Final Fantasy may well be the most redundant title in gaming. With over two-dozen titles in the public domain, the intimidatingly prolific JRPG franchise is back again for a pick-up-and-play experience on the Nintendo 3DS.
So what can Final Fantasy Explorers possibly do differently from before? Compared to mobile ports of the series’ earlier entries, this less involved interpretation of Final Fantasy’s traditional M.O is a playful distraction. For casual FF fans, this game lacks the technical flourish that its namesake demands.
Wait your turn no longer
Unlike its console brethren, Explorers’ core mechanics have been reduced to ‘Final Fantasy Lite’. Traditional JRPG combinations of real-time and turn-based combat have been abandoned for a third-person action framework.
Basic attacks using the player’s weapon can be executed by pressing Y, but holding either R1 or R2 and pressing one of the four Y, A, X or B buttons activates one of eight loaded abilities. The result is more Monster Hunter than true Final Fantasy, where players must keep moving to avoid enemy attacks whilst landing their own ranged or melee strikes.
With an analogue stick, D-pad and four other buttons on offer this transition makes sense on the DS. The soon to be-released FFVII remake and FFXV have embraced the world of ARPGs for good reason, and for Explorers, the decision is also a wise one.
Lock, Stock and two smoking chocobo
It’s possible to lock on to the nearest enemy or ally using a quick press of R1, which focuses the camera in their direction. Directing attacks at a specific foe is simple enough, but when the battlefield becomes crowded the position of the camera can become frustrating as the field of view occludes monsters just outside of the screen’s periphery.
When large more hefy enemies enter the fray, the R1 lock prioritises them over smaller threats, which also seems counter intuitive given that most players tend to clear smaller foes before taking on the big bad. It’s possible to target small monsters using a button on the touch screen but this prohibitively out of place for most fast-paced engagements. In most battles I was clamouring for a button that would let me cycle through enemies.
The dark crystal
Final Fantasy is constantly reinventing its RPG mechanics to provide new and interesting ways to slowly increment a player’s strength. Explorers is faced with the unenviable task yet another Madonna-scale reinvention: just enough to keep the loyalists happy, not so little that they realise you’ve been singing the same songs for decades.
The answer in this case - crystals! Why exactly crystals are always imbued with mystical power we’re unsure but Explorers tasks its players with seeking out powerful crystals on the island of Amostra.
Whilst battling the local wildlife, players can periodically call upon a ‘crystal surge’ which grants a variety of bonuses. Using an ability during a surge augments its effects but also has longer term consequences by causing an ‘ability mutation’. Mutations cross-pollinate the primary effect of the ability with the bonus of the surge, creating an upgraded version of the original ability that can be permanently learned.
After committing to more surging and mutating than the monster from The Thing I found myself deeply unsatisfied. Traditional level ups, summons, and limit-breaks wouldn’t constitute a departure for the series, but they do serve an important purpose by creating a sense of progression.
Mutating ability Fire 1 to Fire 2 for a tiny stat increase fails to induce the dopamine surge of a linear progression along a skill tree or up the endless numerical ladder of levels.
One, two, three, four
It’s possible to wend your way through Explorers as a solo adventurer but Square Enix is hoping that you’ve accumulated some of those ‘friend things’ to enjoy its creation with. A party of up to four players can journey together using local DS or WIFI connection.
After succeeding in the titanic task of finding someone willing to be my mate, I convinced them to join me in an afternoon or two of questing. The results were mixed to say the least. Hunting the various monsters in open areas around Amostra quickly became a competition to see who could two-hit the enemy first - hardly the model for cooperative play.
More significant enemies were where the advantages of duos, trios, and quartets became clear. Having invested in ranged spells and healing abilities I was able to patch up my ally from a distance whilst they dove into the fray to deal damage and draw majority of the vile creature’s fire.
Undoubtedly the 2-player experience offered more highs than solo play, but that’s not exactly high praise - everything from Netflix to schadenfreude is better enjoyed in good company.
If unlike myself you can’t spare the time to find a real friend, pay someone to be your friend, or search out an affable stranger, there exists another option: monster taming. It’s possible to collect the essence of most of the Amostran menagerie and co-opt them into wandering around with you as a party of real players would. Why ordinary NPC companions weren’t considered I’m unsure, but they perform a similar function by soaking damage and charging into the fray whilst you do the heavy lifting.
Final Fantasy Explorers verdict
All the trappings of Final Fantasy are here: coins are called gil, there’s a scantily clad chimera by the name of Shiva, and the oh-so-familiar victory melody rings out at a quest’s end. For these things, and an easily-accessible addition to the franchise that fits snugly in the pocket, fans of the series will be grateful.
What I’m forced to wonder is whether without its famously alliterative title, Explorers would make a splash. Its competently delivered slashing and uninspiring RPG mechanics mean your attention will begin to waver before long in its company.