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Final Fantasy Explorers: The Next Big Thing?

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*THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT Hardcore Casual Gamer*

Final Fantasy is a curious franchise.  Throughout the years, the franchise has gone through countless changes and maintained a strong yet strained relationship with its fan base.  From classic turn-based, over-world crawling, 8-bit simplicity to CGI-filled, active-battle, narrative convolution, one thing has remained constant for Final Fantasy; it is the quintessential RPG series and probably the first thing gamers think of when anyone mentions the genre.  Though there may be RPG series and individual games that have rivaled Final Fantasy in terms of critical acclaim and popularity, Final Fantasy’s pioneering presence in the world of gaming/RPGs is unprecedented thanks to its versatility and longevity.  It has been a wild ride from Final Fantasy I to XIII with pit stops, breakdowns and moments of unparalleled gaming bliss.

In addition to the main entries in the series, Final Fantasy has branched out to explore realms of game play that go beyond traditional RPG experiences.  The series has sampled just about every gaming genre you can shake a controller at.  The Tactics series is vaunted for its take on the TBS genre.  Dirge of Cerberus gave us access to the run ‘n gun exploits of FF VII’s Vincent Valentine.  Final Fantasy XI took the series online as the first Final Fantasy MMORPG.  Theatrhythm takes the franchise into the world of music and rhythm games a la Guitar Hero/Rock Band.  The Crystal Chronicles series took the series into the land of real-time combat and multiplayer.  There are other examples that stretch into other genres and into the realms of film/animation, but I’m disinclined to list them all…you get the point, and I’m too lazy to be overly thorough in this regard.

Next on the list for Final Fantasy?  Sometime in late 2014, Final Fantasy looks to conquer the world of online action-RPGs with Final Fantasy Explorers.

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Monster Hunter Comparisons Incoming!

Announced last June for the 3DS,Final Fantasy Explorers looks to combine elements of Crystal Chronicles (emphasis on multiplayer, real-time combat) and FFIII (job system), as well as the open-world exploration/online multiplayer elements of the Monster Hunter franchise.  An interview with Atsushi Hashimoto (director) and Takahiro Abe (project manager) published by Famitsu revealed several elements about Explorers that look to immerse players in a fantasy world featuring classic Final Fantasy elements (with some welcome tweaks) and some new additions.  The gameplay will indeed be centered on real-time combat and multiplayer both on and offline.  The job system made famous by Final Fantasy I and III (and brought back in SE’s latest new IP, Bravely Default) will be returning to the franchise as Explorers will give players the choice between classic character classes (Dragoon, Black/White Mage, Monk, etc) in addition to new classes that have yet to be revealed.  Explorers tweaks the Job System by allowing players to acquire the skills of each Job without having to switch your character’s current job.  Another feature emphasized by Hashimoto and Abe is the ability to craft and customize a staggering 500+ different kinds of armor/equipment.  Lastly, of note, it’s been revealed that Explorers will feature some kind of monster training, though the details surrounding this are currently unclear (or I haven’t looked hard enough).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IT1Za9gBV0E

While Final Fantasy may not be as unquestionably popular as it once was, Square Enix may be ready to take the gaming world by storm with Explorers.  I firmly believe that Final Fantasy Explorers has the potential to be the next big thing.

Anybody paying attention can tell you that the gameplay footage of Explorers looks very similar to Monster Hunter.  Anybody that knows anything about Monster Hunter knows that the franchise is among the most popular in Japan, and is certainly well-known here in the West.  Monster Hunter 4 sold approximately 4 million units (and counting) IN JAPAN ALONE.  That’s incredible, considering some games never make it close to those numbers when GLOBAL sales are taken into account.  The global popularity of Monster Hunter 4 will be put to the test when the game makes its way to the States in 2015, but there’s no reason to expect the game to flop, considering the rabidity of the niche audience alone and the massive install base present on the 3DS.  There are arguably many reasons why Monster Hunter is so popular, but I assert that the three biggest reasons are as follows; seemingly endless equipment customization, a sprawling fantasy setting, and of course, intuitive online multiplayer.

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Those reading this will recall that those three previously mentioned elements contributing to Monster Hunter’s popularity are indeed present in Final Fantasy Explorers.  Additionally, Explorers features the ease of access present in Final Fantasy’s menu/spell system, making it appear more accessible than Monster Hunter (a series notorious for its occasionally steep learning curve).  Gamers should also never, ever discount the impact that branding has on a game; having Final Fantasy splashed across the box will automatically generate interest, and the inclusion of classic FF creatures, jobs, spells, locales, etc will be enough to attract at least the niche Final Fantasy audience.

Arguably the most important feature present in Explorers is the inclusion of online multiplayer.  In the Hashimoto/Abe interview, the developers mention Crystal Chronicles when discussing the multiplayer components, stating that “When you think about a Final Fantasy series with multiplayer compatibility, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles comes to mind.  However, this game is different from Crystal Chronicles, as it heavily focuses on multiplayer elements as a multiplayer online-type game that connects through local and Internet connectivity.”  I have stated in the past that Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles for the GameCube is one of the most underrated games on the system and a great tragedy of wasted opportunity thanks to the inexplicably complicated manner by which gamers were expected to play couch co-operative with friends.  The DS/Wii sequel was similarly entertaining, but suffered the same fate thanks to the awkward multiplayer requirements.  Had Square Enix not been obligated to develop the series exclusively for Nintendo systems that lacked a fully-developed online infrastructure that could have accommodated a smooth online experience, the game(s) might have seen more commercial success.

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A Video Game Tragedy

Explorers looks to have a much more intuitive multiplayer system in place, and the 3DS certainly has the capacity for massive online multiplayer (as evidenced by games like Monster Hunter and another SE title, Heroes of Ruin).  Today’s market (especially the Western market) is dominated by games that place a heavy emphasis on online multiplayer, and Explorers looks to provide such an experience in spades.  Whether or not Explorers will have the online capacity/intuitiveness of games like Call of Duty or Halo remains to be seen, but if it does indeed, I expect to see countless adventurers taking to the net with enthusiastic fervor comparable to either one of those franchises (perhaps without the ‘yo momma ‘ jokes and rampant racism).

Another thing that separates Explorer’s from the Crystal Chronicles games is the install base of the chosen platform.  The GC struggled throughout its life to keep up with its competitors, where the 3DS is out-selling home consoles and almost literally stands alone in the handheld market.  While Echoes of Time was released on far more popular consoles (the DS and Wii), it was held back by what appeared to be a lack of faith from Square Enix; the game was much shorter and less immersive than the original GC release.  In order to avoid this, here’s hoping that Square Enix begins a much more prominent advertising campaign in support of Explorers.

I of course have no preconceptions that Explorers will be a guaranteed hit.  If Square Enix intends for it to be so, they certainly need to do more campaigning in support of the game if it does release this year.  As I mentioned before, Crystal Chronicles seemed to suffer from a lack of interest in the part of Square Enix.  I almost missed Echoes of Time when it quietly released for the Wii and proceeded to fly well under the radar, selling less than 100,000 units in the US.  If Explorers looks to break free from the Final Fantasy spin-off trend and post significant sales numbers, Square Enix needs to show that they care this time around and get the word out.  By comparison, the months leading up to the release of Monster Hunter 4 were rife with trailers, Monster and weapon reveals, and DLC announcements.  Thus far, Explorer’s exposure has been limited to one magazine interview and one Japan-only Nintendo Direct (which was only a small segment in a larger Direct focused on third-party support for the 3DS).

It’s very possible that I am unaware of a more ambitious advertising effort taking place in Japan, given that the game has not been confirmed to be releasing in the West.  On THAT note, Square Enix has already registered the Final Fantasy Explorers trademark in US and EU.  That in itself doesn’t necessarily mean the game will be released in either territory, but it is definitely a good sign.

It’s difficult to predict the future, especially in a market so rapidly shifting as the Video Game Industry.  What can be said for certain is that Final Fantasy Explorers looks to offer gamers a plethora of online action-RPG goodness with the Final Fantasy seal of quality.  I will stick by my assertions that Explorers is poised to take the video game world by storm because of what it presents to gamers in a contemporary world of online multiplayer and fully-customizable role-playing.

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RUN AWAY!

At the very least, we can all hope Square Enix scores a hit here.  They could certainly use another excuse to delay Kingdom Hearts 3…right?

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