The genre-defining Japanese RPG franchise Final Fantasy is one of the games industry’s great lumbering beasts – and is set for a Kraken-like reawakening with both Final Fantasy XV and the reimagined-for-current-gen fan favourite Final Fantasy VII due this year.
In the meantime, impatient enthusiasts can blow the dust off their 3DS handhelds, and avail themselves of an amuse-bouche in the form of Final Fantasy Explorers.
A modicum of expectation management is in order, however. Explorers is determinedly atypical as far as Final Fantasy games are concerned although it is, at least, easy to describe. Bizarrely, it shoehorns the gameplay from Monster Hunter (a franchise that is huge in Japan but steadfastly fails to capture the imagination elsewhere in the world) into the Final Fantasy universe.
You play a freelance adventurer pitching up in a town called Libertas. To ingratiate yourself with the local folk, and find fame and fortune, you must undertake an array of quests that involve killing specified numbers of the monsters that roam the countryside around Libertas. You must do so while building up your skills to take down so-called Eidolons – giant monsters that are effectively bosses and which guard highly prized crystals.
That premise allows Explorers to pretty much dispense with anything resembling a storyline, although the general vibe is unmistakably Final Fantasy. It doesn’t take long, for example, before you begin to encounter the likes of Chocobos. The gameplay is pretty decent, with some typically arcane yet effective mechanics. Basic combat is very simple (and happily, it’s real-time rather than turn-based), but when you chain attacks together, you build up a Resonance meter. Once this fills up, it allows you to unleash more powerful and spectacular combos called Crystal Surges, which can be offensive or defensive and bring an element of magic into play.
As you would expect from a Final Fantasy game, you can indulge in a ton of character development. A giant crystal in Libertas’s main square lets you mutate your Crystal Surges into powerful new forms. Picking a job (rather than remaining freelance) brings new attributes and abilities, and you can craft armour and weapons. As you progress, you gain access to a Monster Lab, which lets you design chimerical beasts that follow you faithfully on quests (although they tend to be most useful at the start of missions).
There’s a lot of grinding involved, especially at first, but Final Fantasy Explorers really comes to life when you start taking on Eidolons. These have daunting amounts of health and scarily powerful attacks that you must work hard to dodge. Another good ploy is to tackle the Eidolons with at least one friend: Explorers supports up to four-player co-op (which is commendably easy to set up either locally or online) and the game is very much geared up to encourage co-op play. Having two players with complementary abilities makes a lot of sense in terms of taking Eidolons down quicker, although obviously, the more co-op players you add, the more difficulty levels ramp up. Finding at least one person to play Final Fantasy Explorers with makes it a much more rewarding game to play.
Explorers, though, isn’t devoid of flaws. Visually, it’s disappointing, to put it politely. This is all the more glaring given that Final Fantasy games are renowned for looking gorgeous. You also encounter too many periods in which you must perform tasks that are all but indistinguishable from ones you have already performed, only with slightly different monsters. The often random way in which your pet monsters move too can be unimpressive.
Final Fantasy Explorers most certainly isn’t the game that will turn those who have always wondered what Final Fantasy is all about onto the franchise. It does at least provide something new to play on the legions of 3DSes out there, at a time when owners have been particularly ill-served. For confirmed fans it offers a nice, gentle, if non-archetypal, means of re-entering the Final Fantasy universe, whetting their appetites for Final Fantasy XV and VII. A handheld anomaly that will primarily appeal to the franchise’s existing fanbase.
This article was written by Steve Boxer, for theguardian.com on Thursday 4th February 2016 09.25 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010