Its combat system has lots of potential, but monsters are too easy and its eidolon boss fights are very repetitive
Available formats: Nintendo 3DS
If we ranked every RPG from the last twenty years by the quality of its monster bestiary, the Final Fantasy series would be pretty close to the top. From its mythic summon creatures to its lowly goblins, Final Fantasy plays host to some of the most eye-catching and iconic beasts in all video games. The only problem is that they’ve never been very satisfying to fight.
In early Final Fantasy games, they waited patiently at a distance, only doling out the odd, devastating attack every couple of minutes as you took it in turns to hack away at each other, often reducing their big, dramatic encounters to little more than a polite exchange of numbers. More recent games which have swayed closer to real-time combat have also faced a bit of a challenge, as a combination of relatively static monster animations and paralysing character cool-down times continue to dog each battle’s pace and overall fluidity.
In my eyes, only Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles on the GameCube has come anywhere close to achieving the same kind of dynamism found in Capcom’s Monster Hunter series, for example, but there may well be light at the end of the tunnel. From what we’ve seen of Square Enix’s upcoming Final Fantasy titles, such as Final Fantasy XV and the Final Fantasy VII remake, it looks like their lively combat systems could finally put an end to that lingering lethargy and give its monsters the battles they deserve. Sadly, despite its best efforts, Final Fantasy Explorers for the 3DS doesn’t quite do them justice either, but at least it’s not for lack of trying.
You’re cast as one of its titular explorers, who roam the land fulfilling requests made by your fellow townspeople. You can journey out alone, band together with up to three other players locally or online, or enlist the help of three monsters you’ve defeated in battle to help bolster your numbers. So far, so Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. However, rather than rely solely on choosing a class or job to determine your range of attacks and character stats, Final Fantasy Explorers shakes things up a bit by letting you assign up to eight additional abilities to the right and left shoulder buttons.
Hold these down on the field and your ability menu pops up in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, with each attack mapped to one of the four face buttons. It’s an elegant way to get round the 3DS’s limited number of controls – especially when Y already serves as your normal attack button and holding down B lets you run out of harm’s way – and it doesn’t feel too cramped when you’re in the heat of battle either.
The only thing that doesn’t quite work is the camera. Tapping L will centre it behind you, but otherwise it’s mapped to the D-Pad, which is a baffling choice, not to mention utterly impossible to use, when you’re already using the Circle Pad above it for your basic movement. It does support the 3DS’s rather cumbersome Circle Pad Pro accessory, but we’ve never been big fans of this humongous cradle and for the most part we got by with simply using the L button. Happily, those playing Final Fantasy Explorers on a New 3DS can use its Circle Pad Pro support to map the camera to the C-Stick nubbin, although even this is still a bit tricky to move when you’re holding down B to run.
Camera issues aside, the choice of eight different attacks certainly goes a long way to help keep battles feeling energetic – at least when you’re fighting one of its mythical eidolon gods. The rest of its run of the mill monsters, which populate the vast majority of the game, are so underpowered that they can often be defeated with just one or two successive attacks, which is pretty easy to do given your large array of abilities.
Admittedly, creatures do scale in difficulty as you progress further through the game and you’ll occasionally find bigger, larger enemy spawns such as dragons and giant Malboros to contend with as well. However, most of the time I found they didn’t pose any more of a threat to me after nine hours than they did after one.
This is a real shame, as this massive imbalance not only removes all sense of challenge, but it also means that many of its common monsters simply aren’t worth bothering with unless they form part of your main objective or you’re collecting a certain type of item or material which they drop on defeat, which rather defeats the whole point of being an action RPG. More often than not, your attacks are too powerful, cool-downs are so fast that they don’t impose any real kind of penalty, and your massive health bar rarely gets a single dent in it over the course of a standard mission – and that’s when you’re playing alone!
The flat, uniform terrain doesn’t help matters either. There are the usual themed areas of fields, beaches, marshes, caves and mountain sides, but it’s all pretty uninspiring stuff and a far cry from Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate’s rugged peaks and troughs, leaving no opportunity for strategic drops on foes or surprise ambushes. Even if you do manage to die, it doesn’t necessarily mean game over, as you can revive yourself instantly (with a full health and stamina bar) for the cost of five minutes off your remaining time limit.
Thankfully, eidolon battles are the one thing that saves Final Fantasy Explorers from falling into perpetual tedium, as their buffed up stats make them much harder targets to take down, particularly if you’re playing alone. There are glimpses of Monster Hunter brilliance here, as their beautifully animated attacks play up to the sense of scale and spectacle you’d expect from taking on these god-like creatures, and their lively leaps and bounds across the screen will always keep you on your toes. Yes, they soak up attacks like a sponge and occasionally prompt a dramatic fall in frame rate both in solo and online play, but the sense of satisfaction you feel when you finally bring one to its knees is undeniable.
It’s almost, almost worth it. Sadly, Final Fantasy Explorers once again stabs itself in the foot on this front, as even its eidolons suffer from gross over-exposure over the course of the game. Thanks to a rather repetitive and unimaginative quest structure, you’ll find yourself tasked with taking them down again and again to bulk out your rapidly dwindling list of things to do, making each encounter feel just as monotonous as its main menagerie. When a quest requires beating a certain eidolon before you can take it on only to then make you fight that very same eidolon again as the main mission, you know something’s not quite right.
You could say that Final Fantasy Explorers is more accessible than Monster Hunter’s tricky dino death dances, but it’s also significantly less satisfying to play. It has all the right ingredients for an engaging, nuanced battle system, but it’s completely wasted on such weak and puny opponents. You’ll find some solace in its more nuanced eidolon encounters, but even these outstay their welcome over time. All this could have been avoided if the game were better balanced, but as it currently stands, Final Fantasy Explorers remains a rather disappointing entry in the series which fans of the franchise will quickly tire of.
|Available formats||Nintendo 3DS|
|Price including VAT||£24|