After 20 hours, Final Fantasy XIII granted me permission to decide for myself which three playable characters should be in my party. After 25 hours, Final Fantasy XIII granted me permission to decide for myself how I should develop the characters in my party. After 30 hours, Final Fantasy XIII decided to let go of my hand, but then thought better of it and grabbed hold of it again. Welcome to the evolution of the Japanese role-playing game.
Let's talk about linearity. You've no doubt already heard that FFXIII is linear; the PS3 version's been out in Japan for nearly three months, and importing is a beautiful thing. Well, it's true: FFXIII is linear. So linear, in fact, that for the first ten chapters - approximately 20 hours of gameplay - FFXIII feels more like a dungeon crawler than an epic, expansive JRPG. There are no side-quests to add variety. There are no towns or villages to visit. There is no over world to explore. You move forward, fight, fight, and fight, then sit back and watch a cutscene, then do it all again, pushing ever forward, never deviating from the straight and narrow path upon which you must tread. At the end of a chapter, there's a boss fight, which is usually a pretty horrendous difficulty spike, then, a cutscene, and the next part of the tunnel. The Final Fantasy series, and indeed the JRPG genre, has always been a somewhat linear experience, punctuated by turn-based combat and beautiful CGI cutscenes, and driven by melodramatic narrative. But FFXIII is so linear that it feels like you're adventuring through one long, dark tunnel, and there's no light at the end of it to give you hope that at some point your journey will change course.
It's a deliberate design decision on producer Yoshinori Kitase and co's part, of course - an effort to lend the game what director Momotu Toriyama calls an "FPS style vibe". He's obviously been playing the scripted Modern Warfare series and taken notes. But the team's gone too far in its efforts to evolve the tried and trusted - some say tired - Final Fantasy formula. The result is a sanitised, uninspiring, monotonous trudge through admittedly fabulous-looking surroundings. It's as if you are being driven to the end of the game as you sleep in the back seat.
Other design decisions only serve to exacerbate the feeling that you're never truly in control of what's happening. The game dictates who is on the front line of your party - i.e., who fights in battles - for the first 20 hours of the game. It constantly switches between lead character Lightning (female Cloud), blonde-haired brute Snow, the gun-toting Sazh, Oerba Dia "jailbait" Vanille, the sultry Fang, and the Tidus-a-like Hope, progressing the story from various perspectives until all come together and the game nears its exciting climax. Once you get past the 20 hour point, and you're finally allowed to decide the make-up of your party, it's easy to forget that for huge swathes of the game you haven't been able to. But occasionally, beyond that point, the game reverts to type, dictating your party make-up and defying all logic (the party travel everywhere together, so why can't they all get involved in a scrap?).
You can't even develop your characters the way you want to. Each party member has access to what are called "roles" - classes, really. The theory behind the system is that instead of having characters that only fulfil one role on the battlefield, such as a healer, tank, or damage dealer, each character is flexible. In a fight, at any time you can trigger a "Paradigm Switch", which allows you to change the role of each party member. Say you begin a fight with Relentless Assault, which includes one Commando (melee), and two Ravagers (damage-based spell casting) - that's great for doing loads of damage to your enemies. But when your party's health starts to near zero, you'll want to Paradigm Shift to other roles, making available new abilities. You may want to switch to Consolidation, which includes one Medic (healer) and two Sentinels (tanks), allowing you the breathing space to get everyone up to a safe number of hit points.
FFXIII dumps traditional levelling-up for a carefully-controlled system via what's called the Crystarium. It's a bit like FFX's Sphere Grid. You spend Crystarium Points - gained from defeating enemies - as you travel around the Crystarium, unlocking statistical bonuses and new abilities, and gaining role levels along the way. This, in theory, is fine. The problem is, the game "caps" the Crystarium relative to each chapter, limiting the number of Crystarium Points you can spend on your party members, and which roles are available to each character. It is only when you beat a chapter end boss, and you get a "Crystarium Expanded!" message, that you're allowed to spend more points in the Crystarium and climb up the role level ladder.
Square Enix's goal in doing this is clear: to negate the need to grind. It's true, for the first ten chapters of the game (about 25 hours), there is absolutely no need to grind, or backtrack (you can't anyway), or move in any direction other than forward. But, ergo, there's no real need to think strategically about what you spend your points on within the Crystarium. You mindlessly evolve your character along a linear skill tree path in much the same way you explore the gameworld, stopping only to occasionally check out what your new abilities do. Admittedly, from the more expansive, open field chapter 11 onwards, all of the roles become available to all of the characters, and you're free to spend as many points in the Crystarium as you like - a good thing, because chapter 11 is much harder than what's gone before, and the dreaded grind rears its ugly head. But by then the damage has already been done.