The Final Fantasy series is no stranger to spinoffs. While Square Enix’s historic franchise may only be on its fifteenth numerical installment, Final Fantasy characters, mechanics and music have featured in a long list of games. The IP’s latest adaptation is Final Fantasy Explorers, a co-op action RPG focused on letting players team up to fight iconic Final Fantasy creatures and look great doing it. It’s not the first multiplayer Final Fantasy title, nor is it the best, but Explorers‘ customization and nostalgic potency will resonate with devoted Final Fantasy fans. Others, however, may be left wondering what all the fuss is about.
As a quest-based, loot-grinding action RPG in the vein of Monster Hunter, Final Fantasy Explorers is far from a traditional Final Fantasy game. It doesn’t offer much in the way of plot, and you won’t meet any memorable characters, but in the absence of those elements Square Enix has given players a ton of power to customize their experience. It starts with the job system, a feature Final Fantasy vets will be quite familiar with, but that’s only the tip of the crystal. The real depth comes from game’s ability system, which lets players equip their explorer with up to eight unique attacks and powers that add amazing variety to battles. By chaining abilities in combat and initiating Crystal Surges, bursts of energy that bestow buffs and elemental affinities upon your entire team, you can also mutate your abilities to take on new effects and become even more powerful. These ability chains are vast and varied, and I enjoyed tweaking my explorer’s abilities after every few battles to incorporate new additions or try out different strategies with the same job class.
The other half of the Explorers‘ emphasis on customization comes by way of weapons and armor. As you complete quests and collect materials, you’ll begin to be able to forge new equipment that not only looks sweet, but also boosts your performance in battle. If you find a piece you’re particularly fond of, you can also upgrade individual items to improve their stats and performance. Grinding for materials, unlocking new equipment, and using your new toys to pursue an even stronger model is as addictive a loop as ever in Final Fantasy Explorers, and if you enjoy the minutia of stat building and the rewarding sensation that comes with completing a particularly splendid set of armor, you’ll find plenty to do.
Quests in Final Fantasy Explorers take you through the monster-infested island of Amosta, collecting materials, trekking through new areas, and accepting bounties, but you don’t really do too much exploring. The game is built around revisiting the same areas time and time again, albeit often with slightly different objectives, and while there are a handful of attractive vistas and some decent variety in the island’s layout, being forced to return to the same places so often rapidly sapped my enthusiasm. Explorers does employ a fast-travel system (by way of airship, of course), but even then you’re often forced to speed through a randomly generated set of areas before reaching your objective. Once you’re there, the quests usually don’t take long to complete, but the bloated travel time makes Explorers much less friendly to short bursts of play.
Of course, Final Fantasy Explorers is designed to be played with cooperatively, and it’s certainly at its best when you team up with other explorers either locally or online. Questing with companions spices the game with unpredictability, improvisation, and the thrill of successful teamwork, and the victories I shared with both friends and strangers populate all of my finest memories with Final Fantasy Explorers. I especially enjoyed seeing how different players utilized their unique ability selections, and challenging myself to riff off of the combos and patterns my teammates were developing.
This collaborative combat shines brightest whilst battling Explorers‘ boss monsters, known as Eidolons. These burly beasts are the game’s main attraction, and many will be immediately familiar to Final Fantasy fans. But while they may appear intimidating, most of the Eidolons are incredibly easy to vanquish. Any explorer with a good set of offensive abilities can take the beasts down without much trouble through the first ten to fifteen hours of Final Fantasy Explorers, and that dulls the sense of accomplishment felling such spectacular monsters should yield. Should you fall in battle, you can either use a pricey phoenix down or sacrifice five minutes of quest time to resurrect yourself and continue on. I liked that exchange; it imbued my revival with a pronounced sense of purpose, especially when I was sharing that bank of minutes with three other players. Most quests provide more than enough time to accommodate several slip-ups, however, only enabling the game’s disappointing difficulty to drop further.
Final Fantasy Explorers doesn’t support in-game voice chat, but it does at least boast a fairly robust selection of chat options. These can come in handy when you need to get a message across to a teammate, but because they’re hidden behind a touchscreen menu, utilizing them in the heat of battle isn’t always plausible. The system lacks the immediacy and visual cues of games like Tri Force Heroes, a chat system I hope more games adopt in the future.
If you can’t find players to adventure with, or simply want to play Final Fantasy Explorers on your own, you can also draft monsters you’ve slain to join your cause. It was cool to lead a posse of goblins and lizards on missions to smite their brethren, but they simply aren’t as capable as human players. They lack creativity and strategy in combat, and fail to offer the excitement of improvisation I enjoyed while playing alongside other explorers. Ultimately my monster companions acted as little more than enthusiastic underlings, and never made much of a difference when I truly needed a helping hand.
Regardless of my companions, however, the repetition of Final Fantasy Explorers struck me early into my experience. The game relies too heavily on fighting the same bosses and visiting the same areas, and though this is part of the blueprint of games of this type, others have done it far better in the past. Repetition isn’t a problem on its own; platformers require players to repeatedly jump, and shooters are all about constantly firing. What hurts Explorers is that it takes far too long to challenge its players, and doesn’t provide much incentive to persevere. Missions late into the game have bite to them, and are conversely much more fun to accept and overcome, but you have to slog through so many monotonous scavenging or kill quota missions that many players likely won’t have the patience or interest necessary to enjoy the best parts of Final Fantasy Explorers.
You can’t discount the power of nostalgia in the game, however. It may lack many of the core series’ traditional sensibilities, but running into familiar creatures like chocobos or donning the garb of characters like Sephiroth will help many players look past the game’s inherent flaws. Final Fantasy Explorers is intended first and foremost for Final Fantasy fans, and if you plan to come into the game without any prior experience with the series, much of the charm and familiarity will be lost on you. On the other hand, Explorers could act as a decent entry point into the monster hunting genre for players looking to try their hands at battling titanic beasts without jumping straight into the deep end. Either way, it’s important to know what you’re signing up for before you take the plunge.
Enjoyment of Final Fantasy Explorers is defined by two things: nostalgia for Final Fantasy and the amount of immediate challenge desired. Square Enix has crafted a game that unabashedly caters to the Final Fantasy faithful and provides some wonderful opportunities for customization and collaboration, but experimenting with abilities and grinding for new weapons and armor can only keep you entertained for so long when the beasts you’re battling aren’t putting up a fight. The challenge does come later, but there’s so little motivation to chew through the gristle that boredom will conquer most adventurers before they enjoy Final Fantasy Explorers at its best.