In recent years, Square Enix has treated the Final Fantasy name with a little less precious protectiveness. Between its series of mobile experiments, an action-oriented trilogy, and a classic homage that was Final Fantasy in all but name, the company has made a habit of leveraging its brand against competitors. Final Fantasy Explorers is very much a direct volley on Capcom's successful Monster Hunter franchise, with approachability that makes it less daunting for newcomers, at the possible expense of its longevity.
The Hunt Begins
As someone who has tried and often failed to connect with Monster Hunter, I found the training wheels in Final Fantasy Explorers to be a welcome feature. While it is still rife with systems, it introduces them at a slow and steady pace so I always felt well-suited to the task. By the time I finished the campaign, I was impressed with the sheer mass of systems I had absorbed, and that says something about how well Square and Racjin taught them.
That may be partly because the core gameplay loop of FFE is so simple. You undertake Quests from a job board, usually to kill a particular kind of monster or engage with a boss fight against an Eidolon, and you venture out into the world to do it within a set time limit. Upon completion, you warp straight back to the town hub to do it all again. The simplistic mission structure means I could focus my energy on learning and optimizing my character, which is really where the focus remains throughout.
Get a Real Job!
Learning your character is key, because Explorers mixes the series' familiar job class system with the role trinity of MMORPGs. Jobs like Dark Knight, Blue Mage, and Alchemist fall into Damager, Tank, and Booster/Healer archtypes. While the main campaign is perfectly doable in single-player, with the aide of recruited A.I. monsters, the post-game challenges appear built for co-op with a well-coordinated team.
The main thrust of combat involves mapping your job abilities and relying heavily on chaining them together. Once you build up enough energy, you can enable a Crystal Surge from a list of options, which comes with special effects like augmenting your elemental power. These often go under-explained--I still have no idea what the "Agony" Surge even does--but you can generally be assured that any of the temporary buffs will be a benefit. You can also select various Magicite, which has the dual effect of summoning an Eidolon and letting you use a specialized Crystal Surge if your meter is high enough at the same time. Finally, you can specialize your character with mutated version of abilities that come with other effects, and save load-outs for just such an occasion that you really need a Lightning Monk.
Of course, in any game with multiple job classes and team-based mechanics, it's important to allow the player to explore different roles. FFE smartly unlocks new abilities for all classes at once, not just for your chosen class. You simply need to purchase them with CP, a currency that's more than plentiful to swap jobs often, and gear up with matching equipment, which is always available in a basic form in the shop. Once you find a handful of roles you like best, you can expend crafting resources to upgrade equipment and lean into them.
That said, despite this wealth of options, the combat may be too simplified for its own good. Monster Hunter gets longevity out of certain systems like weak points and monster escapes, which are of minimal importance or entirely absent here, respectively. The bosses in particular are the fantasy equivalent of bullet sponges, so often battles are extended affairs of alternating your special abilities while the others refresh, hitting a Crystal Surge or summoning an Eidolon, and occasionally moving away from simple, broadly telegraphed attacks. You can sacrifice some mission time for a revival, and the time limits are generous. Even if you sustain some heavy hits, standing still and pummeling the enemy is usually the most efficient strategy.
Story takes a backseat to these mechanics, which is delivered via bits of dialogue from a large cast of entirely forgettable townsfolk. One was a Priest, I think, and another was a knight in some kind of order that researches crystals? It really doesn't matter in the slightest. More care and effort is given to the Final Fantasy fan-service, since Explorers is bubbling over with references. The Eidolons themselves are a collection of memorable summons from other games, and two Moogle characters in town exist almost solely to give you nostalgic goodies. Want to wear Sephiroth's coat or summon Lightning instead of an Eidolon? The Moogles will see to it that you can.
Once you do reach the post-campaign content and find yourself needing to party up, you'll have to square off against a rather obtuse menu system for following your party into a quest. What's worse, the game struggles to maintain a consistent frame-rate with a lot of activity on-screen. This problem very occasionally pops up playing single-player when in a quest with lots of enemies, but in co-op it's virtually guaranteed.
Room to Explore
Still, the technical hiccups aren't the major obstacle for me. I just felt finished with the game after completing the campaign. The simple mission structure didn't compel me to come back. While I'm sure I could get into specializing my character and hooking up with friends to take on the wealth of extra challenges, I was left with the feeling that they'll be largely the same as the ones I've already completed. Final Fantasy Explorers was a smooth and accessible introduction to this game type, and has customization options galore, but if it intends to be a long-term dungeon crawling adventure, it needed more to explore.
This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher. Final Fantasy Explorers is available now, for $39.99. The game is rated E-10+.