What with Final Fantasy XIII's soggy reception in 2009 and XIV Online's disastrous false start last year, these are dog days for Square Enix's flagship brand. Considering how stablemate and chief competitor Dragon Quest kicked into a new gear with last year's gangbusting Sentinels of the Starry Skies, suddenly the JRPG behemoth is looking decidedly fallible.
So the task put before before Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a formidable one - win back the trust of an indignant fanbase and reassert the brand's super-franchise status. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that pressure shows in the game's myriad tweaks and refinements. This is a title on the defensive, keenly aware of its predecessor's shortcomings and eager to please at every turn.
"We achieved big sales as expected but we received mixed reviews from gamers," producer Yoshinori Kitase told Eurogamer at E3 this week while discussing the anticlimactic launch of the much-ballyhooed XIII.
"The good points included the game system, which was popular, so we're intending to take it into XIII-2. On the other hand, the game progression was quite linear - that was the main criticism we received.
"All the aspects that didn't go down as well as they should have done we took very seriously and we came up with improvements, or replacements or additional features. Every single issue has been tackled."
Kitase's areas of concern appear to be threefold. Firstly, effort has clearly been made to open the game world up and offer players more opportunity for exploration. A sequence we played through, that saw incoming duo Serah and Noel tracking down a giant causing trouble in Cocoon's New Bresha region not only offered multiple branching paths to venture down and side quests to take on, but opportunities to tackle a goal in a number of different ways.
A new feature called Live Trigger periodically pops up offering you a range of different options of how to approach your current objective. The limited example showcased in our demo asked us to choose whether we wanted to dive straight into the boss fight or go in search of a mysterious device that might help tip the scales in our favour.
Seeing as selecting the former led to near instant death beneath the fist of the aforementioned colossus, it seems this will hardly represent a quantum leap in terms of letting players off the leash - but it at least displays a willingness to rein in the hand-holding so derided in the original.
Indeed, Kitase insisted the system will offer a more engaging set of choices in the finished game.
"You actually have much more choice," he explained. "You can choose what you want to say to NPCs or whatever. It's not just that you make a choice and have to deal with the consequences, it's more than that. It's supposed to make you think about puzzles or unsolved situations, together with the NPCs in the games."
XIII-2's other major shift is in the game's approach to storytelling. Rather than bombard the player with lavish but momentum-sapping cut-scenes, Kitase and his team are striving to better integrate narrative and gameplay into a more seamless whole. For example, as you explore the game world you'll also trigger dynamic cut-scenes that play out in-game, should you elect to stand still and take them in. Conversely, you can ignore them and march on.