It's not without a great deal of anticipation that we prepare to immerse ourselves in a new Final Fantasy game. It's usually like a well worn pair of shoes, you just sit back, slip them on, and head out to enjoy the world. But there was none of that here. First we had to read some instructions. Then some more. And then even more. How on Earth could anyone be expected to take in and remember all this info?
Fortunately the lengthy instructions came to an end and the training mission could be played. It felt good and well crafted, but then we were transferred back to town (the central hub of the early game) and we were fed more text. It's been a long time since we played a game that tried to prevent us from learning by playing by instead forcing us to go through texts and navigate menus this way. It's not the most welcoming of starts.
Final Fantasy: Explorers is an action-RPG that's not particularly similar to what we're used to from the series. Instead this is a game that challenges the likes of Monster Hunter and similar titles that are hugely popular in Japan. As a result the story isn't as important as it usually is and serves more as a backdrop, and your main motivation is to acquire gear and level up. It doesn't sound remarkable, but if you've ever been hooked on something like, say, Phantasy Star Online you'll know how delightfully addictive it can be.
One thing that PSO offered back in the day was fantastic gameplay. Everything you did was fun. Beating up the same old bosses again and again without it ever getting boring, and the game never felt old. Thus this is the single most important factor that ultimately determines the fate of a game like Final Fantasy: Explorers, no matter how much Final Fantasy fan service there is to be had.
After you've created your character with the rather limited tool, you end up in Libertas, a small village that serves as your hub. Here you can buy and sell equipment, read more instructions, take on missions and meet other adventurers. Most often you're sent out to kill a certain number of monsters or collect resources that someone needs. The concept continues to be fairly intact throughout the adventure and your first training mission gives a good insight into what awaits you in terms of things to discover, how the combos work, and finding lots of loot.
You can always move further and further out into the world to reach new areas. A really early mission, for example, was to carry out a specific attack, we didn't quite succeed, and ran out of enemies and decided to explore and find stronger resistance. After passing huge plains and a forest, we reached a beach with enemies pretty much exactly as hard as our character could handle. When the assignment is completed, you then have one minute to pick up what you want from the game world before you are transported back to Libertas to collect the reward, sell things and accept new challenges.
This is basically what the game has to offer, but that wouldn't be a problem if it was fun to play and consistently felt rewarding. Square Enix has, however, been so busy trying to copy Monster Hunter that they forgot to add the unique features that give would Final Fantasy: Explorers personality. Sure, they have added plenty of Final Fantasy elements in the belief that it would be enough for the fans, but they overlooked a fairly important detail; the game feels a bit rushed and underdeveloped and never really gets exciting.
One of the biggest problems is that this is a game that takes advantage of the second analog stick. Unfortunately, we don't have a New Nintendo 3DS, and therefore we had to centre the camera constantly with a shoulder button, but that also moves the compass and hampers navigation. For the first time since... Kid Icarus: Uprising, we had to find our Circle Pad Pro, which did make for a more enjoyable experience. For those of you who do not have either of these two solutions, it's hard to wholeheartedly recommend. Square Enix seems aware of this and has solved it by constantly marking where to go next, but this also sucks some of the fun out of exploring.
The world is also astonishingly uneventful. Monster Hunter is often genuinely fun to play and exciting during the bigger battles. Explorers never offers that same feeling as we stroll around in the somewhat uninspiring surroundings with up to three other adventurers. The fights are monotonous and that epic feeling of Final Fantasy is absent. It seems a bit pointless.
It's never bad, but never truly good either. It feels like a classic case of a fine concept ruined by mediocre execution. Because the Final Fantasy world is made for a game like this and there is one element that really stands out. If you are a fan of Final Fantasy V you will no doubt appreciate that a job system similar to the one found in the classic SNES title is employed here.
Instead of the predetermined jobs that have become synonymous with the series in recent times, we can pick from a list of several classic jobs. And what you've learned, you can take along as you switch directions. It is possible, for example, to learn the skills of a Red Mage and then switch to a Ranger before heading on to try Thief and the Geomancer. It is very flexible and even if you don't remember Final Fantasy V, you will recognise parts of this system from Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.
Unfortunately, Final Fantasy: Explorers isn't what we had hoped for. Certainly it's a competent and content-filled adventure with plenty to do for those who bother to learn all the features from the many long information boxes, but at the end of the day the game lacks that which is often referred to as "soul". And with that feeling missing, it gets increasingly harder to motivate yourself to come back for more.