Final Fantasy XIII: The Problem’s Not Linearity

A few times recently I’ve seen someone pose the question: “Why do people hate Final Fantasy XIII for being linear? I understand it’s unusually linear for a Final Fantasy, but plenty of these same people seem to like Final Fantasy X which is almost as bad!”

It’s true that FF-XIII seems to draw particular ire from some elements of the fanbase. It’s also true that FF-XIII is more linear than FF-X; FF-X was the first in the series not to let the player wander around an overworld map, and that does make it feel like a tunnel. But it was a tunnel with stuff in it; there were towns you could walk around in, dungeons you could get lost in, and (eventually) an airship that let you return to nearly any point in the game. The bulk of FF-XIII was just a tunnel; “item shops” were basically vending machines built into a save point. “Dungeons” were just a sequence of random battles with the only variation being whether the player stops to pick up treasure chests or not.

While this difference matters, I don’t think it’s “the” problem. Most CRPGs, Final Fantasy games in particular, have periods of linearity and openness and usually start at the “linear” end of things. The “linear” portion at the beginning is usually an introduction to game mechanics if not an outright tutorial. This led me to explore a question for both games: “How long do you have to play this game before the intro ends and you’re ‘really’ playing the game?”

Final Fantasy X

I played the Steam version. I didn’t skip any dialogue. I talked to most NPCs, though I skipped a few timesinks like the help console in the Inns. I didn’t use any cheats or features like No Encounters that would skip time or trivialize battles. I didn’t grind at all. No rushing, no dawdling, just playing the game normally.

The game opens with an introductory cutscene. There’s a battle to introduce the idea of attacking and entering commands. Then another battle showing off Overdrives. Then another to introduce the idea of attacking objects other than monsters.

More cutscenes. Tidus is whisked away to Spira. There is one uneventful solo battle. The next battle introduces Rikku, along with the Steal and Use abilities. More cutscenes, then Rikku teaches Tidus how to use the leveling system. If Tidus actually chooses to use that leveling system, he immediately gains an ability (Cheer) that can be used in the upcoming random battles. Then there’s a boss battle with these two characters including a tutorial on trigger commands.

This was the one hour mark for me.

Tidus is separated from Rikku. He meets Wakka and can fight a few random encounters with him. Then he gets to the first town. Then the first Cloister of Trials. Then after some more exposition we get Lulu and Yuna. Yuna shows off her first summon in a cutscene.

I leave town and the natives of the town say goodbye. The next two battles explain how Lulu and Yuna work, as well as how to swap characters in battle. Then there’s a duel against Kimahri. Then a stretch with random encounters where the player is able to use Tidus/Wakka/Yuna/Lulu and switch between them as needed and learn the reasons why you would do that. Then there’s a boat to the next town.

This is hour two.

The boat has some more exposition and talking to people, followed by two boss fights (one of which lets you actually use Kimahri). There’s more story at the destination town, and then the game turns you loose in the nearest forest. Now that we are in the forest, we have:

  • Every party member except Auron and Rikku. Auron is the most boring character mechanically so people are generally fine with him coming back when the plot needs him. Kimahri can equip piercing weapons, as well as using the leveling system to pick up Steal and Use, thereby picking up the most mechanically useful aspects of those characters right now.
  • Complete freedom to wander the forest to our next destination, including an optional boss fight (Lord Ochu)
  • Every character we do have has the basics of their “character class”; Lulu has several low-level spells, Wakka and Tidus are largely warrior types with some support abilities, and Yuna has low-level healing spells as well as a Summon. All characters have at least one useful overdrive.

The game isn’t done introducing new mechanics, but I think it’s fair to say the player is getting the “real” Final Fantasy X experience by now. You might even argue we reached this point at hour 2 when we could switch characters freely and grind outside Besaid if we wanted to. So we can say the “real game” starts somewhere between two and three hours.

Final Fantasy XIII

For this one I just pulled up some old saves and checked the time played on each. Final Fantasy XIII conveniently breaks itself up into chapters. It also offers a save opportunity at the end of each chapter, and it turns out I kept the chapter end saves from one aborted playthrough. So with that in mind, here’s Final Fantasy XIII, chapter by chapter (the times listed are when I finished that chapter. Again, I did zero grinding so it’s not easy to shave much time off of this unless you skip cutscenes and don’t read the datalog):

Chapter 1 (1:07): The game alternates controls between two different parties. A couple of characters have abilities, but for the most part you’re mashing confirm to win. There are a few tutorials but it’s mostly repetitive easy battles.

Chapter 2 (2:22): Mechanically this is just more of the same but with slightly different party compositions. The end of the chapter features the game’s first “real” boss. At this point, you have five characters but the party can only contain three, so the game decides which three fight the boss. This pattern will continue for awhile. We’re already approaching the amount of time I spent on that FFX playthrough above.

Chapter 3 (4:00): Between the last chapter and this one, the party members become l’Cie. Mechanically, this means we finally have abilities and character classes, though not all abilities and not all character classes. In fact, several characters lose abilities in the change. Snow leaves the party for plot reasons. He also picks up the game’s first Summon, but he won’t rejoin the party for some time. We’re now well on our way to doubling the length of the FFX “opening stretch” and we’re still barely playing the game.

Chapter 4 (6:57): This chapter is blatant filler. You still have four people in a three person party, but it still won’t let you choose who is in the party, so you end up with things like Lightning getting impatient and storming off in a huff only to reappear minutes later. The party gets juggled around several times and eventually splits into Lightning/Hope going one way and Sazh/Vanille going the other. The game drip-feeds you a few more classes over the course of this chapter. Eventually Lightning gets her Summon (each character in this game gets exactly one), but after a brief summon tutorial the action switches away from Lightning/Hope so you aren’t actually free to use it yet.

Chapter 5 (9:02): Hope decides he wants to lead the Hope/Lightning team and Lightning lets him. This is where it becomes apparent that only the party leader can summon, which means the game is visibly withholding mechanics but can’t be bothered to give any real justification for it. Eventually Lightning switches back to party leader, which is still not a choice the player gets to make.

Chapter 6 (10:48): Sazh and Vanille get backstory but nothing interesting mechanically.

Chapter 7 (14:34): The Hope/Lightning party ends up meeting with Snow and Fang (#6 in our roster). Then the party splits into two for no explained reason, so we still aren’t choosing our party or even playing with a full party. This is where the player finally gets to use the Sentinel character class on a regular basis (as Fang and Snow are the only characters who even have that class available up to this point). Snow gets a plot-relevant injury to force the player into a Lightning/Fang/Hope party.

Chapter 8 (15:42): Sazh and Vanille again. A character gets a summon only for the chapter to end so the player can’t use it, again. Sazh and Vanille are captured by the primary villains to set up the plot of Chapter 9.

Chapter 9 (20:03): Snow is still injured and we’re still forced to go with Lightning/Hope/Fang. Then we rescue Sazh and Vanille, and suddenly Snow’s okay to fight again because the game has run out of excuses. Now the player can choose two of their party members, but Lightning is still forced to be the party leader.

Chapter 10 (no end time as I didn’t finish this playthrough): Very early on, you gain the ability to switch all characters at will. You also get all character classes unlocked for all characters.

I think this is the earliest possible point where we can say the introduction is over. This is an order of magnitude greater than the time spent to get to a similar point in FF-X. FF-XIII isn’t hated for being a linear game; it’s hated because it’s a 20-hour tunnel with a game at the end of it.

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