The Final Fantasy series has always carried a lot of charm. They use colorful characters, fantastic creatures, and surprisingly deep stories that make them fun to play. Unfortunately, the last main series game I played, FFXIII, has all the charm of a conversation with that angry uncle at Thanksgiving—it’s overtly racist, you know it will only go in one direction, and after fifteen minutes everyone is pretty sure they’d rather be doing something else. FFXV isn’t shaping up to look much better, what with replacing chocobos with cars, castles and kingdoms with modern urban landscapes, and women with a strongly worded letter to the fans about how girls are icky and should probably put down the PS4 controller and go back to making them a sandwich. Since the main series of late seems afraid to use all the assets that made Final Fantasy a hit—such as the job system, iconic creatures, exploration and estrogen—the only place I can look for that classic charm is in spin-off titles.
Final Fantasy Explorers certainly doesn’t shy away from the classics. The game starts as your personally designed character is looking for a crystal and is instead attacked by a tutorial level. However before you can press Y to attack, they realize that Bahamut, Legendary King of the Dragons, Recurring Series Icon, and Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, might not be a great monster to start you out on. So you run away, find yourself in the lone town on the continent of Amostra, and sit there and read an instruction manual as some NPC tells you all about the battle system. It won’t likely win any awards for most cleverly designed tutorial level, but fortunately the combat never strays from “Press a button to attack, press two buttons to use a special attack and press three buttons to use a super special attack.” You push the control stick in the direction you want to move and the D-pad swings the camera. Again, it doesn’t intend to train anyone for brain surgery (save that for Trauma Center), but too many games I’ve played act so desperate for innovation that the characters can only move in a straight line if you hold R while alternating between B and Select while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to a nude photograph of Betty White.
The plot of Explorers is a Neo-Orwellian examination of the deepest parts of the human psyche as told through archetypal representations of fantasy beasts. Just kidding! You’re on an island looking for shit. Crystals, eidolons, random junk you find on the ground, pathways to find more junk on the ground: it doesn’t matter! It’s all good. Naturally, like many quest-based RPGs, exploration always entails a decent amount of of violent slaughter. Video games tend to follow the philosophy of British Colonialism in that if they haven’t murdered something wherever they go, they can’t say they’ve truly been there. So once you’ve traveled around, rolling up an island’s worth of random shit in your Final Fantasy Katamari, you return to town, buy abilities you’ve upgraded from v1.01 to v1.02, forge yourself some new armor with a few extra coconut fibers over the vital areas, upgrade the small chocobo feather scotch-taped to your sword to a large feather with duct-tape, and then set out into the world to upgrade to v1.03, replenish your coconut supplies, and hunt around for an exceptionally fluffy black chocobo.
Most of the story takes place off-camera, with NPCs reporting missions and events that sound way more exciting than “Quest: Defeat 5 Malboros.” Even the big, climactic break-into-the-final(re: only)-dungeon scene happened while I was out sparring round 4 with the same eidolons I’d been fighting since my very first stroll to the end of the block. So much happened outside of my direct involvement, that when the NPCs started singing my praises as though I’d just single-handedly sacked the city of Troy, I started wondering if they only dubbed me the Great Hero so I’d be flattered enough to accept a quest named “Coal Miner’s Canary,” so they could judge how strong of a hose they’d need to wash explorers’ innards off their prize crystal.
Yes, the game gets pretty repetitive after a while, and the endless, pointless quests seem to continue Square’s latest trend of having no confidence in themselves if they can’t make their games at least partially resemble MMOs. But here I should point out that I didn’t play the game as intended, multiplayer via internet connection. Maybe I ruined the game with my stubborn refusal to play with 11-year-olds who are convinced that misogyny and racial slurs are terms of endearment. Explorers comes with a travel phrasebook full of things to say to other players, and much like a foreign language phrasebook, you can’t say anything else. Personally, though, I’ve seen people act like jerks playing Journey, where the only method of communication is honking at each other. Still, the socially averse can still fill out a party by taking a break from Katamari junk collecting and spend some time playing Pokemon. Sometimes instead of the regular item, a monster will drop an “atmalith,” which I presume to mean you drag their bloated corpse back to the Poke-hospital in town in order to revive them to fight for you, or Frankenstein them onto another monster to make them stronger. Fighting with monsters has some advantages, as they revive themselves after being defeated and can occupy enemies long enough for you to recharge some AP. On the other hand, I couldn’t use anything larger than a cactuar since demons and malboros in my party kept photobombing the camera, blocking the view of my character.
Even if it might be nice to have one or two other aspects to the game, the combat itself works pretty well. You change freely between classic Final Fantasy jobs, purchasing skills to perform in combat. By evoking the super-special abilities in combat, you can permanently enhance these skills, although these enhancements tend to feel like gluing tea candles to the Bat Signal. Combat skills and dashing use AP, which regenerates slowly over time or quickly when using the basic physical attacks. This mechanic works well when using physical fighters, but my Time Mage felt a bit like a ponce running up to Bahamut in the heat of battle and slapping him with a book—the sort of thing I imagine fundamentalist Christians dare each other to do as teenagers. Even in less dire situations, such as traveling from one side of the island to the other, it sometimes gets bothersome to stop periodically and mercilessly beat unsuspecting animals to death just for the privilege of running instead of walking. Use of an “airship” allows you to start each quest from strategic points around the island, but once you’ve begun there is no fast travel option, so you pretty much have to settle in for the long haul and pretend you’re watching the Boston Marathon with cosplay.
Final Fantasy Explorers wins points for reviving the feel of earlier Final Fantasy games—even while FFXV promises to revive the feel of Cloud’s Group Room adventure at the Honey Bee Inn—but loses them again for designing a game that churns out quests on an assembly line, repetitively performed by a character with the growth rate of a pine tree.