Final Fantasy Explorers Hands-on - where Crystal Chronicles meets Monster Hunting

While it's been out in Japan for quite a while, when Square Enix invited us come check out near-final Western code of Final Fantasy Explorers just over a month before its January 29th launch, we had to bite. It's a curious, interesting little game, and after some hands-on time I'm extremely excited to play the final version more fully - and a little perplexed Square Enix hasn't given something this cool-feeling a harder marketing push. 

The week I played Explorers I was in a particularly strong FF mood. We'd just come off the back of PlayStation Experience's Final Fantasy VII Remake trailer, and I'd also tidied up a Platinum trophy in the PS4 port of the original mere hours before heading off to play Explorers. What's interesting, though, is what met me isn't really all that Final Fantasy. It's dressed in the clothes of the FF series, but scratch past that superficial surface and what's beneath is actually quite different.

Iconic FF heroes go real-time in this monster-bashing spin-off.

Within the FF series, the closest lineage for Explorers comes through the Nintendo-exclusive Crystal Chronicles sub-series. Indeed, if this had been a part of that series I wouldn't have blinked. It shares an aesthetic most obvious in the art of Toshiyuki Itahana, the man responsible for art direction on both, but beyond that there are other similarities. Explorers bears quite a resemblance to the DS-bound FF:CC titles and is driven by the same 4-player co-op focused design that led most of the entries in that sub-series.

Outside of FF, the most obvious comparison to draw also highlights why the game was likely greenlit: Explorers shares a lot of threads with Monster Hunter, Capcom's wildly successful open-ended monster-slaying grindfest. For some people this'll be a magical combination; by trading out beautiful but undeniably more generic dragons and beasts for those made iconic across Final Fantasy's 28-year history, there's something immediately more exciting. Beyond that, Square Enix have plainly taken steps to try to leverage FF's broader mainstream appeal with this title, streamlining aspects typical to this style of game in order to make it more accessible.

What's still not clear to me after around five hours with the game is how well this'll work in the late game, but early on it sticks well. Explorers certainly seems less daunting and far more forgiving than Monster Hunter, and is relaxingly casual about doling out missions that gradually explain mechanics such as a sort of skill chain system that allows you to build up 'Resonance' and then trigger a Trace-esque state called Crystal Surge where characters and their abilities are significantly powered up.

In the early stages of the game I got to play the core gameplay loop is fun. The hub town, Libertas, becomes a familiar place after the game kicks you back to it between missions for vital spec adjustment and character changes. 

A crystal in the center of town (again reminiscent of FFCC) allows you to buy and upgrade abilities and magic attacks depending on your character class. There's also a fortune teller who bestows buffs, and of course the requisite shops are available to buy or craft equipment and items.

While series favorite characters are sure to crop up, they don't appear to be central to the experience. This is its own game and world.

There are parts of the game that, despite its Japanese release, an embargo prevents me from talking about, but trailers have made clear that eventually the game ramps up from regular FF baddies to missions to slay iconic Eidolons (or Summons, or GFs, or whatever your term of choice is).

On top of that you'll be able to summon in iconic FF heroes like Terra or Lightning to assist, plus craft and then don costumes worn by other classic characters from the series' history.

It's here that the fan service primarily comes into play - but besides this stuff, Final Fantasy Explorers feels surprisingly and refreshingly tame about it. In an era where so much of Square Enix's Final Fantasy output feels geared to remind you of its shimmering past, Explorers actually feels more traditional. It presents a new world and a new story, and the fan service comes later as an optional extra. The eidolon and classic hero focused marketing had me believe it'd all be central, but from my early experience, that doesn't appear to be the case, something which I very much appreciate. Even the score is restrained, mostly original, holding back from recycling a lot of series favorites.

A good deal of the enjoyment I found in my time with the game came from the fact I experienced it with other journalists as a group. We adventured together over local wireless (though online is also available), and this worked well, with minimal lag. Some bosses legitimately had us on the edges of our seats and calling out orders to each other. After one grueling encounter in particular I refused to enter another mission immediately afterwards - I needed a breather! As far as I'm concerned, that's a solid sign of a great co-op game.

There is meat for a solo player here, but the heart of this title is in co-op.

Where Explorers has issues, it's familiar territory for FF. Some things that don't need ridiculous over-the-top names are bestowed them all the same, only serving to confuse what some gameplay features actually are or do.

The game seems on unsure footing narratively, too, trying to tread an invisible line between the story-light approach of the games it feels like (primarily MonHun & Phantasy Star Online) and the narrative focus most common in the FF series. This is something that, it should be noted, much of Crystal Chronicles also struggled with.

In spite of those minor complaints from my time with it, I had a lot of fun with my extended demo of FF Explorers. It feels like a bold new frontier for the series despite its obvious debts owed to previous FF spin-offs and Monster Hunter in particular, and it's a venture I can get behind. Final Fantasy needs more experimentation with its core formula, and Explorers is exciting for that. It also features gorgeous, less-serious artwork - something that I've sorely missed in the main series since FF9, and in spin-offs since Crystal Chronicles seemed to finally lose steam on Wii.

Final Fantasy Explorers feels new and fresh, and though no doubt a great deal of my fun hinged on playing with three other real people, if you can get a party of adventurers together come January either in-person or over the internet, Explorers stands to be a hell of a lot of fun. Hopefully the late game content ramps things up and keeps up the solid quality from the early parts I played. We'll have a full review closer to release.