I’m working my way through Final Fantasy XIII, and currently I’m about midway through Chapter 7. Yes, the gameplay is pretty linear. Although it is a tad numbing to know that you’re simply going in the same general direction, that’s alright! I guess the upside is that when there is an obvious deviation in the straight line of exploring each area, there’s usually a treasure chest. Despite the simplicity of the first half of the game, I actually appreciate the pacing.
You’ll be fighting a handful of battles, and periodically using your newly gained CP to grow your characters until they’re capped. Luckily, the game doesn’t allow them the chance to become overpowered, so every battle can still be somewhat of a challenge. By clearing each chapter, a new level of the Crystarium is unlocked, so there’s a much bigger incentive to just fight enemies as they appear, rather than sticking around farming for very little reward.
By further dividing each dungeon with a generous amount of save points and cutscenes, Final Fantasy XIII makes it apparent that players are intended to digest the game completely, parts at a time. By splitting up the party into teams of two in Chapter 4, the story goes back and forth between two (almost three) perspectives.
By doing this, Final Fantasy XIII does a much better job at zeroing in on each member of the team. We can adequately take in and understand each character without the interference of the rest of the group. Little by little, players can extract each l’Cie’s motives, personalities, and see how each of them has a stake in the mission. Final Fantasy VI did this as well, and to a much smaller extent, Final Fantasy XII. The game is always bringing each party member to the forefront of the story, and each of them is central to the plot rather than just focusing on Lightning.
Although I haven’t gotten to the point where the game explodes with sidequests and other assorted things open to the player, I’m enjoying the linearity. It’s keeping me focused on learning the ropes of the game; be it learning when it’s right to utilize a certain paradigm deck, or carefully planning out my Crystarium routes to get the most useful upgrades done with first. Once the training wheels are off, I’d imagine anything can happen. Squeenix is making sure we understand what the hell we’re getting our dirty dozen of renegades into before the safety net is pulled from under them.
All in all, Final Fantasy XIII is definitely a different beast. The brazen reality that the first half of the game being very straightforward may be a lot more apparent than previous entries, but think about what it succeeds in spite of it ; excellent graphics, a deep battle system and an interesting world/storyline.