When I first loaded up Final Fantasy Explorers, I felt I generally had a good idea of what to expect. I imagined a simple ARPG littered with both classical Final Fantasy mechanics as well as gameplay inspired by Capcom's massively popular Monster Hunter franchise. In the end, I wasn't that far off the mark.
Final Fantasy Explorers, like the name suggests, is a spinoff title for the Final Fantasy series. Much like titles like Phantasy Star Portable or Monster Hunter, the objective of the game is to clear quests that usually have to do with slaying monsters or gathering materials in a somewhat explorable world. Final Fantasy Explorers deals with exploration by taking a faux-open world approach. Once you've unlocked a portion of the game's continent, you can enter it seemingly at any time at any mission, even if it doesn't directly have anything to do with the quest that you're attempting. For the most part, each section of the game's world is fairly big, and a little bit of every type of traditional environment is represented. You've got your grassy plains, your volcano, your beaches, your forests, all of which works well. However, for a game with the word "Explorers" in the title, its lack of unique standout locations feels rather dull.
To make matters worse, it's not just the art style that seems to be muted, but the overall presentation as well. Voice clips for shop owners tend to be noticeably compressed, the game frequently experiences slowdown when in a group online, and 3D is disabled for all systems, even if you're playing on the technically superior New 3DS.
Of course, that's all cosmetics at least for the most part, fluff that can be ignored if the gameplay stands out from the pack. The combat is based around a few systems. There is the classical Job system, which determines your base stats before taking equipment into account. There is also the weapons you can equip, the crystal resonance system, and the trance system. For anyone that's played a Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest title with the Job System (or the more contemporary Bravely Default), you'll probably already have an idea of what the Job System is all about. Depending on your job, you can equip and use different types of equipment or weapons. Usually, your Job would determine which skills you could use as well. In Final Fantasy Explorers, your Job only affects your base stats and what weapons that you can equip. Magic can be equipped to any Job, and skills are weapon class specific instead of Job specific.
The two truly unique systems at play here are the Crystal Resonance system and the Trance system. Crystal Resonance is a way of adding unique buffs to your party members that might in turn add a special attribute to any of the skills that party members use in combat. A counter in the upper left portion of the screen showcases the resonance level of the party at the current time, and as you or other members attack monsters with skills or use any sort of magic, the counter will rise. Once the counter rises above 100 points, you'll eventually be notified that your Crystal Resonance is ready.
Once your Crystal Resonance is charged, you gain access to up to four different buffs that you have to choose from applying to anyone within a few feet of your character. These range from easily understandable buffs like "Fire Affinity" or "Slash Affinity" that boost specific attacks, to more abstract buffs like "Two-Fold Return" or "Giant". Besides just buffing your character, many times these effects might "mutate" any skills that you have equipped, temporarily granting them additional attributes that can later be permanently be added and stacked on the skill following a quest.
The second really unique system at play here is the "Trance" system. Just under the resonance counter on the top left of the upper screen a bar designates how much your Trance has charged. Once it's fully charged, you can let it loose at any time by tapping the corresponding icon on the bottom screen. Once it's activated you'll gain the attributes of the Magicite that you have equipped. Depending on the type of Magicite, you might even take the form of a memorable Final Fantasy character for a short amount of time.
When in Trance mode, your skills charge quicker and the cooldown and charge-up for each of your equipped skills is much quicker. Basically, you'll be able to spam some of your most powerful skills in rapid succession. Additionally, there is a chance that if you trigger a Crystal Resonance while in a Trance, or you might have access to an especially powerful attack channeling the strength of the character or Eidolon that you have equipped. Each Magicite has a different chance effect, and once you have received a Magicite (either by "encasing" an Eidolon at low health, by getting lucky and having the "Encase" Crystal Resonance activate, or receiving the Magicite for a character directly) you can swap them out at will between fights.
The rest of the combat is a bit of a mix between MMO style combat and more traditional ARPG combat. You can equip up to eight different skills that you can utilize using a combination of either L or R and a face button. These skills can be anything from buffs, to attack magic, or a weapon specific skills. Besides these MMO-style skills you also have access to a standard attack and the ability to run. Tapping the X button opens up your inventory, that lets you use items that can recharge your HP, AP, and more.
AP are Action Points. If you don't have enough AP to use a skill, you will either have to stop running and using skills and wait for it to recharge, start attacking monsters with your normal attack (since attacking with your default attack will recover AP) or use an item to replenish it.
At the end of the day, the combat really shines when you have a team that is able to communicate and work together. It's less timing focused and more micromanagement focused. Even though the game draws a lot of inspiration from Monster Hunter, the combat is probably closer to something like Xenoblade Chronicles, Phantasy Star Portable, or the average MMO. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that the game won't be for everyone, especially considering how long it takes the game to really open up. The game feels really repetitive until you unlock the Trance ability, and especially if you played the majority of the start of the game offline. Even after gaining Trances, the game is still best played in a group. The ability to craft monster companions for solo play helps break up some of the monotony, but it doesn't do enough to make up for the lack of real party dynamics.
As far as the quality of the multiplayer goes, unless you're going to be communicating with friends outside of the game, it leaves a lot to be desired. There's no text chat outside of preset messages. For a game where most of the combat's depth comes from understanding the party that you're playing with and working together to build an effective team, playing online on public servers means that you're always going to have that handicap of not being able to properly communicate.
Add in the slowdown, and it's downright disappointing how much the multiplayer has been flubbed. Granted, you can take any quest online, but unlike in Monster Hunter where you only have to be around the same rank as someone to take a higher level quest, you can't join any quest that you haven't already unlocked.
Final Fantasy Explorers does end up showcasing some good ideas, but their execution leaves a lot to be desired. Slowdown, a lack of general polish, and a disturbing lack of communication options means that unless you have three friends you'll be able to play the game with regularly, it'll end up being a hard sell. It's a shame too, since when you've got a group together that really know what they're doing and can properly communicate, the game is a nice pick-up-and-play title that might scratch that MMO party management itch.
Final Fantasy Explorers was reviewed on a New Nintendo 3DS system with a copy provided by Square Enix.
Final Fantasy Explorers can be an engaging experience, but with a slow start, a lack of communication options for multiplayer, and a lack of polish, it's hard to recommend.