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Final Fantasy Explorers is an interesting beast. It's not really a typical Final Fantasy game, nor does it cut too close to the bone of the series it's most easily compared to, Monster Hunter. The result is a unique, grindy romp that can evolve into something of an obsession if it manages to sink its hooks in deep enough.
My experience with Final Fantasy Explorers was basically an inverted bell curve that leveled out on the positive side of the spectrum. For starters, I like Monster Hunter well enough, but the series has never stuck for me. I find the missions are frequently too long and tedious, the need for cooperative play can be frustrating, and don't even get me started on all of that grinding. I realize that those are the very aspects that draw players into the series, but that particular gameplay cycle typically isn't for me.
Outside of a couple of trailers, I went into Final Fantasy Explorers basically blind. So imagine the sinking feeling I got in my gut when, after 30 minutes into playing the game, it became abundantly clear that Final Fantasy Explorers had a lot in common with Monster Hunter. At first glimpse, you wouldn't be blamed for assuming that they're basically identical. Once you dig into the meat of the game, though, the differences (and saving graces, in my book) started to emerge. More on that later.
For starters, don't go into Final Fantasy Explorers expecting your typical sweeping plot full of colorful characters, epic encounters and dramatic twists. The game opens with you arriving in the island town of Libertas, a sparsely populated village that serves as a hub for local adventurers. You are a freelancer, a would-be hero of legend who wants to fight monsters and help clear a path to massive crystals that fuel the world's economy. Talking to the handful of NPCs will give you a vague idea of where they come from and what motivates their individual kingdoms to explore the island and collect crystals, but that's about where the narrative ends.
Then again, this isn't the kind of game where you need a story to push the action. You'll journey further and further into the island, fighting a variety of monsters along the way while gathering resources to make gear that lets you fight bigger and badder monsters. Wash, rinse, repeat.
For the most part, your missions will have you killing a specific number of monsters, collecting a specific number of items, or simply venturing into a new portion of the map. Eventually you'll start taking on Eidolons, which serve as far more entertaining boss fights and take the form of familiar Final Fantasy summons like Ifrit, Shiva and Alexander.
That sounds an awful lot like Monster Hunter, right? So what sets the two games apart? Well, for starters, Square Enix wisely kept the fact that this is a portable game in mind, so most of the missions will take you only five to 10 minutes to complete. Even the Eidolons won't chew up the clock, meaning it's perfect for quick pick up and play sessions or epic grinds. The game is also very forgiving, allowing you to use items to revive from a KO or even forfeit some of the clock if you're out of Phoenix Downs. I get that “easier” is a turnoff for some people, but I find it vastly preferable to wasting my time and resources only to be kicked back to the hub to try a massive mission all over again.
Resources also seem a bit easier to come by and, while there's certainly a large amount of gear to craft, you won't have nearly the wardrobe to weed through as compared to Monster Hunter. There are a few special outfits pulled from memorable Final Fantasy characters and each class has their own “ultimate” outfit, but the rest of the gear is broken into light, medium and heavy classes and it's easy to figure out which one's stats will best suit your current class. Even better is the fact that, fully upgraded, even the starting gear can serve you well late into the game. So if you really like that early suit of armor you built, you can just keep pouring resources into it rather than upgrading to a “better” suit of gear that you don't like the look of.
Speaking of those classes, FFE offers a big list of 20 familiar job types, ranging from the rainbow of mages to dragoon, machinist, thief, monk, etc. Most of the classes play differently and offer a unique set of abilities that allow you to tank, support or dish out the damage. If you find yourself getting tired of one class, just switch over to another for a breath of fresh air.
Outside of gathering resources and fighting screen-filling bosses, Explorers adds a small handful of activities to keep you distracted from the constant grind. For starters, there's a rather clever mutation system that lets you further distinguish your classes. In battle, you'll use your abilities to fill up a Resonance meter that grants access to special combos called Crystal Surges. In short, these can be triggered to potentially add a new element to one of your abilities. Your Fire spell, for instance, might now do more damage if you attack a monster from behind. Back in Libertas, you can access a menu that lets you then equip that new version of Fire, and even rename it if you choose. Continue doing that, and you'll be able to stack additional effects onto all of your abilities. Eventually, you might have a move you call “Flaming Doritos,” a Fire spell that has a bigger area of effect, a multi-tiered lightning element for extra damage that hits harder from behind. And that's just one ability for one class so, yes, these mutations can become a deep dark well that you fall down between missions.
Out in the field, you'll occasionally pick up an enemy's soul that allows you to craft one of your own. When playing solo, you can have up to three creature companions running around at your side, adding a sort of Pokemon component into the mix. These can grow stronger and unleash their own abilities, meaning that, with a bit of extra work, you can take on just about any challenge the game has to offer on your own.
If you want to play with friends, though, Final Fantasy Explorers makes the process blessedly simple. You can easily set up a room and grind away with friends locally, or you can venture online to play with your buds or join randoms. Explorers is infinitely more fun playing with friends, as many of the abilities are meant to complement one another, just like in an MMO. Also, the grind is less tedious when you're chatting with pals about, well, whatever.
Despite all of that, Final Fantasy Explorers is still all about the grind, which will understandably prove a sore point depending on how you feel about that kind of gameplay. The game looks pretty decent and the music is great, but the environments are a bit too similar. Sure, you'll travel to just about every biome imaginable, but each main area is mostly big, flat and connected by semi-randomized corridors that, again, aren't super interesting to look at.
Connecting online can sometimes be an issue and, depending on the mission and how many people are playing, it's not uncommon for the framerate to take a dive. There's also occasionally a hiccup with the targeting system, which can be super frustrating when you're in the middle of a big fight and, rather than lock onto the monster in front of you, the game decides you either want to target something behind you or literally on the other side of the map.
Maybe its the Final Fantasy fan service that's lovingly tucked into every corner of Explorers, but something about this game keeps me coming back for more despite the fact that I usually shy away from this genre. Again, I'm not a fan of grinding, but the formula here is just varied enough (without being too overly complicated) to keep me hooked.
If you love Final Fantasy and want an evergreen title that's fun solo and great with friends, then Explorers is an adventure worth signing up for.
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Square Enix, Racijin
Publisher: Square Enix
ESRB: Everyone 10+