Final Fantasy XII does so much to reinvent the JRPG template that it hardly belongs in the same genre, much less part of the Final Fantasy series. Concepts like the "field map" and "battle scenes" have all been blended together into a more cohesive whole.
At the crux of this are the guild hunts -- featuring a huge slew of side-quests that can keep obsessive gamers busy for scores of hours -- and the Gambit system, which administers the real-time fighting segments, which have graduated beyond the random battles of RPGs past.
The Gambit system essentially allows you to program all of your characters' AI routines, so you don't need to issue individual commands to your party. While many other action-oriented RPGs have similar features (like the Star Ocean and the Tales series), Final Fantasy XII offers a lot more freedom, and depth, in customizing your actions.
The most basic Gambits can simply tell all of your characters to attack the same monster as the party leader, or simply target the enemy with the lowest HP. If one of your allies HP dips below a certain percentage, it will trigger one of your members to cast a healing spell. And so forth.
The idea is that you're creating a machine which constantly needs tweaking and adjusting, until you've found a combination of commands that works for the party you've built and the enemies you're facing. And, really, this is what all combat is in any JRPG anyway -- looking for the most efficient ways to kill bad guys while managing your resources, all without the crazy flashing screen changes that have marked every JRPG since their inception.
It's not just the Gambit system that sets Final Fantasy XII apart. It also has a story and game world so vastly different from its brethren. It's undoubtedly the classiest and most mature entry in the series, and the only game it remotely channels is the spinoff Final Fantasy Tactics.
Both of these games were helmed by brilliant game designer Yasumi Matsuo, who rather infamously quit the FFXII team during development. Matsuno seems to have had an admiration of tales of tragic war and Shakespearean drama, all triumphantly backed by the music of Hitoshi Sakimoto, whose orchestrations feel more significant than Uematsu's synth-heavy new age/prog rock found in the prior Final Fantasy games.
However, there's a bit of duality as a result of Matsuno working on a more "popular" title -- his games always felt a little bit more legitimate since he never appeared to be selling out, but Final Fantasy is a series that creates characters designed to appeal to its ardent fanbase.
Not to say some of his games have been completely devoid of more lurid fan-baiting qualities -- did anyone in Vagrant Story actually wear pants? -- but when you're used to his kind of authenticity, it's a bit disconcerting to find yourself wondering how long it takes Vaan to get his hair so perfect, or wondering how anyone can take a princess seriously when wearing the kind of hot pants that Ashe tries to pull off.
In FF Tactics Advance, the Viera were cutesy in the same way that Beatrix Potter's Peter the Rabbit would be cutesy, if he were wielding a bow and arrow. Here, the dark skinned, light haired Fran wears a metallic thong, and the camera takes great delight in panning up her backside. As such, it's the highlights -- if not necessarily the best parts -- of both worlds.
The Final Fantasy series has always divided fans in a way no other series has, but Final Fantasy XII is bound to infuriate more than most -- and, as one can be probably guess, most of it was probably Matsuno's fault. It's so drastically different from not only its predecessors, but practically any modern role playing game out there, and its expansiveness attract as many as it offends. The plot and characterizations start off strong, but soon dwindle and lose focus amongst the numerous dungeon crawls at the game's end.
Plot threads get resolved as soon as they begin, if they go anywhere at all. And yet, the de-emphasis on storytelling is a fine alternative to the plot heavy Final Fantasy X, or even to any of the cinematically linear PSOne titles.
As one of the biggest concessions between old school and new school, when you defeat a major boss, your characters will all stand around in a circle and do a winning pose to the tune of the classic victory theme. This throwback serves as a reminder to how silly all of the past RPG conventions have been, and at the same time perhaps making the player realize that they don't miss them.