Now that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is with us, the critics have rushed to point out how much the developers paid attention to the complaints about the original game. In the sequel, the linearity is toned down, there are towns, and so on.
Oddly enough, though, XIII-2 scored a few points lower than its predecessor on Metacritic. So perhaps Final Fantasy XIII didn't actually need all the trappings of a typical Final Fantasy game. Perhaps what Final Fantasy XIII needed was a different name.
Follow me into a hypothetical world for a second. Imagine that instead of being called Final Fantasy XIII, the game had been presented as a new IP two years ago. Maybe it would have been something completely new, with all the references to Final Fantasy lore (chocobos, etc.) removed. Maybe it would have been an RPG spin-off of a traditional action game. Or maybe it would have been a new subgenre for Final Fantasy, like Final Fantasy Tactics. But no matter how you envision it, imagine for a bit that gamers encountered this game without the expectation that it would play the way a numbered Final Fantasy entry should.
What would we have thought then?
For sure, the linearity still would have divided RPG fans. There is no getting around the fact that for most of the game you simply run forward and get into fights. But I think that without the Final Fantasy XIII name on the box, the upsides of linearity would have been much clearer. Forcing players down a linear path allows the developer to pace the game perfectly, and to create a plot that unfolds continuously and makes sense. It also avoids putting the player in situations he's not leveled up enough to handle. And in a linear game, you never have to wander around trying to figure out where to go next. Basically, there are reasons that so many great action games like Gears of War feature almost no exploration, and all of those advantages can carry over to the RPG genre.
Linearity also puts the battle system front and center—which is exactly where FFXIII's battle system should be, as even some of the game's harshest critics have admitted. The setup is simply a marvel. Because you control only one character and the battles run in real time, the fights always feel natural; you never feel like you're floating above the fray, directing your party's actions like some kind of god. But at the same time, the Paradigm system allows you to change the roles that the other members of your party play (healer, tank, buffer, etc.). In other words, you have to manage your party to win, but you never have to micromanage it. What's more, your teammates' A.I. works incredibly well, and you never have to worry about your party doing things that are wildly inappropriate for the situation you face.
I'm not the most seasoned RPG player in the world, but I can honestly say FFXIII features the most exciting battles I've ever seen in the genre. This was thrown into stark relief for me when I got around to playing Dragon Age: Origins—which is a great point of comparison, because it's also an epic RPG from a highly respected developer that was released about two years ago. Its Metacritic scores are actually a little higher than FFXIII's.
Dragon Age's battles aren't technically turn-based—they play out in an action-style format, with cooldown timers on special abilities—but they're similar enough to look bad when compared with FFXIII's fights. If you want the other members of your party to act reasonably when you're not physically controlling them, you can't just change Paradigms—instead, you have to program the A.I. with a bunch of "if/then" statements that guide how they respond to various situations ("if health is below X percent, then take a potion"). And if you can't get the A.I. to work correctly—and I couldn't—you have to frantically switch between characters in the middle of battle, telling four people at once when to attack and when to heal.
Don't even get me started on how much of a pain it is to manage your inventory and get your characters equipped in Origins—and how much I longed for FFXIII, which has excellent options for auto-equipping characters, frequent opportunities to unload extra gear, and a deep upgrade system for hardcore players. Quite frankly, after playing the these games back-to-back, I cannot understand how Origins was the better received of the two—unless the Final Fantasy name made people expect a different product than what they got.
If Final Fantasy XIII had been released under a different name, critics would have seen it for what it was: an amazing RPG with a great battle system and an action game-style structure. Some people would have liked it, and some would have wanted more exploration—but no one would have pressured the developers to make sure the sequel conformed to the standards of a completely different series. And maybe the game that's today called Final Fantasy XIII-2 would be something else entirely: A game that pushes the formula of Final Fantasy XIII forward, rather than adding in a bunch of elements that don't quite fit.
Date: February 14, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central. This week's is also purely a work of fiction*