record of doing the same for Nioh, will be worked on as they head into their last and most crucial year of development. This game is, after all, set for a 2022 release, so there's still much to be done.
I will be looking forward to picking up this game when it releases, because the gameplay is my cup of tea, and the lore of Final Fantasy rarely disappoints. For now, though...
I am to become Chaos.
If you're interested to see the whole Chaos boss fight (on Hard mode) with NO HITS whatsoever (I did say I had too much time and conviction), watch it here!