Despite the gravitas which comes with the Final Fantasy name, it's impossible to approach Final Fantasy Explorers without comparing it to Capcom's phenomenally successful Monster Hunter series. The game is a blatant attempt to ape the same concept, offering team-based monster-slaying with plenty of crafting opportunities and many bite-sized quests, perfect for portable consumption. While Final Fantasy Explorers never manages to shake off this impression of slavish cloning, it does offer a viable and accessible alternative for those who have seen everything that Monster Hunter has to offer, and piles on so much fan-service that anyone who has been anywhere near a Final Fantasy game in the past 25 years will be grinning at least once during the adventure.
Based around the hub town of Libertas, Final Fantasy Explorers gives you a base of operations from where you can accept missions, hook up with other players, purchase items and equipment, forge new items from loot and create monster allies from Atmaliths you've collected in battle. There's also a large crystal in the center of the town which allows you to unlock abilities by spending Crystal Points - the game's secondary currency, after the traditional Gil - and equip Magicite, which we'll come to shortly. Up to eight abilities can equipped at any one time and these are accessed in combat by holding down either the L or R button - doing so brings up a submenu in which four abilities are assigned to a face button. It's a clunky mechanic - especially when you're in the thick of a particularly tense confrontation - but it grants access to a large array of options, both offensive and defensive. Each ability is subject to a cooldown period and consumes Action Points, so a modicum of strategic thinking is required to make the best use of them.
With this being a Final Fantasy game, abilities are predictably linked to weapons or character classes, the latter being known as "Jobs" in this particular series. You can toggle your Job at will while you're in Libertas, and the game allows you to save loadouts so can mix things up and pick the right class for each quest. You start out as a freelancer who has no special or unique abilities, but as you progress you tackle aptitude tests which unlock other classes, including Final Fantasy regulars such as White Mage, Monk, Geomancer and Thief. Certain weapons and armour can only be equipped by particular Jobs and abilities are naturally limited to relevant classes, so while it's tempting to pick a role and stick to it with unwavering determination, Final Fantasy Explorers actively encourages you to experiment.
Once you've done your preparation and are happy with your character, you can march out into the wilds and take on some monsters. These come in small, large and Eidolon classes, with the latter being the large boss-like summon monsters we're so used to seeing in the mainline Final Fantasy titles. In fact, many of these - such as Shiva and Ifrit - are lifted directly from those games, a fact which will no doubt have dedicated fans squealing with delight. Quests are based around defeating a certain number of enemies, collecting items or beating an Eidolon, and as you might expect all of these actions result in a large amount of loot being collected.
These items are central to the game's crafting system, where you can create new weapons and armour after acquiring the correct materials. The most desirable of these predictably need the rarest item drops - usually ones which can only be obtained when fighting an Eidolon. Eidolons have several areas on their bodies which can be targeted, and knowing where to focus your assault is the only way to get the best loot. In addition to the main quests you can gain additional Crystal Points by agreeing to secondary missions, which usually involve performing a certain Crystal Surge or collecting a set amount of items.
Speaking of combat, Final Fantasy Explorers keeps things simple by employing a streamlined battle system. In addition to the aforementioned abilities - which are unquestionably what you'll rely on most during battle - you can attack with your equipped weapon, a process which earns you AP. Your AP gauge is depleted whenever you use an ability or sprint by holding down the B button, so standard attacks have to be used to top it back up again (it replenishes naturally as well, but at a much slower pace). Items such as restorative potions can be called upon as well, but if you've got a good mix of abilities you might find you don't need them - even the offensive classes have access to curative abilities which help keep your health at maximum. Besides, Final Fantasy Explorers is incredibly forgiving when it comes to death; falling in battle doesn't mean being dumped back at the central town - you're given the option to use a Phoenix Pinion or sacrifice five minutes of quest time to revive yourself. Given that many quests come with particularly generous time limits, the latter option is always more preferable.
Stringing together abilities builds up your resonance level, and the higher this gets the more powerful your abilities become. Resonance also allows you to access the aforementioned Crystal Surges, which are random specials that apply buffs and have other beneficial - but time-limited - effects on both you and your teammates. On top of this is the Trance state, which is arguably the most interesting element of the entire game for card-carrying Final Fantasy aficionados. Depending on which Magicite you have equipped, a Trance will allow you to change your physical appearance for a short time and gain new Crystal Surges. This is how Square Enix has skillfully shoehorned in characters like Cloud, Lightning and Tifa; you are rewarded with their Magicite upon fulfilling certain criteria, and these come fairly thick and fast in the opening 10 hours of the game. You're also given the chance to forge the iconic gear of these characters, so even when you're not in Trance mode you can "be" your favourite Final Fantasy protagonist. Want to carry Cloud's Buster Sword into battle? No problem.
Like Monster Hunter, Final Fantasy Explorers has a strong social focus, offering both local and online play for teams of up to four players. The process of getting in a team is hassle-free - you can host or join a room and even opt to locate players who are roughly the same level as you - and aside from network latency causing your allies to showcase occasionally glitchy movement, gameplay is largely as smooth as it is in single player. If you choose not to go online for whatever reason, you can instead use monster allies to complete your team. These are created from Atmaliths which are randomly dropped in battle, and each beast has access to its own unique abilities. Success in battle allows these monsters to level up and become even more powerful, and you can combine monsters with other Atmaliths to increase their potency. The limit is that each monster comes with a "load" cost which stops you from having three super-powerful allies at any one time, so building an effective team is paramount.
All of this combines to make a compelling and addictive setup that rewards repeat play with new gear and abilities, allowing the player to comprehensively customise their character and pair them up online with like-minded individuals. However, unlike Monster Hunter - which builds an astonishing level of complexity into each weapon class - Final Fantasy Explorers is a lot more straightforward; irrespective of which Job you choose, the gameplay boils down to spamming your abilities, waiting for them to recharge, building up AP and repeating the process until the Eidolon you're fighting is dead. Magic-users and ranged weapons add a little variety, but it's still incredibly basic when compared to what Capcom's title has to offer. As a result, after a few hours each bite-sized quest becomes an exercise in repetition.
There are other issues to note. During battle, it's frustratingly common to find that your larger monster allies obscure your view when locked onto monsters, making it hard to see where your character is in relation to the enemy. You can quickly snap the camera behind yourself by using the L button and the game supports the Circle Pad Pro (and, by extension, the second analog nub introduced on the New 3DS hardware) but it's still incredibly annoying each time one of your beasts blocks your viewpoint and messes up an ability combo.
While we're on the subject of visual concerns, the complete lack of any 3D support is a bitter disappointment, especially for a game which comes so late in the 3DS' lifespan. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate managed to include this option and presented a much larger and more detailed game world, so it's puzzling as to why the developer has omitted such a feature here. Having said that, there are moments of genuine beauty to behold in Final Fantasy Explorers; the opening stage is a verdant field with the shadows of clouds passing languidly overhead, while deeper into the uncharted wilds you'll experience smoke-choked mountain passes and gloomy marshes packed with undead foes.
The game's soundtrack is far more consistent, with Tsuyoshi Sekito's majestic tunes fitting the on-screen action perfectly. There are the usual Final Fantasy themes in there of course - the "quest complete" jingle is unmistakable and when in Trance mode the character's signature tune plays in the background - but it's the original compositions which stick in your head the most. The battle theme is energetic and catchy, which means it never outstays its welcome no matter how many times you hear it.
It's easy to dismiss Final Fantasy Explorers as little more than a shameless copy of Monster Hunter, and while it's true that the game is short on original ideas and lacks the devilish complexity of Capcom's million-selling series, it would be grossly unfair to ignore the game entirely. While the Job system isn't as deep and involving as Monster Hunter's weapon-based classes and the short quests quickly descend into repetition, the online side of the game is solid and the allure of forging new items ensures that the desire to find the best loot is always at the front of your mind.
Then there's the setting and the generous helpings of fan-service; while the Final Fantasy brand has arguably been abused by its owner with some distinctly lackluster outings in recent years, it still offers an incredibly appealing universe to inhabit, and hardcore fans left cold by Monster Hunter's locales might find this familiar fantasy realm a little more appealing - especially when it's possible to invoke the spirits of Cloud, Tidus, Yuna and Tifa, as well as many other famous Final Fantasy characters. Ultimately though, Final Fantasy Explorers feels like an entry point for the genre rather than a true rival to Capcom's crown - it's accessible and enjoyable, but the shallow nature of the gameplay might leave seasoned players feeling a little cold after extended play.