Another World, Another Crystal, Another Adventure
Final Fantasy Explorers has a definite Crystal Chronicles vibe, though it was designed by the team that did the remake of the GameBoy's Saga2 (Final Fantasy Legend II in the States) for the Nintendo DS, which never jumped the pond. Explorers is a co-operative handheld MMO with boss battles reminiscent of Monster Hunter and its progeny; Square-Enix marketing has taken to calling the 3DS title a "lite-MMO," as if it were intended as the smaller gateway drug to their larger Final Fantasy XIV online experience.
Explorers' story conceit is that a large crystal has crashed into the sea of the world Amostra, and monsters and Eidolons have appeared—Eidolons being the traditional stable of summons, with two new ones, Dryad and Amaterasu—making up the core Big Bads who must be defeated in order to bring crystals back to the people as a power source. This is achieved by sending out Explorers, your role in the game, with 21 job classes and plenty of craftable weapons, armor, items, and monster companions (all for single-player).
That's the PR copy description in a nutshell. In practice the game lets you draft a party of four players and send them on quest missions to fight different summonable monsters from other Final Fantasy titles and straddles the RPG/hunter action-RPG in a breezy, comfortable way. You don't level up, per se, but acquire greater power and defense from getting better weapons and armor. I wasn't quite sure if some weapons or items were dropped whole by enemies, but it was certain that component parts, used to craft better weapons and armor, were.
I tried two classes, the standard Knight at first, after selecting Squall as my magicyte—a delightful throwback to Final Fantasy VI, in much the same way that Final Fantasy XIV carries a lot of extended-series Final Fantasy lore with it—which determines the powers and abilities you receive when you reach the game's version of limit breaks. Standard combat involves a melee attack and four special attacks with cooldowns. With the Knight class these involved some basic strength-based sword attacks.
More interesting, was the DLC Blue Mage class—the North American release includes all the DLC from the Japanese release—where the special attacks were monster abilities like the Marlboro's Stink Breath or the Magus Sisters' especially cool looking Delta Attack. During the limit breaks, additional attacks become available specific to the character class.
Defeating bosses—we took on traditional summons Shiva and Ramuh on two separate quests—gains the player not only craftable items, but also those summons as magicyte, which can imbue the player character for a limited amount of time with their power. There are also additional magicyte possible for iconic Final Fantasy characters like Squall, Cloud, Lightning, Cecil, Bartz, Tidus, etc., that transforms the player character into chibi versions of the classic Final Fantasy characters. If the limit break is used while using the magicyte, they will gain character or Eidolon specific attacks like Squall's Lionheart, or Shiva's summon abilities.
Explorers is designed for four-player parties, but if you don't have four players, you can supplement them with monsters you've defeated (who drop the necessary items for them to join your party). It's clear that the game is meant to be played with others, with adjustments for different classes and styles of play to complement each other in combat. It's also just a lot of fun to run around and see your buddies doing classic Final Fantasy job moves (like Dragoons jumping, etc.) while you martial your own specific talents.
Final Fantasy Explorers is fun, at least what I got to play of it, with other journalists, at a recent preview event. It's not really enough of an MMO or a super-grind-heavy action RPG to really fit either genre. It has the kind of casual vibe that Square Enix has excelled at in their handheld Final Fantasy spin-offs for at least the last decade without insulting the hardcore gamer crowd looking for a separate Final Fantasy experience. In short, so far it seems light and fun, but not at the expense of gameplay or systems the series is known for.
Final Fantasy Explorers will release on January 26, 2016, with a Standard Edition at $39.99 and a Collectors Edition at $69.99 exclusively for the 3DS.