Consider this: after releasing the first six “primary” games in its beloved and genre-defining Final Fantasy series exclusively on Nintendo platforms, the company that would become Square Enix has not returned to a Nintendo system for its main numbered series.
From the classic Final Fantasy VII to the upcoming Final Fantasy XV, every main title has appeared on PlayStation consoles, and, usually, been ported to PC and sometimes Xbox or even mobile. But Nintendo was done, for the main series, with 1994’s Final Fantasy VI.
Square Enix hasn’t abandoned the Japanese console giant entirely, with a variety of spin-offs appearing on various Nintendo devices, mostly in handheld form. This tradition continues with last week’s release of Final Fantasy Explorers for the Nintendo 3DS.
Right away, it becomes apparent to any FF fan or well-seasoned gamer that this is not a typical FF title. The obvious comparison is Capcom’s mega-hit Monster Hunter series — one of the best-selling franchises in Japan in recent years, and finally catching on in the West thanks to last year’s acclaimed Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. From there, we can point out other influences, such as the seminal MMORPG World of Warcraft, and perhaps a little bit of Nintendo’s Xenoblade Chronicles.
Whatever genre it belongs in, FFEX is unique if for no other reason than its position as the sole action-RPG representative of its franchise on the Nintendo 3DS. Only two other Final Fantasy titles have made it to Nintendo’s five-year-old handheld, and both are music and rhythm games — Theatrhythm Final Fantasy and its semi-sequel / remake Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call. Both are good games for what they represent and should be appreciated and enjoyed by any Final Fantasy fan, but they stand out, like Cloud Strife in Super Smash Bros. or FFEX on 3DS, for what they intrinsically represent: a tribute to a series of beloved games that, for the most part, are not playable on any Nintendo platform. (Incidentally, Cloud is in FFEX, along with a number of other mainstays from later Final Fantasy games.)
It is something of a strange mix, and one that shows the increasing blurred lines among platforms and the absurdity of the so-called console wars. There are plenty of PlayStation / Xbox / PC acolytes who also own a 3DS, Wii, or Wii U as a supplementary console, though these gamers are likely outnumbered by the Nintendo fanboys and die-hards who refuse to adopt a competing game environment. FFEX is aimed more toward the former than the latter; as good as the Theatrhythm games are at sharing the amazing library of Final Fantasy music, and as interesting as the fan-service in FFEX is, neither is likely to convert many Nintendo-only households to one of the “major” platforms, simply to experience a “proper” FF game.
In any case, Final Fantasy Explorers relies heavily on fan-service and brand recognition, because in its absence what we have here is a fairly unsubstantial game. Square Enix knows this, which is why they sold a Collector’s Edition of the game to chumps like me, who adore the series even if its quality has waned somewhat in recent years. Much, if not most, of the series’ references and callbacks in FFEX will be lost on a Nintendo purist who hasn’t played anything since FFVI, and a total stranger to the series will be slightly bewildered and probably bored.
For a game with the word “Explorers” in the title, there isn’t a whole lot of exploring to do. The world map, while of a decent size for a short RPG, is mostly linear and limited in scope. There are a few open areas, several narrow corridors, and various stepped terrains, with so many barriers and guideposts that getting lost is impossible. A player with any MMORPG, action-RPG or Monster Hunter experience at all will likely lose interest quickly — this game is definitely geared toward newcomers to the genre, like myself. As a Final Fantasy fan who never played FFXI or FFXIV, this is doubly true for me.
Oddly enough, one of the biggest complaints I’ve seen mentioned in the reviews for this game concerns repetition and grinding. This actually appeals to me! I spend about half of my time in any RPG grinding away, ensuring I’m OP enough to overcome whatever boss battle lies ahead. I don’t know what it is about grinding that I find satisfying and enjoyable. I suspect it is the comfort that I find in mindless tasks that are actually accomplishing something; it’s sort of the antithesis of what I do at work, and it helps my brain unwind. Grinding and leveling up is pretty much what got me into RPGs in the first place.
My first JRPG — or RPG of any genre, for that matter — was Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super NES. I played it on Wii, some 13 years after its initial release, and only because of Mario in the title. It completely changed my feelings about the RPG genre, which I had always considered too complex and inaccessible for my tastes. Learning it was made by the same folks who created Final Fantasy led me to next try the original NES release in that series, and a love affair with one of gaming’s biggest brands was born.
Perhaps I’ll experience a similar catharsis through Final Fantasy Explorers, setting me up for a Monster Hunter addiction. I certainly hope not, because I don’t have that kind of time on my hands.
AT A GLANCE
Final Fantasy Explorers
- PLATFORM: Nintendo 3DS
- PUBLISHER: Square Enix
- DEVELOPER: Racjin
- RELEASED: January 26, 2016
- ESRB RATING: E 10+
- FRANCHISE: Final Fantasy
- DESCRIPTION: Open-world action RPG with optional online simultaneous multiplayer. Explore an island, gather resources, destroy monsters, and buy or upgrade customized equipment.
- WHO WILL LIKE THIS: Fans of the Final Fantasy series; anyone interested in trying an MMO-style game but intimidated by existing titles
- WHO WON’T LIKE THIS: Monster Hunter veterans looking for a new challenge; gamers unfamiliar with Final Fantasy or those who dislike the series
- SIMILAR TITLES: Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate; Xenoblade Chronicles 3D
James Jackson is a producer for the Newsource division of CNN. He lives in Atlanta and collects video games. Harass him on Twitter at @JJtheTexan.