What's the best way to capitalize on a popular gaming trend without being a pale imitation? It's a question that developers have had to grapple with throughout the medium's history. With Final Fantasy Explorers, the franchise's attempted answer to Monster Hunter, Square Enix's answer seems to be, "Go full Blizzard."
As far as models go, Square Enix could do worse. From World of WarCraft to Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard has long been known for the mastery of co-opting a new trends and making them their own. They accomplish this feat by mixing an attractive presentation with well-balanced, intuitive gameplay and familiar characters. They have been criticised at times for being a little too light - Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm come to mind - but there's no denying the broad appeal of their games.
Simple as Blizzard's formula might seem, though, few publishers are in a position to copy it. Their success is the product of years spent building up a familiar stable of characters and properties, then leveraging the built-in fanbase that comes with them. In addition, Blizzard's sustained success has made them an attractive destination for some of the developers in the business. The publishers in position to take advantage of Blizzard's formula for success are long-standing companies like Nintendo, Capcom, and of course, Square Enix.
Perhaps knowing that they can't really compete with Monster Hunter even if they sprinkle in Eidolons, Chocobos, and the Job System, Square Enix has opted to go for the broadest audience possible with Final Fantasy Explorers. This is the game for people who find the idea of Monster Hunter appealing but are turned off by its deliberate combat and somewhat complex systems. It's much more of a hack-and-slash action RPG than its competition, which puts a premium on skillfully timed attacks and dodging.
That's not necessarily a negative. There will be some who miss Monster Hunter's more thoughtful approach, but there will be plenty of others who gravitate toward Final Fantasy Explorers' more kinetic action. There will never be a point in Final Fantasy Explorers where you think, "How exactly do I use this weapon?" Whether you choose a bow or a sword, you'll be able to wade right in and start doing damage.
That's not to say that Final Fantasy Explorers completely lacks depth. The first few missions are quite easy, but you will have to put some thought into your approach to Ifrit, who is a tough opponent with some very dangerous attacks. Using the materials you collect from monsters to imbue your weapons ith elemental attacks is one key to taking out the likes of Ifrit and Shiva. There are also Crystal Surges - a power-up that will temporarily grant special passive and active buffs. And, of course, it helps to have a well-balanced party capable of absorbing attacks and dealing large amounts of damage, which is accomplished via the various classes available through the Job System.
In that respect, Final Fantasy Explorers is very much in the tradition of Blizzard's "fun, accessible, but deeper than it looks." I'm guessing that some will dismiss it as a "My First Monster Hunter" game, but this was probably the right approach for Square Enix. For those who have never really been able to get into Capcom's franchise - and I count myself in that group - Final Fantasy Explorers is an enjoyable alternative.
As for whether it will have any staying power, we'll just have to see.
Is it worth checking out?
Jeremy is working on a full review of Final Fantasy Explorers, so he'll be able to answer this question better than I can. Having spent several hours with it, though, I will say that I've enjoyed it more than I thought I would.
As I said, I've never really been motivated to invest the time required to learn the ins and outs of Monster Hunter, which is mainly a function of my preference for turn-based tactics and competitive games. With Final Fantasy Explorers being so easy to pick up and play, though, I've had a much easier time getting into it. It's the kind of game that you can play casually with a significant other or your kids - something that can enjoyed over a pizza with some music in the background.
In the long run, Monster Hunter is probably the more rewarding of the two games. Its ecosystem feels more diverse and alive, its combat is deeper, and its encounters feel more like actual "hunts" in the way that you have to bait and chase your quarry. Ifrit is no slouch, but at least you don't have to worry about him running away. What's more, Monster Hunter is a much more attractive game on 3DS. Final Fantasy Explorers doesn't even support 3D.
For me, though, Final Fantasy Explorers is in the ideal place of being engaging without being a full-time commitment. It's the kind of game that I can break out and play with my friends without worrying too much about being out of practice or knowing where to find everything. Even better, it's the kind of game that I can hand to a friend and have them up to speed in the space of about five minutes.
So while Final Fantasy Explorers is unlikely to pry dedicated Monster Hunter fans from their game of choice, it does fill a very welcome niche for those looking for something a little lighter. And that, at least, is what will probably keep me playing for the time being.