Yes, Crybaby, Final Fantasy XIII Is Linear
Final Fantasy XIII just came out, and you're probably a few hours into it by now. If so, you've probably noticed that it isn't structured quite like any of the Final Fantasy titles before it. It progresses linearly, with fewer opportunities for exploration, sidequests, and level grinding along the way. If that's a big problem for you, I suggest you rethink your position.
Among gamers -- especially RPG fans -- the term "linear" has become a popular pejorative. I've often heard it used as a one-size-fits-all gripe, as if there is some kind of common wisdom that dictates linearity is as big a fault as broken controls or shoddy mechanics. "This game is too linear," someone will say sagely, as if that alone explains it all. You're going to hear people say that a lot in reference to Final Fantasy XIII, and I think those people are wrong.
They aren't wrong about that fact that the game is linear; for the first 30 hours or so, you'll be shuffled from one area to the next, unable to visit previous locations or even select your own party. My question is this: Why is that necessarily a bad thing?
You want to make steady progress without getting bogged down by ancillary garbage? Heresy!
The linearity of Final Fantasy XIII works. It keeps the story focused and moving forward, makes the encounters well-balanced (throughout the first 2/3 of the game, at least), and minimizes the necessity of grinding in order to progress. Those are all good things that work in the game's favor, though I admit that they don't come without a cost.
I've been playing Final Fantasy since the series' origin, and I know that exploration is an important aspect of the role-playing genre. It is among the things fans simply expect in a Final Fantasy entry. We expect a bunch of towns and townspeople. We expect to fly airships. We expect a vast world to gradually unfold before us. Final Fantasy XIII does not deliver on all of these expectations, but it isn't a worse game because of it. In fact, I'm more inclined to applaud FF XIII for its deviations; the strict adherence to outdated traditions and conventions is slowly killing the Japanese role-playing genre, and I'm glad that the team behind FF XIII wasn't content to simply put a new coat of paint on familiar mechanics.
Oh, how I long for the bloated overworld and tedious sidequests of Final Fantasy XII.
This is what it boils down to for me: The quality of a game doesn't hinge on specific elements that I'm expecting to be present – it hinges on effectively using the elements that are there. In some ways, the negative response to this aspect of Final Fantasy XIII reminds me of the outcry surrounding Final Fantasy VIII. Following the popularity of FF VII, fans were expecting more of what they loved from FF VIII. Instead, they got a magic-drawing mechanic, the junction system, and a card game. These pieces came together to form an excellent role-playing game (one of my personal favorites), but I can also see why it was met with a mixed response. It didn't matter how good it was as an isolated title – because it had "Final Fantasy" in its name, fans judged it by a different set of criteria.
I'm sorry if you want to spend a lot of time talking to townspeople or wandering the overworld dealing with random encounters, but that isn't what Final Fantasy XIII provides. Instead, it gives you an amazing battle system while pulling you through the story at a steady clip. It may not be what you were expecting, but I have trouble seeing how adding more backtracking and fetch quests would improve the experience without detracting from it in other ways.
Townsperson interaction is at an all-time low, leaving countless obvious statements and warnings unheard.
Taken for what it is – and divorced from what people think a game needs to have in order to bear the Final Fantasy name – Final Fantasy XIII is a phenomenal accomplishment. Criticizing a game for not being a different game seems unfair to me. Saying "Final Fantasy is bad because it doesn't have enough exploration" is akin to saying "The original BioShock is bad because it doesn't have multiplayer." Yes, Final Fantasy XIII is linear. It is also awesome – so where's the problem?