Final Fantasy XII is kind of weird.
It's probably not a surprise that the latest game in the series, after the success of Final Fantasy XI, feels a little like the singleplayer mode of an MMORPG, complete with an MMO-ish combat system and a fair amount of grinding mobs.
The surprises mostly come from the other things they've changed. After the last few Final Fantasies, which were apparently more of Tetsuya Nomura's joint than anyone else's, Yasumi Matsuno wound up as FFXII's director. The result is a Final Fantasy game that feels more like Vagrant Story II than anything else, replacing the token romances and quests to save the world of the past games in the series with a plot mostly revolving around war and politics. (Hell, if you added a hundred and two more characters, this could be a Suikoden game.)
Final Fantasy XII is set in the world of Ivalice, like Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, about a thousand years after the events of the latter game. It begins with the invasion of the kingdom of Dalmasca by the Archadian Empire, with the latter intending to use control of Dalmasca in their war against the kingdom of Rozarria. Dalmasca falls, the Dalmascan princess Ashe's new husband dies in the fighting, and Ashe herself is reported to have been killed.
Shortly thereafter, the king of Dalmasca meets with Archadian diplomats to negotiate peace. A band of Dalmascan knights races to stop him from signing the treaty, which is merely a way to get the king somewhere where he can be assassinated, but they're too late. The knights, including a squire named Reks, are killed, as well as the king himself.
Two years later, Rabanastre, the capital of the occupied Dalmasca, is relatively peaceful, even if its inhabitants are chafing under their new imperial rule. Vaan, one of the many young men who was orphaned by the war, and the late Reks's brother, decides that he's going to strike back against the Archadians by breaking into the royal palace and stealing something.
What he steals winds up being far more important than he would've ever imagined, and in turn, he winds up along for the ride in the battle for Dalmasca's liberation.
That hideously brief summarization of the story should tip you off right away that things have changed around here. Vaan isn't the Boy of Destiny who's fated to tip the scales in an epic conflict for the fate of the world; he's just kind of there as events unfold around him. (He is a girl-faced man-woman of dubious gender, but hey: baby steps.) FFXII is set in one part of a much larger world, with a storyline revolving around constant manipulations, deceptions, doublecrosses, and revelations. It feels a little like the series has finally grown up.
It's also worth mentioning that the translation job is top-notch, as is the writing. There are actually likeable characters here, as opposed to characters that you like despite yourself, or that you like because they make fun of the rest of the lameasses in the cast.
To put it more simply, Balthier is probably the best character in this whole damn series to date, and he deserves three more games of his own.
FFXII has also completely abandoned the turn-based hilarity of its predecessors in favor of a system that works a little like that found in the Knights of the Old Republic games. Your party leader is under your direct control, and you can move him or her around the battlefield at will. Your other characters can either be controlled directly, although it's time-consuming and requires a lot of micromanagement, or you can set up their behavior according to certain parameters that the game calls "Gambits." It sounds a little like the game basically plays itself, and to some extent, it does. However, you have enough of a say in what the game does that it never quite feels that way, especially when you can step in and take control of any of your characters at any time.
This, and the newfound relative freedom of the in-game maps, makes combat in FFXII a series of pitched, frantic melees that look more like actual combat than anything the series has offered to date. There's a real sense of hard-fought accomplishment when you make it through a melee, especially when you hit some of the more challenging boss fights. FFXII is, in short, the most challenging Final Fantasy in years, if not the most challenging FF to ever be released.
There are a lot of other, minor things that I appreciate. The game's design is impressively large, giving its environments a certain feel that previous FFs haven't had; its cities look vast, its wildernesses look deep, and its dungeons are actually foreboding. MP now regenerates on its own, making spellcasters more useful in the field; there are tons of subtle shout-outs to past Final Fantasy games; and each character is both unique and somewhat customizable, letting you form the party you want.
(To explain a little further, the characters can all be made to use the same weapons and armor if you want, but their stats are different enough that you'll find they naturally gravitate towards certain roles. Fran and Penelo are offensive casters, Ashe is the well-rounded fighter-mage protagonist type, Basch is a tank, and Vaan and Balthier are faster than the rest, making them good thieves and secondary warriors. You could make them do other things if you wanted, but you'd be working against their strengths.)
With the refinements made to the story, the impressively complex combat engine, and the sheer length of the game (FFXII clocks in at about eighty hours if you do nothing other than run hell-for-leather towards the ending, with occasional time taken out to level-grind or hunt monsters for cash), FFXII is, on paper, a big step forward for the series. It's the FF game for people who don't like FF games, and it's hard to imagine any but the most conservative (read: bitchy) fan of the series hating this.
There are a couple of major problems with it, though, although they're both something that could readily be fixed. One is that the Gambit system is initially very limited, and you have to buy improvements to it; not only do you need to acquire Gambit Slots as you level up, but you need to purchase many of the parameters under which a Gambit will go off at stores through the game world. Common-sense stuff is available when you start the game, yeah, but some really obviously useful Gambits simply aren't there until you're almost done, like "Weak (fire)."
I also found myself wanting more complicated Gambits at a few points, as right now, a Gambit consists entirely of "if x, do y." It would be nice to have "if x and y, do z," which would make getting an AI party member to Steal much easier.
Most importantly, FFXII has quite a few of the more annoying elements of an MMORPG. Treasure chests and item drops are randomized, and worse, getting the best weapons and armor require you to farm monsters until you get the drops you need.
The difficulty curve is set up to force you to do a lot of extraneous grinding as you progress through the game, both for levels and for cash. While there's a lot of exploring you can do while you're at it, you're still going to wind up running in circles outside town looking for monsters. Money is now incredibly scarce, in a game where everything you need is something you can buy, from spells to skills to weapons and armor. It's like we've stepped eleven games into the past, and we're running in circles around Corneria beating up goblins.
That's Final Fantasy XII in a nutshell. It's an MMORPG without the second M or the O, and while it's not perfect by a damn sight, it's better than the last few FF games have been. This is a positive step for the series, and it'll be interesting to see what it does for both its sequels, and for the JRPG genre as a whole.