Final Fantasy is no stranger to the world of portable multiplayer action RPGs; the Crystal Chronicles series offered fans precisely that combination of concepts for the better part of a decade.
The upcoming Final Fantasy Explorers for 3DS, however, doesn't fit into the Crystal Chronicles universe. It's carved from traditional Final Fantasy elements, with a Job system drawn directly from Final Fantasy V and a decided lack of the weird races that populated Crystal Chronicles' world.
The easy comparison would be to call Explorers an attempt to swipe Monster Hunter's style and give it a Final Fantasy facelift, and the demo I played at Tokyo Game Show definitely seemed to support that theory. I delved into a cave in search of Ifrit — not unlike the first mission in Final Fantasy VIII, if you remember that, but minus the sulky protagonist and strict time limit.
In fact, my protagonist didn't sulk or say a word or demonstrate any personality whatsoever. Explorers casts up to four players together in generic roles, with the goal of the adventure being exploration (read: Killing monsters and taking cool loot) rather than telling a story. The demo began with my little guy designated as a Knight, but a quick visit to the Job menu allowed me to take on the more versatile role of Monk. Once I entered the dungeon, I was playing solo, so my newly christened Monk got to team up with a couple of AI-controlled companions, a stout warrior and a chocobo.
While there's no mistaking the Monster Hunter vibe in Explorers, which sends the party into combat against devastatingly powerful boss-level characters and features plenty of low-grade critters and resource-gathering points along the way, the Final Fantasy take on the concept plays out much less dauntingly than the real thing. Your character's movements don't have as much wind-up and cool-down time as a legit monster hunter's do, and the interface is considerably less complex; the camera hovers from a fixed perspective, and you can toggle between basic and Job-specific commands by holding down the L trigger as a skill modifier.
You can attack, run, and access menus with the face buttons, but holding down the trigger turns the buttons into alternate actions. In the Monk's case, those abilities include temporarily sacrificing defensive power in favor of boosted offense; a powerful dash attack that hits about eight times as hard as an unmodified punch; and the ever-helpful Chakra, which restores a massive amount of health to the Monk and any ally standing nearby. Each of these abilities operates not on magic points but rather on its own individual cooldown timer; you can use all the Monk's class skills infinitely, provided you wait for it to recharge.
Warriors do have an essential resource to deal with, however: A stamina bar beneath the life meter in the upper corner runs down as you dash through the dungeon. It does recharge while you're not running, but slowly, and once I entered combat with Ifrit I found myself dashing constantly in order to avoid his attacks. I didn't live long enough to see what happens when the stamina meter zeroes out, though — even while dashing constantly, I had trouble evading the beast's more powerful skills. Particularly devastating was his ultimate attack, in which he would wind up and unleash a ring of fire for a dozen meters around himself — not only did the flames hit hard, they inflicted constant damage. It's basically an instant death attack if it hits. Death, at least in the demo, didn't inflict too steep a penalty: I could respawn and continue the fight at the cost of three minutes from the mission timer, which gave me an hour to complete a 10-minute battle. So while it was basically impossible to lose during the demo, I can only assume the final product won't be so kind with its penalties and allowances.
And, of course, that's where the Monster Hunter connection comes into play again. Ifrit's actions have their own warm-up times and distinct tells, and mastering the game will clearly involve learning the specifics of each boss' actions. Teamwork is also bound to be valuable; my AI companions weren't too bright and kept dying horribly, leaving me as the sole target of Ifrit's understandable wrath (I mean, we did wander into his home and start attacking him). The demo waiting area, on the other hand, showed off a four-person split-screen recording of a full team taking on a different boss, Shiva, and they were able to play far more effectively than I could on my own, baiting the Eidolon's aggression and creating openings for one another to attack. Playing as a Monk probably wasn't the best of ideas, either; no doubt a Black Mage's Blizzard spells would have been more effective against the fire-elemental boss than my dashing strike.
So while Explorers has obvious precedent in games like Crystal Chronicles and Monster Hunter, it's vastly more accessible than either — especially for Final Fantasy veterans versed in the series' lore and mechanics. Fast, fluid, visually impressive, and totally drowning in series' references (I talked to a warrior lady named Beatrice in the hub town, for pity's sake), Explorers seems like just the ticket to get holdouts hooked on multiplayer combat. The game hasn't been announced for a U.S. release yet, but Square Enix was giving Western press guided tours of the game — something they've only ever done for titles that made their way to the U.S. You can almost certainly bank on playing this one in 2015... just enough time for you to go out and make some friends.