Final Fantasy games were always quite different from each other in terms of specific systems - equipment, magic, abilities etc. but the basic template of the console RPG was always fairly rigid. By the time FFXII neared completion I'd had enough of the genre, and every entry I tried in any series left me cold. Mainly I no longer had the patience for random encounters and the necessary amounts of levelling required to progress.
Everything I heard about XII lifted my hopes. A team that had created some of my favourite games, no random battles, a gameworld scaled to the player characters and an intricate combat system that took care of the more mundane tasks. By the time the game released my anticipation for it was huge.
I wasn't disappointed. It's amazing what was squeezed out of the PS2 hardware purely in visual terms. The vast world of Ivalice has detail bursting from every corner, densely populated cities and towns, and everything is beautifully animated. It's genuinely enjoyable to just wander around the zones taking in the sights. It's a tour de force for the PS2, a perfect swansong for the machine.
The gameplay matches the technical achievement every step of the way. It's actually fun to run around and fight! The lack of a separate battle screen makes the game flow superbly, chaining together enemies as you make your way through each area. Boss fights are intensely tactical affairs, forcing you to adapt to changing situations on the fly. Where other RPGs have held my interest through their stories or the compulsion to manipulate and exploit the various systems, Final Fantasy XII is a game I actually enjoy playing. You can lose yourself for hours in optional sidequests - the clan hunts being particularly addictive - and for the stat hounds the AI gambit system and license board has enough depth to keep you experimenting and tinkering through the night.
On a story level it's Yasumi Matsuno's usual blend of political intrigue, shady dealings and double-crosses. The plot is almost secondary to the experience of playing though. The epic feel of the game is enhanced by a magnificent score. Hitoshi Sakimoto bringing his big orchestral guns to bear and pulling off the substantial task with aplomb.
Final Fantasy XII took a series in desperate need of a change and single-handedly breathed new life into it. Rarely have my hopes been met so completely by a game I was looking forward to.