My fondest gaming memories probably come from the countless hours I spent on the original Dreamcast version of Phantasy Star Online in high school.
Sure, I’ve played better games both before and since but Phantasy Star Online managed to catch perfectly condensed lightning in a bottle and keep me grinding away happily for hours in its mini-MMO universe with a few of my friends, procrastinating the day’s homework away until the early hours of the morning. It was, quite frankly, unhealthy, but I’ve waited nearly 15 years for another developer to plug into that part of my brain again and waste another year or two of my life.
Now Final Fantasy Explorers is here to try to do just that and… It doesn’t even come close.
If you’re an observer of popular video game culture then you probably expected me to begin with a comparison to the Monster Hunter series, whose rabid Japanese fan base Final Fantasy Explorers is obviously targeted at. Well, since Monster Hunter is just a far more cumbersome and repetitive version of Phantasy Star Online, the transitive nature of plagiarism (read “homage”, I suppose) would make that comparison apt but unnecessary since Final Fantasy Explorers manages to be an inferior version of both.
For those of you unfamiliar, Final Fantasy Explorers falls into a sub-genre of third person action RPGs now known as “Hunter” games, named after the aforementioned Monster Hunter franchise. In a hunter game you have only one goal: get stronger by creating equipment from materials dropped by your fallen foes so you can fight better monsters so you can craft better equipment so you can fight better monsters, on and on, ad infinitum. This is perpetuated by a rich, complex loot treadmill that all RPG veterans will be familiar with, tied directly to the legion of enemies and bosses you fight in the field in order to grind out an endless quantity of materials for new equipment and gear.
This is the first place where Final Fantasy Explorers attempts to differentiate itself by offering players not just equipment but a host of familiar skills and spells taken straight from Final Fantasy‘s iconic job system that can all be upgraded with a tremendous array of effects that appear in combat by filling your “crystal surge” meter, triggering an effect, then using a skill. Simple enough, right?
Of course it isn’t. That sentence was convoluted and ridiculous.
Once you’ve combined an effect with a skill, you have to return to town and visit a crystal that will allow you to permanently attach the effect for a generous number of “crystal points”, one of Final Fantasy Explorers’ two primary currencies. Now you’re good to go, right? Not yet. You need to swap that new skill in for the one you’re currently using since adding or upgrading an effect creates a new skill instead of merely upgrading the one you’re using. Then you should probably sell that old skill since you won’t be using it anymore. Oh, but what if you’d like to rename that awesome, apocalyptic version of “firaga” that lowers the elemental defenses of every character on screen and turns them all to stone while simultaneously increasing your own magical attacks? Well, you can do that but keep in mind you’ll have to do it again every time you add a new effect to that skill. Screw it, right? Who has time for this crap?
Japanese school children riding mass transit together.
This is kind of how I felt about Final Fantasy Explorers in general. It seems like the team responsible wanted to make a more streamlined and accessible version of Monster Hunter, but simply had no idea how to do it. Everything tied to character development requires you to wade in and out of multi-layered menus with little explanation. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s entirely inaccessible, but it certainly is exhausting. Returning from a 15-minute battle with an Eidolon only to spend an equivalent amount of time repurchasing skills, changing jobs and equipment, and accepting new quests is anticlimactic if I’m being kind, and outright boring and a waste of time if I feel like being a dick about it, which I kind of do because I’m an adult with plenty of shit to get done.
All this tedious mucking about in menus happens in service to Final Fantasy Explorers‘ main attraction: its sprawling, instanced world filled with familiar monsters and bosses to go toe-to-toe with. The overworld is broken into a series of areas all separated by load screens. Some of these can be fast-traveled to once you open up access to an airship, but you’ll only be going to a few at a time if you’re on a specific quest. Theoretically, you could just free roam all over while fighting monsters and Eidolons at your leisure, but in practice I never did because Final Fantasy Explorers‘ combat is kind of boring.
Like the loot and crafting systems, the dev team have attempted to update Monster Hunter‘s cumbersome and awkward control scheme to make something quick and accessible, but what they ended up with is a half measure that neither represents the tense, careful duels of Monster Hunter nor the super-fast and immediately satisfying nature of something like Diablo 3. Instead, combat in Final Fantasy Explorers feels tepid and limp. Most job classes have a two to three hit combo that simply doesn’t feel responsive and will have you mashing the attack button to execute it properly. Skill animations can’t be interrupted unless you’ve managed to attach an effect that allows it, which means the flaky telegraphing from the bosses and the fact that your camera often can’t pan out fast enough to even see them will have you absorbing a lot of cheap shots. Thankfully you have a massive health bar and a deep action point bar which is… well, it’s precisely the problem. Final Fantasy Explorers isn’t a game about preparing for a fight, carefully reading your opponent, and then out thinking and out playing them. It’s about the exact same thing Final Fantasy has always been about: grinding, grinding, grinding. You have to out-level your opponent. And if you haven’t put in the hours of your life it’s going to take to do so, then I hope you enjoy dying endlessly to one hit kills that will catch you in the middle of an animation with no chance for escape. It feels lazy and needlessly punishing.
Final Fantasy Explorers does genuinely have some nice qualities as well. The multiplayer lobbies are solid and I experienced little to no lag when I was able to find a game (a dubious prospect in the States as I’m not sure how well it’s selling). When playing with others the visual prompts used to co-ordinate skill use and crystal surges are masterful, and should be taken note of by any developer looking to create a modern multiplayer game without voice chat. For offline play, there’s the inclusion of a neat little monster collection system that will let you roam the world with a crew of familiar faces such as Chocobos and Cactaurs. They have their own unique skills and attacks which make offline play not only possible but actually preferable in some cases; a feat that I don’t think any Hunter game has pulled off properly.
The graphics are nice with some great particle effects, but the complexity of the character designs doesn’t always work well on the low poly environment of the 3DS. Square Enix would have been better off goin g with a stripped-down, clean, stylized design that didn’t tax the hardware too much, as framerate issues plague the game throughout. Square Enix also appears to have foregone 3D altogether, I assume due to performance restrictions.
So Final Fantasy Explorers is okay. It’s neither a worthy heir to Phantasy Star Online‘s crown nor is it a successful Final Fantasy title in its own right. I mean, did I even mention the story? Yeah, that wasn’t an accident. If you’re desperate for more hunting then you could do worse, but it’s an easy pass for everyone else.