I’m sure anyone who’s bothered to look up some initial reactions to this game will know that (vocal) Japanese gamers have criticized it for being too linear and not playing like an RPG. Somehow, promoting that thought quickly became the “cool thing” to do by people who haven’t even played the game themselves. Well I wasn’t the least bit fazed by those concerns and was intent on finding out first-hand if it’s even a problem.
Coming from someone who’s played a majority of the Final Fantasies dating back to the early 90s, I found that XIII really isn’t any different from the PlayStation 2 iterations. Ever since the franchise shifted towards fully-rendered 3D worlds, every area has been much more confined, but it never hampered the epic tale-like experience. In comparison to the older Final Fantasies with vast open areas, yes there is significantly less space you can venture off to, but it’s not exactly like you walked over to the edges of a huge map when there was nothing there to begin with. It’s just the impression of a vast world that’s lost to a certain degree, but I find it’s related to what I mentioned before — the stories are just that much shorter now since they focus on the delivery rather than the length.
Be that as it may, even the earlier Final Fantasies were linear when you think about it. You get to one part of the game and there’s only one place you can go to advance the story. Since going 3D, they just removed the needless wandering that may happen when a player gets lost and is unsure of where to go next. While some may argue that that’s part of the RPG exploration experience, I question if they’re just saying that because that’s what they were introduced to first and have it ingrained into their minds as some unwritten rule. I’m in the same boat, but not a purist in that regard. Because let’s be honest, how is wasting time and not knowing where to go next fun? When I was younger, I didn’t mind because I had all the time in the world on my hands to waste away on every game. They weren’t exactly cheap either, and as a poor kid, each game would have to last as long as possible even if it meant monotonous, repetitive gameplay to extend its longevity.
Times have changed though, and games have long since shifted from being overly tedious and difficult so that everyone can experience a game from start to finish. Now if hardcore gamers are complaining about the difficulty being lost because the developers took away the frustration from the gameplay experience, they should probably be vetoing for the return of limited lives/continues and no save feature. Why stop there when you can add pits again and spikes that kill you instantly in one shot. Those were the games I grew up with, so if you fall into the category of younger generation gamers, your definition of a “hard game” is already very, very different from mine. You have to couple the above with very restricted controls to know where I’m coming from.
The immediate reaction of course is that games are catered to the casual gamer nowadays, and while I somewhat agree since I’m technically not one, can you really blame the developers for wanting players to experience the entire game they spent tons of time creating? If they want to add difficulty, they add a setting that really puts the player to the test. However, a difficulty setting in an RPG isn’t really something you see (though I wouldn’t be opposed to one), so it’s often supplemented with optional content that you can challenge yourself with.
This is present in Final Fantasy VII with the addition of Ruby and Emerald Weapon in the North American release (they weren’t in the Japanese one), in X with the monster arena, X-2 with the 100 floor dungeon, XII with the 4-6 hour Mark Hunt boss fights, and now in XIII with the Cie’th missions (similar to XII’s hunts). I enjoyed the challenge of finishing all of XII’s hunts and unlocking everything in the Bazaar, so if I had to choose, I’d rather invest time in something like that than simply having more open areas to wander around aimlessly. In FFXIII, there are still various optional paths that lead to dead-ends with treasure, except they don’t stray 30+ minutes worth of random encounters off the main path, but more like 2 or 3 minutes. A nice addition is the target marker on your map guiding you where to go, so you know when you’re on an optional path towards treasure and can go there first without reaching where the story progresses, only to have to backtrack right after.
Now where I agree with the statement that this doesn’t feel like an RPG is the fact that each chapter you go through in XIII feels more like a stage than a zone. The reason I say that is because you can’t go back to any of these areas once you’ve completed them, which obviously limits what’s available to you at the end of the game. To offset that, Square Enix created the most ridiculously huge open area I’ve seen in any 3D Final Fantasy to date, Gran Pulse, as the endgame open area for all your exploration and side quests needs. In short, the Gran Pulse makes FFX’s Calm Lands seem like a small field in comparison. Well you might be wondering why not have every zone that size then, to which I’ll tell you it’s because of how much bigger the game would be.
To give you an idea, I was around the 48 hour mark when I arrived at Gran Pulse. When I finally decided to move on with only half of the 64 Cie’th missions done, I was already at the 76 hour mark. That’s 28 hours of me exploring, backtracking, and doing optional stuff in one zone. Can you imagine how long this game would be if all 13 chapters were like that? A 300 hour Final Fantasy? I don’t think that’s happening this decade with the already long development time frames these games require. From a gameplay standpoint, thank god they added teleportation stones in Gran Pulse because even a Chocobo doesn’t cut it for getting around. Objectively-speaking though, the Gran Pulse isn’t available until chapter 11 (of 13), so it does make three-quarters of the game feel like dungeons you can never revisit. But along the same lines as above, I can’t really see anyone venturing back to the “lowbie areas” in any RPG except for nostalgia sake.
That said, another valid point is that there are no shops, since all the shopping and weapon/accessory crafting happen at save points (which are extremely abundant in this game). There are however two very large cities you come across over the course of the game, the capital of commerce Palumpolum and the maritime resort Nautilus, except you’re not there to shop but progress the story. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve grown so accustomed to stopping off at towns and resting up at inns in RPGs, so their absence here is quite a change. When you think about towns though, they’re just a time sink to make you explore for a bit and talk to NPCs for additional story, the latter of which you may skip a lot of. Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, I simply see that as the old tried-and-true way of storytelling in RPGs when the gaming medium was much more restrictive.
Straying from the accepted norm, Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t rely on adding hours to your playtime by making you take in story that way, but gives you the full-blown experience and hours from actually playing the storyline set in front of you. I found that this made the actual story more enjoyable, rather than having me spend long uneventful pauses (i.e. “main story downtime”) by preoccupying myself with many optional things along the way. Instead, the optional stuff is left near the end much like FFX, X-2, and XII, after you’ve stayed on the roller coaster ride of story for a fair amount of time. The main reason I play RPGs is for the story, so I actually preferred this format of “story, story, story, story, optional stuff, story” over the traditional “story, optional stuff, story, optional stuff, story, etc.” which really disrupts the flow. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether this is a “problem” and if it ruins your idea of an RPG experience. Personally, I didn’t have any qualms with it. In fact, I started questioning why I was being held up doing missions in Gran Pulse when the story was getting really good. There’s plenty of time to do optional stuff later, so I went and finished the game first.
For tradition sake, I did find it a bit disappointing how you never get your own airship to keep, even though there are at least three or four your party ends up riding on over the course of the game. To travel between the areas of chapters 11 to 13, you use teleporters in the last area of the game. Those, in conjunction with the ones in Gran Pulse give you the exact same effect as an airship in X, X-2, and XII, but for tradition-sake alone, I’ll admit it’s a bit odd not getting your own airship for a change. Mind you that’s just a personal sentiment towards some unwritten Final Fantasy tradition, much like it would feel odd not having a Cid in one of the games. On a slightly related note, while there isn’t anything indicating that this sectioning off of chapters was a game design decision for the Xbox 360 version’s sake, I can see it helping with the multi-DVD format they have to release the game on.
In the game’s defense, the story actually branches off as you progress to mix things up, with you playing as a different set of characters for each chapter, alternating between the two groups until they finally meet up again. During this time, your inventory is shared, but any weapons/accessories equipped by the other group are unavailable unless you unequipped them. You could do that before the end of each chapter, but it really isn’t necessary when you come across new items in the next chapter. In any case, I found that being able to play different branches of the story a refreshing way to convey it from two different perspectives, which isn’t something any Final Fantasy has done until now. Ironically enough, the story actually breaks away from the linearity by having you play two paths concurrently, yet the game is so heavily criticized about maps only flowing in one direction. I guess some people like walking around in big circles (in which they should listen to the characters as the prominent theme is to press on towards a brighter future and never look back).
I consider myself someone who has pretty old gaming roots, but I’m not tied down by them by any means. I’m open to changes when it comes to anything and will acknowledge when one is made for the better. I didn’t mind the progression of XIII one bit, as most RPGs are pretty linear when you get down to the core of it. I play them for the one-time, complete experience, and will do so again if I want that experience again. I don’t want to have to start a new game and try other routes just to see everything. I had to do with FFX-2 to get the best ending and raced through the New Game+ because it was a chore. That’s not the type of replay value I want from an RPG — I’d much rather get all the story in one playthrough with more optional content at the end, which is the format Final Fantasy XIII follows.
Now if you consider yourself someone who can decide on your own what you like and don’t like, or even a remote fan of the franchise, I recommend checking out the game for yourself if you’re on the fence about it. I’m willing to bet you won’t even care about all the negativity that has been spread from people who haven’t even played it to completion (or at all), because you’ll be too busy enjoying it yourself. Don’t forget that the most vocal people, on the Internet or elsewhere, are always the ones that have bad things to say. Negativity seems to attract attention after all.
* Screencaps taken from the title screen’s opening sequence, which is primarily a compilation of the cutscenes in the game. Yes, these are prerendered, but the game itself doesn’t look drastically worse by any means.