As the most recent co-op experiment in the Final Fantasy universe, Final Fantasy Explorers combines a hefty dose of series nostalgia with a borrowed multiplayer mission structure to a surprisingly fresh effect. While it’s exceedingly light on story, and inarguably repetitive, Explorers’ take on cooperative questing still makes for a robust and compelling adventure. Throw in nearly every class, spell, item and monster from the Final Fantasy encyclopedia, and you’ve got a recipe that should hold the attention of any Final Fantasy or JRPG fan for a good long time.
A Simple Premise
When I say this game is light on story, I’m being overly generous, if anything. Explorers has more of a premise than it does an actual plot. Kingdoms from all over the world have converged on a mysterious island, Amostra, where elemental crystals have begun to appear in abundance. Along with them, Eidolons, like Shiva and Ifrit, have been manifested by the planet to protect these dangerous conduits from power-hungry adventurers and militant forces that seek to manipulate or abuse them.
Rather than helming a manufactured Final Fantasy protagonist, your role in Explorers is one of the countless fame-and-fortune seekers drawn to Amostra’s enigmatic power. A basic avatar creator allows you to customize your hero’s name and appearance, leaving you with a blank slate for any of the classes or group roles that the game has to offer.
The Island of Amostra is a single landmass that encompasses a wide variety of terrain types. These various environments are represented on the world map by a series of open areas threaded together by more linear paths like caves and forest trails. No single area is particularly large, but as you set out further from town and gain access to more of the island, it does start to feel like a pretty big place.
A single town at the edge of the island serves as base of operations for the influx of explorers and is where you’ll obtain all of your quests, meet up with other adventurers, and juggle your many options for character advancement.
Missions start with the basics – slay five goblins or gather ten patches of moss – and slowly ramp up to bigger and more difficult targets and rarer collectible items. The materials gathered around the island and harvested from slain monsters, along with those awarded by the Adventurer’s Guild for completing quests, are used primarily to craft equipment and items. While a small selection of weapons, armor, and consumables can be purchased from town shops, crafted gear makes up the bulk of Explorers’ outfitting options, and ultimately provides the incentive to take on harder quests and progress through the game.
None of these building blocks are new or unique ideas. We’ve seen all of them, in various combinations, in plenty of other games. Even so, Explorers manages to execute on the rationed loot and power grind in a way that kept me heavily invested for at least a few dozen hours.
The Skill of the Hunt
Battles in Explorers feel different enough from previous Final Fantasy games to offer a new experience for series veterans. Rather than turn and menu-based fighting, character movement and execution of attacks, skills and spells all play out in real time. A single, universal resource empowers the physical and magical abilities of each class, and regenerates automatically. This unrestrictive system means that battles generally play out very quickly, and with little downtime in between. Despite the faster pace of each encounter, an emphasis on positioning and timing keeps things feeling at least moderately tactical.
Nearly every class, or job, that has appeared in the Final Fantasy series over the years is present in Explorers, and all function largely as you would expect them to. Black Mages evoke Firaga and Bio, Thieves can steal additional loot from their targets, and yes, Dragoons can use their signature Jump ability to leap out of the way of devastating attacks and spear their foes on the way back down. Jobs are unlocked, a few at a time, as you progress through Explorers’ main questline, and can be swapped out, as often as you like, each time you head back to town. Up to eight spells or class abilities can be hot-keyed for use in battle, and can be saved, alongside preferred jobs and equipment sets, as favorite loadouts. This ability to quickly jump between jobs and skills, and curate equipment and skillsets for each, makes for a vast and dynamic selection of possible builds.
To enhance combat options a bit further, another set of abilities, called Crystal Surges, are available across all jobs. Granting temporary bonuses like elemental effects on attacks and health and mana regen, Crystal Surges can be activated after executing a barrage of skills or spells in quick succession.
As fluid and fun as combat is, it unfortunately never poses too much of a challenge. I spent most of my playtime as a Black Mage, and gained access to the increasingly devastating elemental arsenal that came with it. Most enemies would drop with a single spell, some requiring an extra melee attack or a second zap to finish them off. And with the wide assortment of area effect spells available to Mages, I was often able to dispatch two, three, even four enemies at a time this way. The only exception being the Eidolons, Explorer’s boss equivalents, who require a bit more time and positional strategy, but not much additional trouble. There are some optional risk/reward variables that can be activated to amp up the difficulty for each quest, but ultimately your time spent questing will be more about collection and adventure than about epic battles.
Level Playing Field
Final Fantasy Explorers does away with the levels and experience points that have historically been a key element of Final Fantasy and JRPGs in general. Instead, equipment and custom abilities are what make the game’s many numbers grow, and provide the perpetual carrot on a stick to keep you coming back to the Adventurer’s Guild for more.
There is a bafflingly large number of materials to collect in Explorers, most of which you’ll never really need unless you end up crafting outfits for every class in the game. Patterns for armor and weapons are unlocked periodically throughout the game, and their recipes can all be viewed at the Smith in town at any time. Armed with an idea of the items you’d like to craft, and the materials list you’ll need to make it happen, you’d think it would be a snap to gather what you need and place your order. Except that if you have yet to find a material in the wild already, the game gives you next to no information on where you need to forage or what you need to kill to get your hands on it. I spent most of my time looking at the Smith’s offerings feeling frustrated, because I wasn’t finding the materials I needed naturally and was given no clues as to where I should be hunting for them. It feels great to craft a new weapon or piece of equipment that dramatically increases your stats, but unfortunately, it happens far less frequently and intuitively than I would have liked.
Another way to increase your effectiveness in combat is with custom spells and abilities. As you use abilities repeatedly in combat, you’ll be given the option to purchase enhanced versions of them in town. These enhancements don’t fundamentally change the way the ability works, but they will do things like add chain or positional damage bonuses or inflict extra elemental damage each time it is is used. The more you use an ability or spell, the more options you’ll have to tweak it to suit your preferred playstyle.
Magicite makes a return in Final Fantasy Explorers, and offers another way to outfit your character with some interesting abilities. The crystal-guarding Eidolons that you face can be encased in crystal (think Ghostbusters) and equipped, allowing you to call upon them to aid you in battle. Similar to Crystal Surges, legendary attacks like Shiva’s Diamond Dust and Odin’s Zantetsuken can be utilized in combat to devastating effect. You’ll also come across magicite shards that house the spirits of characters from past Final Fantasy games, allowing you to channel the likeness and abilities of Cloud Strife, Lightning and many other legendary heroes.
At its core, Explorers is designed with multiplayer in mind. While in town, you can hop online and search for partners to form up to a four-man group with whom to tackle quests in typical Final Fantasy party fashion. A variety of search options can theoretically match you up with a team of players of a similar skill level that are looking to tackle the same quests or hunt the same creatures as you. Dropping in and out of multiplayer sessions is quick and seamless, and a decent variety of preset statements is accessible, via the touchscreen, for basic communication.
All of this sounds fantastic, but in practice, it rarely all lines up as perfectly as I would have liked. Toggling even a few of the search functions to anything but “all” generally left me with no available games to join, forcing me to forego my desired objectives just for the sake of playing online. When I did opt to join up with a group online, more often than not at least one or two of the players would be idling, spending time handling character business in town, or already out on the lobby’s active quest. That last one wouldn’t be a deal breaker, except that late arrivals are unable to join a quest that’s already in progress. All that said, when a group does work out, and a good variety of class roles are present, Final Fantasy Explorers’ cooperative offerings truly shine.
I didn’t get the opportunity to test out local multiplayer in Explorers, but it seems like being in the same room, playing with friends, would address virtually every issue that I have with the game’s online multiplayer. Like Crystal Chronicles before it, this seems like the ideal way to experience the cooperative elements of the game.
If online and local multiplayer are off the table, or you simply prefer to play games solo, Explorers is absolutely still worth playing. I spent the vast majority of my time with the game playing alone, thanks to a clever system that allows you to flesh out your would-be party with monsters, rather than fellow humans. Nearly every monster in the game, when defeated, has a small chance of dropping an atmilath, or soul, that can be used in town to summon a pet version of said creature to join you in battle. Creating and leveling a team of creatures based on stats, abilities and, let’s be honest, looks, is a gratifying process. Add this feature to all of the other time-draining activities in the game, and you’ll have plenty of things to keep you busy for a long, long time.
Explorers is an addictive, unique diversion from the core Final Fantasy series. Its multiplayer elements, when working as intended, make for one of the more personable, shareable experiences in this beloved universe. Battling legendary creatures and masterfully using the skills of your favorite job as a part of a team full of diverse and useful disciplines is a real treat. Yes, the quests certainly get repetitive, and grinding the same monsters and farming the same materials can feel pretty tedious at times, but ultimately I always felt compelled enough to shoot for that next objective. This Final Fantasy tangent is a success in many ways, and a fine addition to the 3DS’ amazing catalogue of RPGs.Leave a Comment