The best game in the series
When discussing FFXII, I occasionally see criticism for how it "didn't feel like a Final Fantasy game".
This has always confused me. I must admit, I don't truly understand what is necessary to be a Final Fantasy game other than the title. Looking at the series as a whole, the only connections I can find between them are purely superficial ones, such as crystals, chocobos, airships, and a guy named Cid. FFXII has all of these, so I don't understand the conflict. That said, I can accept the possibility that as a non-fan, there simply may be something about the series that I am unaware of that FFXII lacks.
However, regardless of whether FFXII deserves the name it has, I do know that FFXII is simply great. This game is my personal favorite of the series, my favorite PS2 game not made by Atlus, and one of the greatest RPGs I have ever played.
The size of the game is simply massive. The locations in the world are large yet are still detailed and varied. The designs aren't especially unique when compared to other RPGs, but they don't feel copy-pasted and they feel distinct from one another. Open world games sometimes feel to me as though they weren't designed carefully and trade quality for quantity. FFXII, however, feels as though it was crafted carefully yet still delivers a grand sense of scale.
There's also a lot of content in the quest design. Even beyond the main quest, there are plenty of hunts to sign up for, Espers (Summons) to fight and recruit, and optional areas of the game to explore. This game could give you 100 hours easily if you really want to get everything out of it.
More than anything, the battle system is where the game shines. Transitioning from battle to battle is fast and smooth, and gambits allow you to implement complex strategies and they eliminate the need to select the same command ad nauseam. Furthermore, unlike many previous entries in the series, buffs, debuffs, and status ailments are quite useful even against bosses and allow a wide variety of strategies to use in battle.
I also want to commend the soundtrack. Music for the Giza Plains and Dalmasca Eastersand convey a grand scope with the sweeping scores, and the music for the Sohen Cave Palace has a very haunting feel to it. It's not quite the best OST in the series, but it has a great feel and serves the mood of the game well.
There are some issues with the pacing of the game. The beginning has too many fetch quests, and before gambits become available the battles are uninteresting. In addition, the last few hours of the main quest can drag because the last few dungeons have some frustrating design decisions and are longer than they should have been. At the same time, the license board starts to fill up and your characters do not grow at the same rate that they used to. The beginning of and end of the game is a bit of slog, but most of everything in between is exciting. But in spite of these flaws, FFXII is a stellar experience.
I've played through FFXII three times, and each playthrough was better than the last. I don't hesitate to say that this is one of my all-time favorites and an ideal model from which to build an RPG, Final Fantasy game or not.