There's no launch quite like a Final Fantasy launch, and there's been no Final Fantasy launch quite like this one. The first ever multi-platform entry in the main series, the thirteenth game is also the first in this generation of hardware, arriving rather late after an epic development that, at its peak, involved a staff of 300 people.
Follow that long wait with a relatively short delay before its release in the West - it arrives simultaneously in the US and Europe on 9th March, less than three months after its Japanese debut - and you end up with a huge game surfing a tidal wave of hype to our shores.
There's just one problem. The Western media has so far given the Japanese version of the game a lukewarm reception, with middling reviews and cautious previews like our own Simon Parkin's.
"After our first five hours with the Japanese version of Final Fantasy XIII, it's still hard to say how successful the game's skew-whiff approach has been in general. For players who saw Yasumi Matsuno's Final Fantasy XII as a creative and interesting exploration of how the aged JRPG format could shift into something contemporary and fresh, the thirteenth game seems sure to be a crushing disappointment," he wrote, noting the strict linearity and slow development of the early stages of the game, the lack of towns or a sense of exploration, and the "hotch-potch design" of the battle system.
Unsurprisingly, it's not a view shared by the game's creators. "As you may know," says game director Motomu Toriyama, in London to promote the launch, "this game comprises two worlds, one is Cocoon which is a futuristic city, and the other is Pulse on the ground, which is a more primitive world where there are really dinosaur-like monsters hovering around.
"When you are still in Cocoon the gameplay is still quite story-driven, and our intention is, by doing so, we allow the players to learn the basic operation of the game and to discover the basic story, the basic concept of the game. So it's a sort of intuitive stage in the game. Indeed, it's understandable some people might call it linear. That's where that comes from.
"But in the second half, once you get down to Pulse, it's quite free gameplay, it opens out. So if you like that particular game style, maybe you should be a little bit patient."
Producer Yoshinori Kitase, a Square legend who directed no less than Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII, also urges gamers to take their time with Final Fantasy XIII and not to be put off by accusations of conservatism. "You mentioned linearity earlier - as Toriyama-san said, that's intended to draw new gamers into the story and allow them to learn how it works," he counters. "And also the battle scenes - when we, well not this team, but when the company produced XII, some people said OK, well it was very seamless but it wasn't all that spectacular, the wow factor was missing.
"We took that to heart. We thought we wanted to create something visually really impressive and something really exciting. So for example, in XIII as opposed to XII, you actually have to encounter the group of monsters to go into the battle. We would have thought that would appeal more to Western gamers than Japanese gamers. There are elements that we still hope will appeal greatly to Western RPG gamers."
At around the time of Final Fantasy XIII's Japanese launch, BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk made headlines when he noted that Japanese RPGs "kept delivering the same thing over and over" rather than innovating in the way that Western RPGs had - a stinging rebuke for a Japanese industry that used to rule the RPG overworld, but which has seen its dominance diminish while Western studios like Zeschuk's have accumulated the acclaim to which they were accustomed instead, most recently with the imperious Mass Effect 2.
The success of Western RPGs hasn't escaped Square Enix's attention, of course, as the studio itself goes through a globalising transition, absorbing Eidos' Western infrastructure. But while the FF titles aren't developed in a vacuum, Toriyama notes Western references from further afield.
"We did actually take a look at games like BioWare's, and Fallout as well," he says. "But rather than that, we took more inspiration from FPS games like Call of Duty and Halo. Those games seems to present a very real-time, tense atmosphere on the battlefield where the player gets involved in the fighting. That's the kind of thing that we looked at more intensely."
Not all fans wanted a follow-up to the bold and divisive XII, of course, and Square Enix must be used by now to the seesaw of approval in the Final Fantasy community from one title to the next (no-one ever likes two in a row, it seems, but one man's VII is always another man's VIII). One constant, however, is wholesale change to the battle system.
"It is the natural tradition in the Final Fantasy series that each numbered title should come up with a new battle system," Toriyama notes. "Therefore you may find the battle system in XIII very different from past titles - with the intention from us indeed that the battle system should be very enjoyable for action gamers as well.
"If you study the battle system of this game, you will understand that there is something called Paradigm Shift incorporated, which is a brand-new concept." Paradigm Shift allows you to switch the playable character between classes - such as Medic or Ravager, an offensive mage - on the fly during battle, which automatically changes the AI behaviour of your party members, too.
"Indeed, you basically operate the playing character only, but at the same time you will get the kind of feel as though you were, in a way, controlling all three members of the party. It's not just that you have to concentrate on one character - it's one main one and two others."
The biggest change, though, is the one that made the most headlines at E3 two years ago: the fact that Final Fantasy XIII is launching simultaneously on PS3 and Xbox 360 in the West.
"We actually had already designed the basic engine in a way that it would be able to comply with both consoles anyway, so we didn't experience any huge technical challenges," Kitase says when asked about the difficulties this presented the team.
"But the only difference is that obviously Blu-ray and DVD are different, so the Xbox version has three DVDs, so there's compression, and also the player will have to change the disc twice during gameplay." (You can read much more about this side of Final Fantasy XIII in Digital Foundry's detailed technical analysis.)
With reviews of the Western game embargoed until the day before release, it will be a few weeks before we find out whether Kitase and Toriyama's optimism about Final Fantasy XIII translates into critical acclaim to counter those muted early write-ups - we'll certainly be withholding our own judgement until we're much deeper into the game's world. But with the developers' boss Yoichi Wada on the record saying that the Final Fantasy XIII approach to production is increasingly anachronistic, it may signal the end of an era either way.
But that's the thing about this series. Born as a young Square faced bankruptcy in 1987, it was named by creator Hironobu Sakaguchi in recognition of the fact that it could well be his and the company's final game. Of course, it ended up saving the day and its title has taken on a tinge of irony. Nevertheless, despite its traditionalism, it has never lost that spirit of last-ditch reinvention; with every entry creating a new world and battle system from scratch, every Final Fantasy is necessarily the end of an era - and the beginning of one. There's no reason to think Final Fantasy XIII will be any different.
Final Fantasy XIII is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 9th March.