When Final Fantasy Explorers arrives in Japan next month, the venerable RPG series will finally be taking on the cooperative multiplayer action format popularized and dominated by Monster Hunter.
"But wait," you say. "What about Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles?" Ah, you thought you had me there, didn't you? But no, Crystal Chronicles isn't particularly Monster Hunter-like, even on DS. It's kind of its own weird thing, and for good reason. Explorers is much closer to current trends and styles, and it's also far more faithful to core Final Fantasy tenets rather than simply wearing the name without much consideration for the series' history the way Crystal Chronicles did.
I really fell for the game when I played the hands-on demo at this year's Tokyo Game Show, but unfortunately Square Enix hasn't said anything about a U.S. localization yet. I'll be importing the Japanese version and writing about my experiences with it, so you can know whether or not to bug the publisher about bringing it to the West. The game doesn't ship over there until mid-December, but I'm kicking off the project now, based on the demo that showed up on the Japanese eShop last week.
Final Fantasy Explorers Lite is a bit like the Bravely Default demo in that it carries over a large number of core game features for an experience that almost certainly bears little resemblance to the actual game as it will exist next month. Explorers Light begins by letting you design a character from scratch — working from a fairly limited palette of preset elements — and take on some tutorial quests. The early quests are about as rudimentary as you get, giving you an hour to wander out into the field and kill five goblins or whatever... and since your protagonist begins with a hilarious number of hit points — we're talking several thousand, while basic enemies hit for 40-50 HP — it's not exactly a rugged challenge.
Rather, Explorers Lite is meant to get you up and running with the basics of the game. And it does have its own unique flair; despite the structural resemblance to Monster Hunter, for example, you're not running around with a massive, unwieldy weapon, and timing actions doesn't require nearly so much finesse. Instead, the game revolves around specific features to set it apart.
The first, unsurprisingly, is the Final Fantasy Job system. Like a scaled-down Final Fantasy XI (it even uses FFXI designs for enemies like Mandoragoras), Explorers allows several heroes to band together while taking on different Job roles. Lite begins with your custom protagonist in the Freelancer ("suppin") class, capable of wielding any weapon but lacking innate abilities, but after completing the first few missions the Job System opens up and lets you choose from Knight, White Mage, Black Mage, Thief, or Monk — yeah, the same classes you got from the Wind Crystal in Final Fantasy V (minus Blue Mage).
The five classes behave about like you'd expect. While you deliver basic attacks by hammering the Y button, you can equip and perform multiple class-specific skills by mapping them to face buttons, accessed by holding down the shoulder triggers as modifiers. The Freelancer comes standard with a powerful slashing attack, while the Monk — the initial class I selected for my demo warrior, since none of the available weapons seemed to work for a Thief — has the ability to temporarily boost her or his power.
You unlock skills for your classes not through combat by rather by communing with a giant crystal in the hub town. In the Lite version, at least, you can unlock a huge array of skills at any time, regardless of your class, though of course Fire and Cure spells are fairly useless for a Monk. That being said, skills aren't as rigidly locked to specific classes as they tend to be in other Final Fantasy games; in a lot of ways, they appear to be tied more to gear than to class (though class does inherently restrict gear selections). A Monk can't use the Freelancer's beginning skill, but that appears to have to do with the fact that it's a sword-based skill and Monks can only equip claws and rods. On the other hand, a Monk can quite capably use White Mage healing spells like Cure and Esuna, though somewhat less effectively than a wizard class due to the Monk's focus on physical power over spirit.
Skills, like many other things in Explorers, are tied to the game's second unique mechanic: Crystal Points. While you still collect Gil for shopping, CP serve as a secondary form of currency. You redeem them at the town's crystal to unlock skills, but you also use them in Explorer's crafting system: You can create and upgrade weapons by merging items and spending CP to build new equipment or supplement the traits of existing gear. These upgrades effectively take the place of character levels; you don't gain experience in combat but rather collect CP from fallen enemies, and by combining CP with resources and loot you gather in battle you can make your equipment more powerful or graft in supplemental features like HP boosts.
In other words, the game strays quite a ways from its traditional RPG roots. Besides the lack of EXP and levels in Explorers, it also features entirely action-oriented battle mechanics. You can lock on to foes, and your individual actions map at your discretion to face buttons and recharge on individual cooldown timers. Still, it feels very much like a Final Fantasy game, and not just because of the Job System and folks hanging around the hub town with familiar names like "Cid" and "Beatrice." It has that series' unique je ne sais quoi — high production values (though the emphasis on large, open fields and caves to explore means lower visual quality up close) and high accessibility despite an abundance of interlocking systems.
Explorers Lite is fairly hefty for a free demo — I've played for several hours and completed a number of quests, including one that sent me into a volcano to battle a dragon solo that was of sufficient power to force me to finally crack open a Potion to restore some health. While almost certainly a much easier take on the game than the final retail version will be, Explorers offers a nice low-stress training experience. And really, its primary purpose is to whet players' appetite for the real deal. In that respect, Explorers Lite succeeded admirably. We're still a month out from the Japanese release of the game, but I'll be reporting back from the vast fields of multiplayer combat once it arrives.