I don’t think I’m going to be finishing Final Fantasy Explorers. That’s alright, though. I don’t think Square Enix finished it, either.
The game isn’t buggy and it doesn’t run horribly on the 3DS. It runs just fine, in fact. The problem is it feels like I’m playing an Alpha build with incomplete ideas. There’s a great game in here, but it is buried under mission after mission after mission of endless grinding.
Final Fantasy Explorers is ultimately Square’s effort to fuse their MMO design with the ever-popular Monster Hunter, but due to my lack of knowledge in either of those products I can only compare it to Destiny. Each game focuses on completing quests and missions until you’re ready to go and fight the boss. Playing a game like Explorers really makes one appreciate how carefully Bungie constructed their own game.
The real draw, where Explorers truly excels, is in its boss fights during co-op. Battling the iconic foes known as Eidolons is fine enough solo, but they’re clearly intended to be fought with friends. In fact, the power of the game’s foes increases with each player connected into the game world. While this is a bit of an old trick in design, it really feels like Explorers is actually taking the training wheels off. They don’t force players into co-op play as they’re aware not everyone can play with friends, but you’re not getting the real experience unless you’ve got two or more players alongside you.
It is in such conflicts where you’ll be shouting to one friend for healing abilities, calling out a foe’s upcoming attack, and letting everyone know when you’re about to use a Crystal Surge to boost your party’s abilities. By requiring teamwork in order to defeat powerful foes, to need everyone to play their role effectively, allows Final Fantasy Explorers to act as a conduit through which players become engaged not just with the game, but with each other.
The problem is that I can get this experience with other games. The funny thing about multiplayer is that, while the game may be a conduit, it doesn’t have to be good to provide an enjoyable time among friends. In fact, just as a horrible movie can be made great by lampooning it with a couch full of friends soaking up booze, so too can a bad game be enjoyed by friends just hoping to have a good time. Of course, Final Fantasy Explorers isn’t a definitively a bad game. But once you’re on your own, it’s… boring. It is the flat stretch of highway between towns while driving through middle-America.
Every mission is a fetch- or kill-quest of sorts, and those that require slaying X number of monsters just result in running up to weak foes and cycling through special abilities until they drop dead and offer up some loot. If you want to earn a greater reward with which to upgrade your abilities, you can implement handicaps to yourself such as increased enemy strength and a shorter time-limit to complete the quest. Such changes only increase a player’s caution, but not necessarily the strategy required to slaughter their foes.
Even status effects fail to truly challenge the player in a meaningful fashion. Unless you’re up against a boss, just about any foe is too weak to truly capitalize on what amounts to the inconvenience of being poisoned or confused. Wait out the necessary amount of time and the effect goes away. All the monster will do is stand there looking at you, swinging away and cycling through its attacks. It’s actually a proper A.I. mirror of what you yourself are doing.
So much of the game is limited in proper tactical options that you spend the majority of time, especially when playing solo, just trashing some mobs. A task that only gets easier as you recruit monsters to your party to make up for a lack of friends.
What truly feels the most half-baked are the benefits of the Crystal Surges themselves. Sure, each one grants a bonus in immediate combat, but any ability or skill you use while the Crystal Surge is activated is capable of gaining that bonus effect. However, this ultimately translates to a long, long list of each ability with different effects attached to it. So let’s say you activate one Crystal Surge with a Lightning Affinity, one with a Fire Affinity, and one with a Critical Boost. You use a sword slashing attack with each of these Crystal Surges. When you then go to your list of skills, you are able to purchase and equip one form of your Sword Slashing attack with each of those affinities. Whichever one you equip, you’ll then begin to add new Crystal Surge bonuses to create more complex mutations.
In theory this sounds like a great way to customize and modify your abilities. However, keep in mind that if you, say, equip Sword Slash with Fire Affinity, and then you go out and use it during a Crystal Surge with Piercing Affinity and another with Poison, you now have two separate new mutations. Fire with Piercing, and Fire with Poison. This is on top of the other three mutations that are just Fire, Lightning, and Critical. So if you want to have a Lightning with Poison mutation, you have to unequip your current skill, equip the one with Lightning, and then go out and fight until you activate a new Crystal Surge. Which effect will you get? Well, some of them are based on what zone you’re fighting in, and others seem to be completely random. There’s no way to know for certain which bonuses you’ll be able to Crystal Surge.
Now consider that the player is able to equip up to eight different skills and abilities while purchasing and cycling out more. This means for every Crystal Surge you activate, you could be creating up to eight new skill mutations. Activate a second Crystal Surge, and suddenly there are sixteen total new mutations when you get back to town. As many of these mutations are helpful when going up against bosses, you’ll most certainly want to keep one of each element around to keep mutating. You’ll also want to be careful not to match up Ice and Fire on a single mutation, as an enemy vulnerable to one may resist the other.
The idea of the player being able to customize and develop bonus effects to their attacks is a great one. It allows players to plan and strategize before they go into an Eidolon’s cavern and face off against it. However, the UI is nothing more than a list, one that can easily reach over 100 different items to sift through and requires constant management each time the player returns back to town. It is a horrible, lazy system that puts all the work on the player rather than forcing the developer to construct a suitable method in which to customize these skills.
The game is already filled with grinding for resources. Perhaps instead of limiting those resources to equipment upgrades, they could be implemented in crafting new modifiers and mutations? Or perhaps there could be sub-bosses or secret-bosses located in the world that unlock the ability to implement select modifiers? If you want to imbue your weapons with Ice, then you’re going to have to conquer the Snow Golem in the mountains, for example. Then allow players to level up these bonuses through use of their special attacks.
Instead, it’s just a half-hearted effort to add some additional strategy in the laziest way possible. Which, honestly, can be said for how Final Fantasy Explorers feels as a whole. I know it’s not lazy development, and the game is certainly polished enough to feel complete. But it certainly feels like a game developed on a time limit just so Square Enix could have something out there to combat the popularity of Monster Hunter without putting in even half as much time or effort.
I like the game’s premise, but until Square Enix is ready to actually put their heart into the project then they may as well not even bother.