The Pursuit of Emptiness: FF Explorers Betrays the Spirit of Final Fantasy

The Pursuit of Emptiness: FF Explorers Betrays the Spirit of Final Fantasy

Jeremy digs into one of his most anticipated games of 2016 only to find hollow disappointment.

I can't believe how much I'm not enjoying Final Fantasy Explorers.

I played the game for the first time at Tokyo Game Show 2014, and I loved it. I picked it up again a few months later through the import version and dabbled in it for a few happy hours, but quickly set it aside in hopes of a localized version. My patience was rewarded last month when Square Enix brought the game to the U.S., and I dug into the English-language edition with gusto as soon as it appeared in my mailbox.

Now, several hours into the game, I find it practically intolerable. The thought of playing Explorers fills me with the same soul-suffocating weariness I normally experience at tax season, which is quite the opposite of the addiction I had been banking on. Explorers has been one of my most anticipated titles for quite some time, yet now that I have the game in-hand I find myself struggling to muster up enough enthusiasm to open my 3DS at all.

Everything about Explorers seems like it should be a perfect fit for my tastes and temperament. It's Final Fantasy putting an accessible spin on the intriguing Monster Hunter format, minus the sluggish pacing that's always made me see the series as such a hard sell; it emphasizes cooperative play; it's based around the freewheeling Job System; and the title is "Explorers," for crying out loud. There's nothing I love more in video games than exploring. Explorers ought to be my perfect video game experience.

In practice, however, I find it misses the mark in nearly every respect. Put simply, it may have the most misleading title of the decade: This game is neither Final Fantasy nor does it offer much in the way of opportunities for exploration.

Explorers is big on superficial fan service, like dressing up as beloved characters from better games.

Rather than truly being a game about striking out and exploring the unknown, Explorers plays out as a quest-based adventure in which players accept a task and wander across a series of interconnected, self-contained mini-maps to fulfill that mandate within a set time limit. You can venture forth absent a structured mission, freely wandering the landscape, but there's not really much point: You're wandering through the same handful of map chunks as you would in quests, largely fighting the same enemies, gathering the same resources. Only by accepting quests do you encounter new foes, unlock new regions to explore, and open up new skills and crafting possibilities.

My frustration stems not from the grindiness of the game, which is to be expected from any multiplayer quest game that aspires to work like Monster Hunter and Phantasy Star Online. Rather, it has more to do with the fact that everything surrounding the grind feels so rudimentary and uninspired.

Explorers' quests transpire across the same small set of regions, and most quest objectives only become available once you actually accept the associated mission. If you need to collect item drops from specific foes, those drops — and possibly the enemies themselves! — won't show up until you go to the quest counter in the hub town and pay the fee to undertake that labor. This becomes particularly obvious when you take a quest to kill 10 dragons; until that point in the game, dragons appear only rarely, in minute numbers. But as soon as you volunteer for that objective, the entire world outside the main town becomes flooded with massive dragons wandering around in place of humble goblins and chocobos.

I realize this is how games of this nature have worked since Phantasy Star Online more than a decade and a half ago, but I had hoped Explorers would put a little more thought into the whole thing. What's the point of calling it "Final Fantasy Explorers" if it's not going to bother playing by the rules of Final Fantasy? To my mind, one of the most essential rules of Final Fantasy has always been that nothing in the game world happens without a purpose.

However, it's woefully lacking in fanservice for the things that made me a Final Fantasy fan: Thoughtful worlds, scrupulous connections between narrative and mechanics, that sort of thing.

Since the very beginning, the Final Fantasy series has taken great pains to explain the worlds and workings of each game through their narrative. The original Final Fantasy had class changes for the party that came about as a boon from Bahamut. Final Fantasy V doled out character class options — Jobs — based on the elemental crystals you encountered. Final Fantasy VI didn't even give players access to the game's extensive free-form magic and attribute-training system until more than a third of the way through the story, as the entire premise of FFVI revolved around the scarcity and preciousness of magic! Many chapters of Final Fantasy have radically changed the nature of the game world midway through the story (the restoration of the world in FFIII, the dissolution of the world in FFV and FFVI, a sudden influx of overworld monsters in FFVIII), but it's always attached to a story event. Even games that do a poor job of explaining their cosmology, e.g. Final Fantasy XIII, operate within strict narrative parameters, hidden to the player as they may be.

Explorers does not. Sure, the game sets things up with a basic pretext — hey, this weird island with a big crystal on just showed up from nowhere, let's go see what that's about — but after that it more or less drops any pretense at justifying its play systems with story outside of key changes precipitated by major events. You take a quest from a menu, walk outside the gates, and boom: Everything is all lined up for your current mission. There's no reason given for this; not only do your quest-givers not bother to offer a rationale for the fact that suddenly the world has changed, you actually have to jump into a menu to even see the objective of your current quest. It feels perfunctory. Mechanical.

Sure, that's often the case with Monster Hunter-style coop quest games, but it doesn't have to be. Freedom Wars for Vita had a very similar overall structure, but it went to tremendous pains to create context for your actions. Its hub world took the form of a grim futuristic prison, like something out of an episode of Black Mirror, and every quest you undertook began with some sort of guiding incentive through dialogue. Given Final Fantasy's legacy of story-centric game mechanics, I really expected something along similar lines from Explorers. Instead, what I've seen so far has been some Final Fantasy concepts stretched across a threadbare framework that could just as easily have been branded Lord of Vermillion or Gods Eater or PSO — though, honestly, most of those games went to greater lengths to provide some story rationale for your time-wasting than Explorers does. Explorers lacks even the rudimentary attempts at narrative of the vanilla version of Destiny; at least there you had a bored-sounding Peter Dinklage to offer somnolent portents about your menu-selected quest objectives. Explorers doesn't even give you that much.

In short, I expected Explorers to make use of the Final Fantasy franchise to add substance to a frequently lightweight game format. Instead, what I ended up with was the Final Fantasy name being used to sell a particularly bare-bones take on the genre. Final Fantasy doesn't make Explorers better; Explorers makes Final Fantasy worse.

Explorers features plenty of familiar elements (and elementals), but without any meaningful structure to bring them all together, it's hard to care.

Of course, that doesn't mean the game is utterly without merit. It's really built around cooperative play, and what little I've partaken of that has been fairly enjoyable. But there's nothing to pull me back to this game, besides some piddling connection to an RPG series I've been enjoying for the past 25 years. Socialization is great, but I can think of better ways to hang out with my friends than grinding through increasingly difficult versions of the same dull tasks in a handful of small, cramped, virtual spaces. But then again, I know plenty of people who have spent hours every day doing precisely that in Destiny, so perhaps I'm not the best judge of all of this.

All I know is that for myself, Explorers feels like a swing and a miss — a promising idea soured by its limp execution. I've played plenty of games over the past decade in which I've been perfectly content to wander around aimlessly and waste dozens, even hundreds of hours. But each of those games enticed me with something more than the grind itself. Dragon Quest IX sent me in pursuit of completing the Alchenomicon; Pokémon HeartGold tempted me to fill out the pokédex; Skyrim and Final Fantasy XII actually did feel like opportunities to truly explore a world; and so forth. Explorers does none of that. Its name is an empty promise — empty as the game's world itself.

Of course, being a reviewer means slogging through unsatisfactory games as much as savoring good ones, so I'll keep pressing on. Maybe it'll get better after I've soldiered on a bit more. But my sense of optimism (and enthusiasm), much like Explorers' substance, is spread dangerously thin.

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