Final Fantasy Explorers is an Action/RPG developed in collaboration by Square Enix and Racjin. It launched in Japan late last year, and has recently made its debut in the West, exclusively for the 3DS family. It takes a slew of familiar Final Fantasy faces, mixed with a pseudo-open world environment and active battle mechanics to create a unique experience within the Final Fantasy umbrella.
Right off the bat, this game invites comparison to the eponymous hunting game, Monster Hunter. To be absolutely direct, outside of general structural similarities, the two titles share very little in common. I’m bringing this up at the forefront of this review because I feel that a great deal of misinformation was spread regarding this game, and that going in with certain expectations will only serve to dampen the experience. Final Fantasy Explorers is its own game, for better or for worse, and it should be approached as such.
The Final Fantasy world is deeply ingrained within gaming culture, and the familiar face of certain creatures, jobs and abilities is a major draw. All of these concepts are tied to rich, detailed lore, and seeing such a varied, yet familiar lineup come together is nothing short of exciting. However, the story of Final Fantasy Explorers is rather barebones and simplistic, both in concept and in execution. After creating your character, you are greeted with a short tutorial fight with Bahamut. It’s a great starting point for the game, full of drama and tension, but it soon settles into a rather mellow pace for the remainder of your journey.
As the newest explorer to the town of Libertas, you’re tasked with simply exploring the vast and varied wilds of the island of Amostra. For the bulk of the 20-hour campaign, your directives rarely shift of that course. You’ll encounter a wide range of creatures, from chocobos and goblins, to the formidable eidolons, which consist of the franchise’s famous summon creatures. Very few of these encounters have any relevance or bearing to the story at large, with the exception of a few later battles. As the story nears its end, it begins to pick up, with mention of major upheaval and chaos from the disturbance to the crystal, but that story thread fades just about as quickly as it appears. There’s no doubt that the focus of the game was put on the action rather than the story, but with such a rich background and setting, it can only be described as disappointing. The story rapidly picks up again, and thrusts you in to face a rather generic final boss with the fate of the land on your shoulders. As soon as you prevail, the credits roll, and everything returns to normal. There’s never any real impact, and although the game continues after this point, the story never really resurfaces in a major way.
Progression is tied to a simple difficulty-based quest selection. After completing a certain selection of quests in the 1* bracket, you are given access to 2*. This continues up until 10*, where the most difficult quests reside. The story ends at the tail end of the 5* bracket, with the remainder of the quests essentially making up the post-game content. Within the story quests, 1* and 2* essentially make up the tutorial phase, with little challenge presented, and most options are locked away. Though you will start encountering eidolons in 2* quests, they pose minimal threat, and drop common items. In fact, it’s not until 4* quests that enemies start dropping materials unique to their species. This makes farming for materials quick and easy in the early game, but when the time comes for rarer items, the game seems to enjoy withholding them from you. Some materials are tied to the components of eidolons, which can be shattered in combat with focused attack. Often, their HP seems too small to make more than one break reasonable, but it can be incredibly satisfying to see your efforts rewarded as such. Fortunately, you’re equipped with a handy notebook to monitor the sources of material drops, as well as the locations of monsters, so it’s merely a matter of encouraging the RNG to work in your favor.
The action fares a bit better, with a strong focus on customization. At any point in the game, you are free to pick and choose from a range of 21 jobs, each with a range of skills at their disposal. While the vast majority of options are locked from the start of the game, the list quickly fills out. Each of the playable jobs are recurring options from previous Final Fantasy titles, from the classic fantasy Knight and Ranger, to the more outlandish Dragoon, and my personal favorite, the Geomancer. Each option presents a different way to play, though each with a degree of similarity. Better yet, each and every class is viable for both solo and online play, thanks to the customization options available. Some classes will struggle in certain situations, as being a melee fighter does little against flying enemies, and the cast time of magic can put you at a disadvantage. It’s certainly possible to brute force it with your favorite class, but the game certainly rewards experimentation and diversity in your job and skill lineup.
Rather than limiting each job to a pool of abilities, combat skills are instead tied to weapon types. This means that as long as your character has a sword equipped, they are able to equip and utilize sword skills. Magic is accessible to any job, though expect a diminished effect if your job isn’t quite suited to the skills you’re using. With such a wide range of options, selecting a set of skills can be intimidating. For this reason, as well as for balance, each job has a specific ‘load,’ which means they can only equip abilities up to a certain point cost. More powerful abilities draw more of your load, so filling out your eight available slots is a tough, but important decision. While most classes are initially only able to equip one or two specific weapon types, you gain the ability to expand that selection through job mastery later on in the story. This also grants a significant stat boost, as well as the ability to dual-wield weaponry.
Unfortunately, as much fun as the customization and character building is, the combat lacks a certain degree of satisfaction. In the field, all of your abilities are tied to a simple AP, or ability points meter. Using skills or sprinting drains this meter, while executing basic attacks refill it. Your AP meter is generally high enough, and enemy health levels low enough, that there is generally little consequence to standing by and hammering out abilities. Without an active dodge ability, most of the time, you’re left with two options: continue your all-out offense and tank any oncoming hit, or expend valuable AP to reposition, diminishing your damage output. Death results in a simple loss of 5 minutes from the quest timer, or the consumption of a particular item, which is rarely of any consequence.
The end result is a combat system that feels static and uninvolved, which removes a great deal of the joy of skill experimentation. Enemy AI is similarly static, with a few very noteworthy examples. They tend to follow simple movement patterns, and switch up moves based around distance. This even stretches to the eidolons, with the addition of one-hit kill moves and disorienting effects, such as darkening the environment or almost constant gravity attacks. It’s rather unfortunate that the engaging fights feel like exceptions, rather than the norm, but that was the case for me throughout my journey. In a way, it feels more akin to MMORPG combat than a traditional action RPG. Enemies have bizarre hitboxes and massive, unavoidable attacks, often with visible area of effect markers, and you have a selection of skills on your hotbar to output damage, keep yourself alive, or benefit your team. If you’re coming from an MMO, this may be right up your alley, but for those seeking a more action-oriented experience, you may well be disappointed.
Most of my complaints with the combat system could be summarized with a single phrase: it’s too easy. Fortunately, there is a solution for this issue, in the form of quest options. These are additional modifiers that can be applied to any quest, ranging from increased enemy health and damage, to reduced quest time, or even to increased AP costs. Up to four of these modifiers can be applied at any one time, and the quest rewards are modified appropriately. Applying these quest options goes a long way to rectifying the rather monotonous combat, as it forces more dynamic thinking, and more careful skill planning. It’s certainly nice to have that option, but it feels like a misstep to have the more interesting parts of the action hidden behind some menus, rather than right in the player’s face. As you dig into the post-game content, the difficulty does ramp up considerably, as does the required repetition to keep up. Enemies hit harder, move faster and live longer, so you’ll need to adapt your strategy, and amplify your damage output as much as possible. Most end game weapons are tied to low drop rate items, so be prepared for the long haul if you intend to stick around and see everything Amostra has to offer.
Throughout your adventures, you will accumulate a wealth of materials. Some can be gathered from Amostra’s naturally-occurring gathering spots, but most will be pilfered from the remains of your fallen enemies. You can use these materials to create weapons and armor from the town’s armorer. In Final Fantasy Explorers, your character does not level, and their stats do not increase. Instead, their stats are determined by the equipped job and equipment. Each piece of equipment gives a range of bonuses, from the standard physical and magical defence and evasion, through to equipment-specific bonus like reduced cast time or an elemental attribute. Equipment can also be further modified to add an additional attribute of your liking. Souls collected from monsters or eidolons can also be imbued into your equipment to add additional unique abilities, so making your ideal equipment simply requires research, and targeted farming.
Souls have an additional use beyond crafting, as they play an integral role in the solo-play component of the game. Collected souls can be revived into the monster they were originally harvested from, and can subsequently accompany you on your journey. These monsters fight alongside you, with their own range of abilities. They level up as they complete quests, and quickly prove to be invaluable allies in tough battles. Each species of monster has a different stat and skill distribution, so there’s another layer of customization if you’re particularly intent on digging into it. Monster souls generally have a low drop rate, but you can quickly build up a solid force without much additional effort. Their AI generally tends to be simplistic, but they’re generally well-suited to tanking or healing, which gives you a good deal of breathing room. They are also dependent on their own ‘load’ system, with stronger monsters requiring more load. Of course, eidolon souls cannot be resummoned as allies, instead possessing their own purpose.
In what is arguably the biggest example of fan service in a game full of fan service, the Trance system pulls from the franchise’s roots to give the player a boost of power in tough spots. In simple terms, Trance is a temporary boost that can be activated at any time after the player has dealt or received enough damage. Progress can be monitored on a small bar at the top-right of the screen. When Trance is triggered, the equipped Magicite either performs a summon or transforms the player into a fan-favourite character. This allows players to briefly control Cloud, Lightning, Squall, or whoever they particularly fancy, culminating in a devastating final attack from that character’s game of origin. It’s a rather simplistic system, though I rarely found myself in need of the additional damage output. More often than not, I activated Trance to refill my AP in a longer battle, but it’s certainly nice to have the option, and it is certainly a well-designed and implemented system.
I can’t with any confidence say the same about the Crystal Surge system, unfortunately. This list of randomly-assigned abilities can be activated at any time in combat, provided the player’s Resonance level is appropriately high. Resonance can be gained simply by using skills, and is measured in numerical value. The higher the number, the more your attack increased, though it is usually to a rather miniscule degree. By holding both L and R, you can view your available Crystal Surge abilities. The list is selected seemingly at random, though the game mentions terrain and current status as defining characteristics. These Surges can dramatically alter the flow of the battle, as they possess the ability to alter your combat abilities, increase or decrease your stats, or impart rather lengthy status effects. While I understand that there is a story-related reason for the instability, consistency certainly goes a long way in a game of this nature. Introducing a random element just removes control from the player, which is an important element in any game, especially for an action RPG.
The effects of the Crystal Surge don’t simply end in combat though. Any ability altered by a surge can be permanently learned from your home crystal, with the alterations intact. In this way, you can attach a range of modifiers to your favourite attacks. The pool of modifiers is incredibly deep, ranging from status and elemental effects, to HP and AP regeneration, all the way to skill links, tying two abilities together. Furthermore, any of these custom skills can be further modified by exposing them to another Crystal Surge, adding up to 6 potential effects. If you’re detecting an overwhelming theme of customization, you are absolutely correct. There is an absolute abundance of options presented to the player to tailor their character to their exact desires. Most of these options require a great deal of task repetition. If you want to make your perfect character, you will be collecting countless familiar items, slaying countless familiar foes, treading the same ground. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and there is certainly plenty of incentive to do so, but I feel that the static combat system severely diminishes any desire to go through with the grind.
In terms of presentation, Final Fantasy Explorers does little to set itself apart from its competition. The island of Amostra is classic Final Fantasy fare, for better or for worse. The environments are varied, if generic, but there is a simple cathartic joy to filling out that map and seeing all this island has to see. All quests take part out in the open world of Amostra. You’re not confined to any quest locations, and can explore at any time. This does have the negative side-effect of certain long-winded quests forcing lengthy expeditions. Trekking from the westernmost point of Amostra to the easternmost was exciting the first time through, but it wasn’t quite so interesting on repeat visits. It’s even worse when you know a boss encounter lies at the end your trek, as sprinting drains that ever-valuable AP, which could leave you in a tight spot in battle. Early on, you gain the ability to use the airship to drop you off at certain key junctions in the world map, so you’re rarely forced to making excessively long journeys, but when it happens, it can be frustrating.
Visually, the areas are never particularly impressive, but they do possess a certain degree of charm. There’s just something refreshing about strolling into a Cactaur-filled desert, and the absurd idea of walking into a tornado to battle a dragon is oddly appealing. Most of the landscapes use a limited color pallet, and are sparsely populated with decoration. Instead, the bulk of the character comes from the inhabiting fauna. They’re all distinct Final Fantasy favorites, captured well within the simplistic art style. When it comes to the eidolons, the design team really hit their stride. They all possess a familiar, yet imposing silhouette, complemented by a striking use of color. Though they generally utilize simple animations for movement, their attacks are appropriately threatening, and occasionally rather pleasing to behold. The human characters don’t quite manage to capture the same appeal, with the simple aesthetic fulfilling its purpose, but not much else. There was a clear design goal of capturing the visual appeal of the Final Fantasy franchise, and the team largely succeeded in this task, with some exceptions.
The sound design is similarly simplistic. There is a small selection of tracks tied to specific areas and encounters, but they rarely manage to find that sweet spot. The combat themes are dramatic, but never quite epic, while the exploration themes will quickly wear you down after a few hours of exploration. Activating Trance mode briefly substitutes the current music with a track from your assigned character’s game, which is a nice touch. I thoroughly enjoyed that brief section of ‘Blinded by Light’ swelling up as the tide of battle shifted to my favor. The sound effects can only be described as ‘present.’ They rarely do anything to add any weight to any action, which leaves certain visually-impressive attacks lacking in impact.
If you get tired of exploring the wilds of Amostra on your own, you can instead opt to party up with a group of up to four players. This can be done either via local or online connection, and is certainly an attractive option. Progression is shared between solo and multiplayer content, and the same quests are available in both modes. I switched over to multiplayer later on in my journey, and this is without a doubt where I had the most fun with the game. While the quest difficulty doesn’t seem to differ based on the amount of players, cooperating to bring down a common foe was much more satisfying with a group than alone. Do note that the frame rate tends to dip quite considerably in multiplayer, particularly when everyone is firing off their abilities in tandem. Similar dips can be seen in offline play when large groups are present, but it’s generally smooth sailing. Multiplayer is the way to play this game, and with the sheer amount of customization on offer, it’s easy to have a good time with friends on the island of Amostra.
Looking at Final Fantasy Explorers as a whole, it strikes me as an odd game. It was burdened with an immediate lack of identity, born from Final Fantasy but driven towards Monster Hunter by advertising and public perception. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite manage to find its own place. Everything on the surface screams Final Fantasy, but it’s lacking in the story and world design of its mother. As I said in the beginning of this review, I don’t believe that any major comparisons can be made between Explorers and Monster Hunter, and that this seemingly frequent comparison can only be detrimental. Viewing Explorers for what it is may be fairer, but at the end of the day, the poorly designed combat system, extraneous mechanics and simplistic design is detrimental enough. If you’re willing to enforce your own rules, fancy some deceptively detailed customization, and have a dedicated party to accompany you, Final Fantasy Explorers is worth investigating.