You will have noticed that few previews, reviews, or interviews revolving around Final Fantasy XV have shied away from its ties to Fabula Nova Crystallis. A quiet, prolonged development is what made Final Fantasy XV so scintillatingly notorious. That and the game's uncertain evolution since the days it was known as Versus XIII. This could very well be why some now debate the merits of XV relative to XIII. A surprisingly popular argument I've witnessed is that its story and characters would have benefited from a more linear approach, similar to that of XIII.
Final Fantasy XIII has been the franchise whipping boy for some time now. Final Fantasy fans and genre enthusiasts often dismiss this game for a few key shortcomings. The player is relegated to one long hallway for the bulk of the experience, dialogue is often grating and angsty, and the story is told poorly overall. Most first-time players will find themselves frequently referencing the in-game encyclopedia, trying to breakdown the meanings behind proper nouns like "l'Cie" and "Fal'Cie." It's wholly unreasonable for any RPG to hand the player a glossary and not touch on important events through careful exposition, but this didn't make XIII a bad game per se.
Awkward dialogue and chronologically confused cutscenes aside, XIII boasts beautiful visuals and character designs, addictive combat, and a sublime soundtrack. It's also clear that a lot of time and attention was given to the lore that drives the game's plot. XIII's biggest failing is progression. The environmental design, plot, character arcs, and even skill-development system (Crystarium) follow a straight path. To the player that comes off at best as hand-holding and at worst restrictive.
Director Motomu Toriyama once spoke of the virtues of XIII's linearity from a design perspective. "We made [XIII] linear in order to maximize the players' gameplay experience and to provide the same type of gameplay experience to all players," he said in a 2014 interview. "The linear design of [XIII] had a great advantage in providing players with enough time to become familiarized with the new battle system and the unique world. But on the other hand, it led to players feeling like the majority of the game was a tutorial." This is interesting commentary, given that Final Fantasy X — a critically lauded JRPG classic — has been accused as being just as linear.
Final Fantasy X is an eventful experience from Besaid Island to Zanarkand, but those events take place in a vacuum. You often cannot explore or go backwards. To maintain pace everything is on a track, with the player often given the illusion of choice where there is none (see deconstructed Sphere Grid). It works though. Something about that game's story, combat, and characters makes the experience not feel like such a slog.
Final Fantasy XV, on the other hand, takes the polar opposite approach to design — emphasizing player decision making and free roaming exploration. In tandem, the story has inconsistent pacing, underbaked secondary characters, and a number of tonal issues. In a world where The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt exists, an adventure full of robust NPCs and dense plotlines, can we really blame those narrative shortcomings on a grandiose scope?
Final Fantasy XV would not be a better game if it were designed more in the vein of XIII, a point that I believe the late-game events of the primary quest-line clearly demonstrate. This game works best when Noctis and friends aren't sequestered to skinny hallways and carefully curated events. Added linearity also wouldn't add any content where it has been cut, and I suspect that XV's real villain was its release date.
While it might sound ridiculous after "a decade" of development, elements such as event scenarios and character development sequences seem to have taken the shaft in favor of late-development gameplay improvements and more additions to a world that is thankfully bursting in content. That might be why so many post-release development goals have been announced by Hajime Tabata. I can only hope that these "story patches" can fill the dozen or more voids.
Final Fantasy XV is a calculated departure from the linearity of XIII, and that isn't a bad thing at all. Its open and choice-oriented gameplay brings a much more believable world and grander sense of adventure to the table, and I think other fantasy JRPGs would benefit from investing a bit more time into world development. The shortcomings XV has been saddled with appear to be more due to a lack of development resources, time, and money. And while it may never become the perfect JRPG through patches and DLC the last thing it needs is more linearity.