It's been quite a few years since Final Fantasy XIII was released. It was a big moment for Square Enix - their flagship series was entering the next generation of consoles; and needed to be designed with a new generation in mind.
And they definitely achieved that. Granted, what FF13 ended up being was an annoyance to the long-time fans of the Final Fantasy series, and something of a non-starter with those who aren't normally interested in RPGs; but the game, mechanically, was definitely revised and refined in ways that I feel deserve a little more credit; especially in comparison to the much more recent Final Fantasy XIII-2.
To go off the most common complaint, Final Fantasy XIII was linear. The stage design cut off almost all avenues for exploration with a constant focus on guiding the player to the next plot point. For some this proves to be a little claustrophobic, but thinking about it, games - and especially story-driven RPGS - being linear is nothing particularly new. While Sandbox environments are a popular game design choice recently, they're not the only way to skin a cat; and even though many RPGs through the ages have had an overworld, and the 'option' to go to places other than the next plot location, very infrequently is that option rewarded.
What FF13 is attempting to do here is lose the fat. The linearity of a story-driven RPG is recognised here and embraced, rather than disguised. The advantage of this is pacing.
Picking up the Pace
Some games have pacing come naturally come to them as part of the genre they subscribe to.Games with a heavy emphasis on Score Attack will have very quick pacing as you're encouraged to complete challenges quickly and restart often. Sometimes adding in extra content in the form of cut-scenes, or exploration segments or 'grinding' (which I'll discuss later) can end up ruining pacing, and often the amount of fun you'll have. Compare Sonic Colours with Sonic Unleashed for a good example - They both have a similarity in terms of gameplay and goals, but one is padded out with hub worlds and overly-long levels.
In Final Fantasy XIII's case, it wants to keep the story at the forefront (with a lot of the plot revolving around chasing people down or being chased); so letting you wander off and lose sight of the sense of urgency will kill off the pacing. In that light, FF13 takes multiple steps to keep the ball continuously rolling.
It's partially reflected in the general lack of towns. When you want to stock up on items, you don't wander off to the nearest town and start chatting to a shopkeeper; you can stock up from any of the frequent computer terminals found across the game (in addition to them letting you save and the not-very-good equipment upgrade system). It's even explained in-setting - everyone is in the habit of ordering goods online, so brick-and-mortar stores are a novelty. Hmm, is that an attempt at social commentary?
The most salient, and in my opinion best, pacing design is how they deal with grinding. It's my personal peeve with most RPGs - the decision to make it necessary to stay in a single area and fight the same foes over and over to be able to safely or reliably progress. Grinding a few levels is therapeutic in that inane, bubblewrap-popping kind of way, but it's also a pacing killer. None of that in FF13 (at least not in its first half). By taking on the enemies in your path, you will be perfectly well-equipped to take on the next challenge. Though in a later stage of the game the explorable area opens up (with a lot of side quests and grinding, sadly), just sticking to the story will keep you in good stead for any upcoming boss fight.
A New Paradigm
Speaking of boss fights, the battle system is the other large topic brought up regarding Final Fantasy XIII. Coming off the back of Final Fantasy XII; a title that tried to move out of the menu-based battle system all prior Final Fantasy titles utilised, and resulted in a mess of target ranges and a system built around beating battles for you. Square Enix knows that Action RPGs are a direction worth pursuing (Kingdom Hearts and The World Ends With You providing fantastic returns), but putting that into a main-series Final Fantasy game would be way too out there, so they made a compromise and took on the timing of an Action RPG.
Yes, Final Fantasy titles have had the Active Time Battle system for years, but that system has more of an emphasis on waiting your turn, rather than being responsive to the situation. Battles in FF13 are still entirely menu-based, but manage to be fast-paced and tense. And it's all down to the introduction of the Paradigm Shift mechanic.
For the uninitiated, the characters of FF13 don't have a single 'class' archetype; but instead can switch between different ones on the fly. Outside of battle you can set multiple Paradigms to suit any situation. Have a team with a physical damage Commando and two magical damage Ravagers to rack up the damage, or a Medic and Synergist team to heal and give boons to your allies.
Switching paradigms takes time, during which enemies are able to act freely. This means changing to the wrong paradigm can cost you precious time, and a good sense of the situation provides the best effects. Like a fighting game, it's all about seeing what's coming, and putting yourself in a situation to negate an attack or punish it.
To make the use of Paradigms easier, FF13 makes a concession in letting you attack automatically, and only giving you control of the lead character. Not having to worry about selecting individual attacks or micromanaging your team-mates gives you the breathing space to survey the state of fights, but on a level it feels like the game is playing itself for you.
However, unlike Final Fantasy XII, FF13's battles can't be left alone. Enemies and especially bosses are designed to force you to switch up your game to stay alive. Fights get difficult quickly, and you can't run away to grind out some additional fire-power. For half of the game you don't even have all 6 party members at your disposal.
The narrative switches back and forth between groups of characters, each group having holes in what they can or can't do. Only macho-man Snow and battle-hardened Fang have the Sentinel role, so when they're not around you're forced to think of ways to fight without a party member tanking hits. It's intensely clever, and as such a bit of a shame that inevitably all the cast get together, and on top of that gain the ability to use any role. While it would be unorthodox, if the party members were split up more frequently through the entire game, battles would feel more rewarding through the entire play through.
Out of Character
Honestly, it may be something of a fluke on pert of the design team, but the playable cast of FF13 are really rather good. Almost more than the mechanics, its the tropes that appear in the character design and plot of JRPGs that see the most cultural acknowledgement and mocking; and maybe rightfully so. Archetypes of a young and hasty but enthusiastic and brave hero, or a waif of woman with a back story in mysticism with a destiny to end up in a hero's arms are tired at best and problematic at worse.
FF13 fixes that with the simple idea of switching up the standard demographics. You would expect the efficient, driven, and socially reluctant personality of Lightning to be male, as would you the confident and mentor-like nature of Fang. You wouldn't expect Lightning's male counterpart Snow to entirely avoid being a love interest, and you wouldn't expect lesbian relationships or a black main character in a JRPG at all.
This leads up to the cast feeling rather well-rounded, with only the slightest of changes from normal design patterns. There are flaws (Vanille's general voice acting and personality, being an obvious one everyone can agree on), but my vindication of having a likeable, playable black main character who isn't the 'dumb muscle' of the group outweighs that frustration for me.
What Final Fantasy XIII-2 Did Wrong
Although Final Fantasy XIII had some great ideas, they drove it a little too far from what a lot of people expect from a JRPG, and especially what they'd expect from a Final Fantasy game. Fans were vocal and critical; and in the development of Final Fantasy XIII-2, the developers were expressly clear in saying that FF13-2 would be for those who didn't like FF13.
They were certainly right on that. The changes made to FF13's most outlandish areas were sniped with expert precision, and altered to something in line with a standard JRPG format. Unsurprisingly, it made the game dull and generic. I'll summarize somewhat here to avoid repeating myself.
First off, linearity and pacing. The time-travel plot opened up scope for the player to go to other time periods other than the one that progresses the plot, but all that's to be found are opportunities for grinding and side quests, as expected. By nature of you even having the ability to grind, bosses, and even regular enemies are designed with that in mind; and all too quickly you'll find areas where it's impossible to stand your ground regardless of how skilled you are with the game's mechanics.
Furthermore it results in situations where the location to go for the next part of the plot is ambiguous (since you backtrack even within the plot, there's no guarantee that the newest area is the correct one). This shoots the pacing in its vital organs, then buries it 6 feet underground. The lengthy loading times don't make things better.
The battle system stays intact; even improved in that fights work a little faster. The time it takes for a Paradigm Shift to complete is heavily reduced, so it's easier to be competently reactive. However, you have access to almost all combat roles from the very start; meaning that there's precious few fights that behave like puzzles to be solved.
The actual cast of characters have been reduced to two - a cocky male and a waif-ish female. At the very least they both have character interaction and romantic lives outside of each other; but they're bland and generic in all aspects otherwise. A monster-battling mechanic fills in the 3rd party slot, and DLC makes FF13 characters playable, but they're all optional, and don't affect the plot dynamic any.
These are all safe decisions for game design, but they're not interesting ones. FF13-2 struggles to offer an experience that other JRPGs cannot; which in the present gaming industry is the kiss of death. Most genres are starting to stagnate, hitting a wall when it comes to innovating the experience offered. It's what killed fighting games until Street Fighter 4 arrived, and it's what let the sandbox WRPG take over JRPGs in popularity.
So What Can We Take From This?
Even though FF13 has turned out to be a failed experiment, there are definitely a few things that can be taken on board.
- Linearity is not a bad thing, it helps define a game's rules in a clear manner, and keep a player goal-oriented; but how it's masked is important for some styles of 'game feel'. If a player is expecting to be able to go off the beaten path, than linearity can be frustrating; but under the right circumstance it makes an experience 'smooth'.
- Menu-based combat is starting to become an outmoded control method in RPGs. Those that still use it and are successful need to have another level of player involvement. It's why the Mario RPGs stay constantly fresh in their battle schemes. Winning a battle not because you have the biggest numbers but because you outsmarted your foe is satisfying to a wider audience of people than those who are happy to just grind.
- What a player doesn't have access to is just as important as what they do. When it comes to game design of RPGs, what you fight against is almost like a form of level design. It needs to put forth new sets of rules for the player that build upon what's already established. In bad RPGs this just means the enemies just have bigger numbers assigned to their stats. In better RPGs this means that they actually use status effects and stat raising/lowering competently (It's this, coupled with the monster design that keeps the Shin Megami Tensei games at all relevant). An ideal RPG knows exactly what you have access to, and will make you use those resources in creative ways to succeed. If the Zelda games can do it, so can other genres!