When it comes to Final Fantasy games, there's long been a soft-of unwritten rule that says "if it isn't one of the "main" numbered games, it may be a bit naff". How naff it is seems to be determined by how far it strays from the traditional Final Fantasy staples, of a heavily story driven game with turn-based battles, and a great selection of characters. With new 3DS outing Final Fantasy Explorers being a multiplayer oriented, button mashing, hack and slash style adventure - with very little in the way of a proper storyline - it's probably about as far away from being a traditional Final Fantasy role player as you might expect. And, unfortunately, that also means it falls foul of the Final Fantasy spin-off curse.
The concept here is one akin to the uber popular Monster Hunter series, so it's perhaps easy to see why developers Square decided to dip their toes into a similar pool. Playing as a created character, it's up to you to take on a number of missions in the world of Amostra, almost all of which follow an identical pattern. All you need to do is proceed through a number of areas, and beat up all the enemies you find, until you've either defeated enough goblins/bombs/chocobos to complete the mission - or defeated the boss, depending on the mission.
Starting out from your home base, the missions are all set in the same few, interconnected areas, with new areas being unlocked in later missions. The tougher the enemies, the further away from your home base you'll have to wander - but, luckily, you can usually choose to start from a destination nearer your mission objective, rather than having to spend half an hour wandering across the same countryside and through the same caves you've explored a thousand times before.
Still, it's already easy to see that Final Fantasy Explorers is a game all about repetition - and that's not always a bad thing. The problem here is that Explorers is totally lacking in any sort of reason to do anything, or any sort of soul. With each and every mission, you'll be whacking the same enemies, in the same places, getting the same rewards - and it all gets rather old, rather quickly.
The variety here is meant to be provided by your friends, as, while it can be played in single player mode, the game's designed to be played by a group of up to four friends. There's only one (pretty big) problem - it doesn't do download play. Instead, everyone who wants to come along on an adventure with you will have to own their own 3DS, and their own copy of the game - something that drastically limits its multiplayer credentials.
So, unless you have a group of friends who all buy anything with the words "Final Fantasy" on the front, the chances are you'll either be venturing around alone, or with a group of strangers. If you're on your own, the game does provide a few ways to makes things easier for you, by letting you add monsters to your team. When out on the field, occasionally, monsters will drop a special item, which can be used in your town's "Monster Hut" to create a monster that can be added to your team. In that way, rather than roaming the game's lands on your lonesome, you can at least do so besides a giant lizard, a huge turtle, and, er, a goblin. Hey, it's better than being on your own.
Once you're out on the field of battle, it won't take too long for you to be set upon by monsters, and as we touched on earlier, these are usually essential to your mission. Almost without fail, you'll be asked to either kill X or Y type of monsters, or defeat Z boss - and there'll be no shortage of monsters to beat. Combat is of a button mashing, real-time variety, with a standard attack found on Y, and up to eight spells or abilities accessed by holding either L or R, and pressing one of the face buttons. Your abilities almost all use up some cunningly named Ability Points, and each has a cooldown time to stop you simply spamming them - but, weirdly, running uses up Ability Points too, so if you leg it to the boss encounter, you'll get there shattered, and unable to use your strongest moves. Luckily, your AP do come back, either when you're walking around town, or beating things up normally, with each hit you land giving you some Ability Points. There's also a job system that lets you specialise your character, depending on how you want to play, from series staples like White Mages (healing specialists) and Black Mages (attacking magic specialists) through to more unusual characters, like the Beast Master (high health, high physical attack).
But the main problem with Final Fantasy Explorers is that there's just nothing all that exciting here. Everything feels "just OK", and you never really have a reason to be doing anything. There's nothing in the way of an overarching story to give you reason to keep plodding on, and - disappointingly - there's also no real levelling system either. No matter how many enemies you beat, you won't gain HP, you won't get stronger, and you won't automatically learn new abilities, which kind of robs the game of a lot of the reason to keep playing. Extra health can be gained by either buying new equipment, or crafting to improve the stuff you've got (which makes sense, right? Right??), and new abilities can be bought from a giant crystal in the middle of the town, but really, if you're beating up 10 goblins, you want a reason to do that, beyond just "that's what Cid said to do" - and that's what Final Fantasy Explorers doesn't provide.
Designed to offer a multiplayer hack and slash experience, Final Fantasy Explorers may be worth picking up if you have a group of dedicated Final Fantasy fans who are each willing to buy their own copy of the game for the chance to venture alongside you. For everyone else, we'd keep an eye on the great looking World of Final Fantasy instead, which looks set to provide a more traditional Final Fantasy game, with just as many nods and references, later this year.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS