So you’ve probably heard all the complaints about FF13 being too linear. I think, yes, compared to previous games, there hasn’t been much room for exploration yet. One thing I enjoyed was looking for hidden chests and stuff, but there just isn’t room for that in this game, which is too bad. However, here are my thoughts (spoilers ahead):
In other games, you normally can either out-level the enemies in the area or, in FFX, you always had an enemy’s “weakness” available through party switching. You also had random battles. This actually made a case for non-linear maps. It gave you a soft-timer for how long it takes to navigate an area or a dungeon; you had to find your way to the next save point before your resources (HP, MP, restorative items) ran out, and the longer you take, the longer you battle through the war of attrition.
FF12 and FF13 change this up. The maps are a little more straight-forward, but instead you see your enemies on the map. You plan outside the battle rather than within the battle, which is how random battles worked. Also, you don’t outstrip your enemies very fast; you can’t grind for points as easily, and your stats don’t improve quick enough to make fights trivial while you’re in the same dungeon or area. In FF12, if you were too weak to fight an enemy, you can try to find your way around it, or you can swap members in/out, or you can twiddle your thumbs until you’ve got enough MP to heal up. In FF13, you have the battle rating to worry about. If you want to use your TP abilities, that means you need to get good battle ratings so that your TP recovers.
I think 2 sequences particularly stand out in the argument for linearity: Snow and Hope on the rooftops of Palumporum, and Sazh and Vanille in Nautilus Park. You have noticeably sub-par parties for these areas. Hope is a weak character with low HP and not quite enough offensive capability yet to make up for it, and, unless you’ve been upgrading his weapon, Snow is a significantly worse replacement for Lightning, having no AOE Commando effects. On top of this, the enemies in the area are quite beefy: the jet soldiers have high HP, ranged attacks, cannot be Launched, and one of the attacks knocks you back, which stops your characters from attacking; the hoverbikes have tremendous HP, also cannot be Launched, and have an attack that will instantly kill either character unless you continually maintain a Medic or Sentinel composition, and I don’t even trust the Medic comp unless Snow is at full health and there are no soldiers when the bike’s Gatling Gun finishes its cast. I had a lot of zero-star battles in this area because the enemy comps forced me to go into Medic/Sentinel comps often; I can’t imagine how frustrating this event would be if I had to navigate a maze, had random battles, and didn’t heal after each fight.
The Sazh/Vanille event in Nautilus Park isn’t anywhere near as bad, since you have the offensive capability to 5-star every battle, but I did notice that the map was just a big zig-zag. This brought to mind the whole linearity thing, and I laughed in my head. However, after a few battles, I noticed I was stopping to observe the enemy compositions and check my Paradigms a lot, especially if there was an Orion. Again, if the battles were all random, I would just have the default best all-around Paradigm set and run blindly through, but knowing when I would have a fight prompted me to stop and think about strategy. It’s a different approach, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all.
However, I think there is still an argument for towns. The whole of Nautilus before you’re attacked seemed like a waste of time: watch some story, run 50 feet, watch some story, run 50 feet… there were no battles, there’s no NPC interaction, it was completely pointless. I would rather just watch a long story sequence, and then have them set me down in the Park to kill some shit.