Strangers of Paradise's DLC is a lesson for how not to design DLC for your game

How do you design a DLC for a game? With Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, it feels like that should have been an easy task; some additional story, some new levels inspired by other Final Fantasy games of the past (perhaps some spinoffs, this time around?) alongside a few new boss fights, and a new class or two. On paper, DLC #1 for the game – Trials of the Dragon King – delivers on these ideas, which is why it’s so astonishing how off the mark the whole experience feels, actually playing through it.

Notably, one of the highlights of Stranger of Paradise’s release was the inclusion of multiple difficulty modes – ensuring that anyone, regardless of their skill level, could eventually beat the game. This also meant that players that wanted to challenge themselves could continue to do so, especially upon completing the game’s campaign and unlocking the additional Chaos difficulty. 

Yet, while I enjoyed Stranger of Paradise’s gameplay quite a bit – I have to say I was even more enamored with the story at the heart of it all. Jack’s tale certainly didn’t resonate with everyone that played the game, but it absolutely hit the mark with me – and I was far from the only one to find the story endearing. So when the trailer for Trials of the Dragon King hyped up story content following the ending of the game, I was beyond excited.

Bahamut, one of 2 new key characters for this DLC

Even before the DLC’s launch Square Enix detailed that the DLC would come with an additional difficulty mode above Chaos, but most players assumed that it would simply be another option for players to tinker with – especially seeing as how Team Ninja’s other recent releases using much of the same framework, Nioh and Nioh 2, did something quite similar with their DLC releases. Instead, the way that things hash out with Stranger of Paradise is rather strange. Put simply, the new Bahamut difficulty is not merely an option, but rather a requirement in order to access the new story content of the DLC. Regardless of if you came to the DLC for the story having played the original game on the easiest difficulty, you are forced to engage with the game at its hardest in order to progress to the content that was so prominently displayed in the marketing.

Now, I don’t have anything against difficult games, but it’s hard to grapple with the idea that a company would add additional content to a game that was never really about its difficulty, just to lock it behind a new, incredibly harsh difficulty modifier. It’s not even that you need to be playing on this difficulty to unlock the new content – which you do, of course – but also that unlocking the new content requires players to replay base game missions, perhaps with some modifiers attached, in order to grind an arbitrary currency in order to unlock piecemeal dialogue that will eventually hand out the content you essentially paid for.

Almost like a bad joke, it feels like the developers themselves even realized that the current system was a bad idea, making it so that the gear grind is minimized on the chance that a player hadn’t engaged with Chaos Difficulty at any point following the games’ launch; the first mission of the DLC renders Jack completely immortal, never allowing him to drop dead, no matter how much damage he takes. Upon completion, players are awarded nearly a full set of level 200 gear, in order to help slingshot you into the item level which Bahamut difficulty is balanced for. This doesn’t do anything about Job levels, which you would have to grind out upgrades to through specific Chaos difficulty missions – but it’s still a clear sign that the developers understood that many of their players might have had no desire to engage with the endgame, and purely wanted to see the new content included with the DLC.

On the other end of the spectrum is “Extra Mode”, which massively boosts Jack’s power level, and gifts him infinite MP. In this mode, you’re unable to earn the “Dragon Treasures” that you can spend for certain upgrades, but you’ll still be logged for having earned them, allowing you to progress the little story that’s included with the DLC. While this “fixes” the major issue with the DLC, I’d argue that its existence feels more like a band-aid solution; there rightfully should have been a middle ground where players could be engaged with the game at the difficulty that they’d already grown accustomed to, without having to resort to cheesing everything in their path. 

Assuming players do opt to attempt the DLC “on the level”, the difficulty spike that Bahamut brings is more than a little ridiculous. Even with a group of players that were all 50~ levels about the recommended item level for a Bahamut difficulty mission, we were still regularly getting one-shot by a boss’s attacks – and the amount of HP felt massively inflated, to boot. I’m sure that there are plenty of builds that would help you get through this DLC, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that main story content should have never been locked behind such a requirement in the first place.

On the bright side, since launch Stranger of Paradise has seen a number of optimization patches on console, and the game as it stands now both looks and runs significantly better than how things were at launch. Which is all well and good; it hurts having to talk about how much the DLC ultimately disappointed me, considering how much I loved the base game at launch. If you haven’t played the game yet, I can’t recommend it enough – just maybe skip on the Season Pass until we find out what the rest of the DLC will look like. As it stands now, I can’t recommend it to anyone but the most dedicated endgame grinders.