When it released back in 2006, Final Fantasy XII represented perhaps the most radical change the Final Fantasy series had undergone. Other entries bore cosmetic changes, with new worlds, new characters, and some new mechanics, but it was Final Fantasy XII that really changed the structure of both the world and the battle system. Instead of consisting of fairly confined locations, the world of Ivalice was huge and open, and instead of taking turns in battle, Final Fantasy XII was quasi-real time, allowing the player to move around the environment in battle. Battles took place in the game's vast environments rather than on a separate screen and the game also introduced gambits, which allowed the player to configure a surprising amount of aspects of the game's friendly AI. Some fans voiced their extreme displeasure concerning the changes, but once you get over the novelty of the game's new systems, you'll likely find that Final Fantasy XII is an extremely high quality production with an engrossing world, an engrossing story, and a sense of adventure unparalleled in the series. There's a bit of awkward storytelling and the combat could have been spruced up, but in spite of those flaws, Final Fantasy XII is one of the best RPGs you'll find on PS2.
The story of Final Fantasy XII is surprisingly normal compared to that of some of the other Final Fantasy games. At its heart, it's a story about a Princess regaining the Kingdom that was taken away from her by the Archadian Empire. You play as Vaan, an orphan who dreams of being a sky pirate. To get revenge against the empire for taking away that which he holds dear, he breaks into the royal vault, hoping to steal something dear to them. Instead, he meets up with a wisecracking sky pirate named Balthier and his stern rabbit-eared companion Fran. He also falls in with the former Princess Ashe, presumed dead, and Basche, a disgraced warrior who was said to have killed the Emperor. For some reason that I still don't quite understand, Vann is allowed to tag along as Ashe fights the Archadian Empire to regain the Kingdom of Dalmasca. Central to this struggle is a powerful stone called Nephicite, whose power is being harnessed by the Empire to lay waste to any nation that would rise against it.
Final Fantasy XII has a fairly strong story with lots of political intrigue and tension, but there are times when the execution could have been better. Sometimes the story relates events in a rather dry fashion, as evidenced by the fact that a few key plot points are read to you through memoirs rather than shown. For the most part, Final Fantasy XII does tell its story well and many of the cutscenes are beautiful and exciting, but even in spite of this, there is a certain stiffness to the delivery, which might be taken as maturity by some, but felt a little too frigid at times. Furthermore, though Final Fantasy XII has a strong cast of distinctive characters (with the exception of Vaan's best friend Penelo), the interaction between them is also a bit too frigid. Still, there's a certain austere elegance to Final Fantasy XII's story that is very appealing and the ending provides a satisfying payoff to the big conflict that the game sets up and the massive journey that you undertake during Final Fantasy XII's 60-plus hours. It also doesn't hurt that Final Fantasy XII contains the best voice acting in the series by far. There are a couple awkwardly delivered lines, but overall, the voice acting in Final Fantasy XII is delivered fluidly and with quiet conviction. The sky pirate Balthier and his father's voice acting is especially spirited.
As I said, the story is more than solid, but where this game really shines in its world-building. Ivalice is a vast, beautiful world with tons of stuff to see. The world feels just as lived-in as Final Fantasy X's Spira, but it easily dwarfs Spira in terms of size and explorability. This open-endedness plus Final Fantasy XII's focused story creates a sweet middle ground between linearity and freedom, which contributes to its grand feeling of adventure and political struggle. The only thing that slightly impacts the game's otherwise excellent pacing is the strong emphasis the game places on grinding. You can choose not to do extracurricular grinding if you want, but the game will penalize you hard. If you don't grind, you will always be broke, your levels won't be high enough to deal with the game's somewhat challenging bosses, and you won't have enough license points to purchase the best licenses from the game's license board, which is Final Fantasy's XII's method of customization.
The license board is much like Final Fantasy X's sphere grid in that it is the primary avenue through which your characters grow. The license board looks a lot like a checkerboard, only there are dozens upon dozens of squares, which all unlock licenses for stat increases, spells, weapons, armor, accessories and techniques; licenses are then used to actually equip or use the magic, techniques, and equipment that you buy. To acquire these licenses, you need to spend license points, which are obtained from killing enemies. The license board is extremely easy to use and is really quite simple compared to Final Fantasy X's sphere grid even if it looks daunting at first. I probably would have preferred for the developers to leave weapons and armor off of the board, but the board is well organized, allowing easy access to the licenses you need, so it's not a big deal at all. Some people don't care for the license board, but I thought it was brilliantly executed for the most part and it allowed for a lot of freedom of customization.
One of the most radical changes in Final Fantasy XII was the battle system. Final Fantasy XII uses the tried and true active time battle system, but it uses it in a whole new way. Instead of taking turns with the enemy, the battles are in real-time, meaning that there is no restriction on movement. You can move around in battle in the same way that you move around towns. This is because there is no separation between the world and battlefield in Final Fantasy XII. You fight in the same environments that you traverse outside of battle. Where the game restricts you is that you can't actually hit the enemy or cast spells in real-time. You select commands from a menu and when the ATB bar fills up, your character will act automatically. Sometimes the mix of real-time and turn-based makes the battle system feel a little bit clunky, but overall, the combat works well. I just wish that the developers hadn't made melee attacks such a strong focus. Magic is useful for buffing, debuffing, healing, and getting rid of status effects, but attack magic will undoubtedly get pushed to the wayside by most players since it's much easier to simply attack with your weapons and your characters become surprisingly strong melee fighters if you level them in a responsible fashion and keep your equipment updated. So while the combat in Final Fantasy XII can feel a bit one-note, overall it is a good first try for this kind of system and if you want more varied battles, you can have them. You'll just be doing more work and wasting more MP than you need to.
One of the most controversial aspects of the game is also one that alleviates the player's workload the most. To deal with the insane amount of monsters you'll kill in this game, the game gives you "gambits." These are basically AI commands that let you tell your teammates (and your party leader) what commands to use at what time and in what circumstance. So, if you want a character to heal everyone when they get below 70% of their HP, you can do that, and if you want your teammates to focus on the enemy that you are targeting, you can do that as well. There is a gambit for almost every situation, and though you won't get all the gambits all at once, by the end of the game, you can configure your gambits in such a detailed fashion that the game will seem to play itself. However, you don't have to use gambits at all if you don't want to. I found that the best way to play the game was a mix of basic gambits to handle some of the game's more routine tasks and manual input. If gambits are used correctly, they can greatly enhance your strategy and play style. Combined with the game's robust customization system, they help make Final Fantasy XII the most customization rich game in the series.
Ivalice is an immensely beautiful and rich world and this is no small part due to the game's excellent visuals. Though the scale of the environments dwarf all games in the series (except for the online MMO), the vistas you'll be seeing in this game are richly-textured, richly-colored, and abundant with superbly designed creatures, some of which will attack while others will mind their own business, lending environments a feeling of having an ecosystem of sorts; impressive weather effects also help in this area. Furthermore, the game has impressive draw distances and a great variety of locales---all of which are superbly realized through distinctive art design---which contribute to the game's extraordinary sense of adventure. The visual fidelity of the character models is greatly improved over Final Fantasy X's and their facial features are extremely realistic-looking and noticeably expressive as well. There's a rule that graphical sacrifices have to be made when a game sports a huge world, but as far as I can see, not many sacrifices were made here.
The music is not nearly as catchy as that in other games in the series, but many of the compositions are quite beautiful and a great number of them have an intrepid sense of adventure that perfectly encapsulates the feeling of the game. Plus, the sound quality here is exemplary, though some of the voiceovers could have been recorded a bit louder.
Following series tradition, Final Fantasy XII's vast world is filled with tons of side content, though most of it revolves around the game's hunts, which are basically optional monsters that you can track down and kill for a reward and an increase in your hunting clan rank. Not only do these hunts give you a chance to backtrack through Final Fantasy XII's rich lands, they also can lead you to some very useful items.
Final Fantasy XII takes a bit of time to grow on you if you're used to way its ancestors played, but most of the changes are both interesting and well-executed, and the world of Ivalice is an incredibly atmospheric realm that is always a joy to journey through. The combat system could have used a bit more gracefulness and pizazz, but Final Fantasy XII's great story, great customization, and superb world more than make up for any of its slightly awkward growing pains.