Final Fantasy XII is the first single-player game in the long-running Japanese RPG series to diverge from the classic turn-based combat and take a more innovative Western approach to RPG gameplay. Drawing inspiration from such titles as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, World of Warcraft, the original Baldur's Gate series on PC, as well as past Final Fantasy titles, Final Fantasy XII creates a unique play experience that combines the best of traditional Japanese RPG's and Western PC RPG's and MMO's into something that's truly special.
Unlike past Final Fantasy games, the player and party travel the world in real time, without random battles that take you to a traditional fighting screen. As in American MMO's, you see your adversaries wandering around the map, which is sectioned off in a zone-style that will be familiar to players of World of Warcraft, Everquest and Final Fantasy XI. The fights transpire in real time as they do in Western RPG's, with the NPC's controlled by powerful AI scripts called "Gambits," with the player primarily guiding the party leader. However, there's a lot of flexibility in this system, where the player can -- as in the Baldur's Gate series -- effectively cause the game to autopause after each action, making a pseudo-turn-based experience. Gambits can also be disabled so the player can micromanage all of the members of the party and not just the leader. This level of flexibility is useful in some of the game's most strategic boss fights, while players may want to leave their party on autopilot for much of the level grinding.
In terms of story, Final Fantasy XII marks the series' return to the world of Ivalice, which first appeared in the classic Final Fantasy Tactics on PSOne, as well as Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on GBA and Final Fantasy Tactics A2 on DS. It follows a thief named Vaan, who becomes caught up in the intrigue and politics surrounding the country of Dalmasca, which was recently conquered by the nearby Archadian Empire. The plot draws inspiration from Western books such as George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" and Gavriel Guy Kay's "Tigana," as well as a healthy dose of Star Wars. Party members include the Sky Pirate Balthier and his partner Fran, Vaan's longtime friend Penelo, and members of the former government of Dalmasca. I certainly found it a lot easier to follow than the plots of previous Final Fantasy games on Playstation and PS2.
Overall, J-RPG fans should approach Final Fantasy XII with an open mind. It's a very different game from past titles in the series, but that by no means diminishes it as a thoroughly entertaining and (sometimes) challenging experience. A great combat system, memorable ensemble cast, and delightful musical score all help make the title a thorough success.
A note to PS3 players with software backwards compatibility: Widescreen mode does not work. Set the game to 4:3, and it should run just fine, but 16:9 compresses the image on the screen. Otherwise, the game looks and runs great in software backwards compatibility. Players with older PS3's that contain true hardware backwards compatibility should not experience any problems.