Final Fantasy VIII

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Complete Review & Description

Given the popularity of hunting RPGs (aka “Monster Hunter clones”), especially in Japan, it seems like a given that Square Enix would want to plant their flag on the genre. Enter Final Fantasy Explorers, a game that proves how well the hunter formula can work with an established name like Final Fantasy, even if it does so as much with under-delivered potential as it does with what it gets right.
At its most basic, Final Fantasy Explorers is an action RPG, but instead of growing stronger through experience points and levelling up, you do so by collecting materials from slain monsters and using them to craft increasingly powerful weapons and armour. Stronger gear means being able to take on stronger monsters, which means being able to make equipment that’s stronger still, and so on; it’s this gameplay loop that is the cornerstone of any hunting RPG.

Where Explorers differs is with a Job system that’ll be familiar to many Final Fantasy fans, and the abilities that go with them. Unlike Monster Hunter, where weapons are mechanically diverse enough to almost feel like separate games, Explorers’ weapons come in the mash-X-to-attack variety, with Jobs – and by extension, ability loadouts and spell rotations – being the things that distinguish one player from the next.
There are 21 different Jobs in all, across four different roles: tank, damager, healer, and booster. If you like attacking from afar, Black Mage, Ranger, or Machinist are good ways to go. If you prefer being up the front, soaking damage so that squishier allies can stay alive, Knight is your jam. White Mage, Sage, and Alchemist are good options if you like being the one keeping everyone else (and yourself) alive, while Bards and Geomancers a good supports.
The idea of complementary roles for multiplayer games is tried and true, but the problem that arises in Explorers is that the encounter design never really gives you a chance to push the system to its fullest. Small enemies are just material fodder that usually just stand there and die in one or two hits, while big enemies – dragons, behemoths, Final Fantasy’s iconic Eidolons, and so on – are typically just damage sponges with very basic attack patterns. You could run in with a tank, healer, damager, and a booster all working in tandem, but it’s often far better to just let everyone be a damager who dodges attacks as necessary, with one or two healing spells in case of emergency.

It’s a shame, because there are some great systems in place that could lead to some real depth if the game actually incentivised using them to the fullest. You can only equip eight abilities at once, but there are very few restrictions on which Jobs can use what skill; all magic is available to everyone, and weapon skills can be used by anyone can equip the relevant weapon. As a result, there’s a lot of freedom in how you set up your character, and a lot of potentially creative solutions to tactical problems that the game just doesn’t present.
To add even more depth, you can even modify and improve your special abilities. As you fight, you gain Crystal Resonance, and when that gets high enough, you can trigger a Crystal Surge to temporarily add some sort of boost to your character. Some of these boosts can directly affect your moves – say, by adding extra elemental damage to a weapon skill, or adding a temporary stat boost to a healing spell. Each time you use a compatible skill while you have a Crystal Surge active, there’s a chance to create a new version of that skill with the bonus permanently applied. Each ability can gain up to sixteen additional effects, so you can create some really weird and wonderful moves, and even rename them.
But again, there’s not much reason to use this to its full potential, because the best approach is always about maximising damage output. For offensive skills, stack anything that increases the damage dealt; for defensive or healing spells, add defence buffs and health regeneration to minimise the amount of time you have to spend healing or dodging attacks (and therefore, not attacking).

This game, like any other hunting RPG, is fundamentally about grinding; killing the same foes over and over, to get the materials you need for that new sword you want. But where the likes of Monster Hunter make that grind interesting and even exciting through well-designed encounters, Final Fantasy Explorers gets very repetitive, very quickly.
There’s some sort of story that all of this hunting ties in to, but it’s as bare-bones as possible and feels like it was added as an afterthought. This isn’t the type of game that’s conducive to the long, cutscene-heavy narrative style that’s typical of Final Fantasy, but instead of a pleasantly minimalist plot supported by thick environmental storytelling, Explorers just feels haphazard and woefully undercooked.
Where the game does shine, though, is in franchise nostalgia. Almost every monster you encounter, from the little goblins just outside town to the Eidolons you face further afield, will be recognisable to any Final Fantasy fan. Those few that are brand new – like Amaterasu, for example – are great additions to an already robust stable, and I’d love to see them go on to become series mainstays like Alexander did after Final Fantasy VI.
Then there are the Trances, which let you temporarily turn into a character from a previous game, like Final Fantasy XIII’s Lightning or Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud. These are unlocked by completing various objectives and reaching certain milestones in the game, and each Trance comes with a unique Crystal Surge that’s typically based on that character’s ultimate attack – Omnislash for Cloud, Lionheart for Squall, and so on.

If this nostalgia is enough to keep you going, then you’ll probably have a good time with Final Fantasy Explorers – I know I am, and will continue to. But there’s not a whole lot going for it beyond that. The Job and Crystal Surge systems are neat additions to the hunting RPG formula, and could have made this the decisive take on the genre, if only the encounter design gave you a reason to explore them to the fullest.

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