A lot of detractors of Final Fantasy XIII are quick to point out the linearity of Final Fantasy XIII. Many of them claim that the destination is really just a straight line from start to finish. Due to it’s dungeon design, Final Fantasy XIII has earn the scornful nickname “hallway simulator”.
And you know what? They’re right. Final Fantasy XIII is linear. The game seemingly on rails, from the beginning until you arrive on Gran Pulse. And then, once you return to Cocoon, you’re back on rails again. The linearity in Final Fantasy XIII is very noticeable.
However, it’s not really the only linear game in Final Fantasy. But all Final Fantasy games have this element of linearity. In fact, the game is actually just as linear as any Final Fantasy game.
Linearity isn’t a bad thing in itself. Sometimes, it can keep the game’s story progression moving with great pace. Final Fantasy XIII does this with varied success in the story department. But it should also feel this way with the level design. Only, due to enhanced graphics of the PlayStation 3, Final Fantasy XIII can’t disguise the linearity of other Final Fantasy games. But make no mistake, all Final Fantasy games are linear, even the ones we don’t think.
Take a look at the opening bombing mission from Final Fantasy VII. Once e depart the train, and Barret says “Follow me, newcomer”, we’re essentially walking down a straight hallway. We then run into two Shinra guards, a mandatory battle. After we battle them, we continue to walk straight, only turning left to go to the next screen.
So far, Final Fantasy VII isn’t as non-linear as Final Fantasy XIII. In fact, the game seems to be on rails just as much as the thirteenth installment. The difference, however, is both perspective, level design and random battles.
The perspective and level design of Final Fantasy VII each compliment each other well in maintaining the illusion of non-linearity. Final Fantasy VII has a much wider shot, and a variety of angles. When you’re traveling down the set path, you can usually see everything. You can see the chests and items scattered on the screen before your character reaches them. You can see the reason to get there, even risking a few random battle along the way. Instead of knowing where the enemy is, random battles are determined by a random amount of steps you take. In this sense, there’s a level of unpredictability that keeps the game fresh.
Contrast this to Final Fantasy XIII. Usually, you can only really see from the third perspective, which is directly behind your character. This means that you can see what’s immediately in front of them. This level of obscurity really makes it hard to move forward, aside from simply progressing the story. Very rarely you’ll see a chest, as it appears in your map. And you can’t simply grind enemies in random battles. You can only fight as many as there are in the screen.
The level design also doesn’t help Final Fantasy XIII. Consider Final Fantasy VII bombing mission on Sector 1. You do travel down a few corridors with few branching paths to treasures. You go down an elevator and eventually you reach a new zone. And this is where the game gets interesting. Here, you’re not simply moving the Analog Stick or D-pad in one direction. You move down the stairs, curving around the area to finally enter a door.
The next area is where things provides actual depth. You start at the top left of the screen, to reach the bottom left. The screen moves down when you descend each ladder. You get a real sense of travelling an area with depth, rather than moving down a picture. But there aren’t multiple ways to get to your destination, just the path they laid out for you. Yet, the motion looks technically and visually impressive for the PlayStation. Such could be done with moving characters on pre-rendered screens with a fixed camera. It was an illusion, and it was done well.
In Final Fantasy XIII, that variety is somewhat lacking. You might travel down steps here and there, but you can’t really see your character make that progress all too often. You only really see their backs, in an area that is essentially a forward line. Even so, it’s made to simulate walking on a flat plane, but with a lack of positioning. Without the map, you wouldn’t even really know where you were in many of the dungeons, so it makes it visually confusing. And confusing is uninteresting.
Compound this with a lack of a world map until the very end of the game. This world map also lacks towns. Final Fantasy XIII just seemed like a boring slog through a contextless world. An interesting world, of course, but one that you really don’t feel as if you’re interacting with properly.
How could Final Fantasy XIII be made better, if there were a remaster? Zooming out to a fixed camera would be nice. This is essentially what Final Fantasy X did, and it was the first game in the series to ditch pre-rendered scenery in favor for a fully 3D background. That game is also linear, but most fans didn’t really notice until the series of remasters for the PlayStation 3 and 4, where it became obvious to the modern gamer. Final Fantasy XV had this type of variety, as with the side-scrolling elements in the Pitioss Dungeon. Even the later Final Fantasy XIII sequels learned to veer off the chosen path.
Of course, unless this were to happen, Final Fantasy XIII will look extremely linear by comparison, which is ironic. This shouldn’t be the case for a game on a system with a higher polygon count. But in this sense, the limitations of higher graphical fidelity is the loss of this illusion. It’s exactly why Final Fantasy XIII feels more linear, even though it’s no more linear than the rest.