I've played most of the games in the FF series to at least SOME extent. I've only finished a few, and watched another couple get played by others. I've played lots of other RPGs, as well, which has led me to desire more than Square has been giving us in the previous few installments. From what I can tell, an FF game can be split into three main componants: story, battle system, and levelling/ability system. I'm putting levelling and abilities together because in a most cases they're in separable. So let's look at FFXII.
I haven't really gotten too far along in the narrative, so it's hard for me to make that great an assessment, but from what I've seen so far, it rivals FFVI in complexity and scale. It seems to be a story of various kingdoms fighting over the world they all inhabit. It's actually very similar to FFT in that regards, which makes sense. It needs a glossary and summary page like FFT had, though. The characters seem okay, if a bit generic. None of them are terribly annoying.
FFXII is the first single-player Final Fantasy where battle take place on the main screen. Presumably FFXI Online is the same, but I haven't played it, nor do I intend to. It doesn't take you off to another battle screen with differently rendered characters. You run around and start wacking away at anything you see. Or you can fairly easily run from them. The system allows (well, requires) you to set up "Gambits" for all the characters which are basically if...then statements telling your party what to do. in a given situation. For example, you can set it such that Fran will cast Cure any time anyone gets below 70% HP. I haven't purchased many Gambits, yet, but I can already see how this could be a very handy tool. Each character has a time bar, similar to an ATB bar from previous games, that shows you what they're doing and when they'll do it. Pretty much everything has a charge-up time before it can be performed. Items are nearly instant, and spells usually take a few seconds, as do attacks. You can switch members in and out of your party at any time, as long as they're not being targeted, which is a nice feature borrowed from FFX. It's fun and fast paced, and definitely a step up from what we've seen before.
Up till this point, the ATB system was the most innovative the series has gotten. Admittedly, the ATB in FFX-2 was so fast, it was almost real-time, but it was still essentially the same ATB we've been using since FFIV. I'm not knocking it, mind you, but variety is the spice of life, after all. At least it's not Dragon Quest VIII, which uses basically the same turn-based combat system Enix has been using since the first Dragon Quest. There's a series that doesn't move forward. I don't know, I think I've just been spoiled by more active combat systems like in the Tales and Star Ocean series.
Anyway, I'm enjoying the combat. It brings back from selecting options to feeling like you're taking a part in the battle. Of course, with a good Gambit setup, you can basically set the controller down and do something else while it plays itself.
As far as levelling goes, FFXII returns to the standard XP system. Gain enough XP, and you gain a level, with some increased stats. Where it diverges is in the abilities. The new License system is kind of like FFX's Sphere Grid on speed. Every enemy gives you LP, which you spend on the License Grid, to buy the ability to use spells, techniques, weapons, armor, and accessories. This thing is, you only buy the ability to use them. You still have to buy the actual spells and weapons with actual Gil, which is exceedingly scarce in the game. Enemies don't drop it, for the most part. Human enemies do, but not creatures. They drop loot which can be sold for Gil. Anyway, every character starts at almost the same places on the board. They're not really more than a few spots apart. Naturally, this makes it pretty simple to create a bunch of identical characters, something I've never really liked. At least with the Sphere Grid, the characters started at different areas that didn't really converge for a long time. The grid is pretty big, and I doubt I'll fill it out for anyone. I think I need to start specializing characters, but the problem is that even if I give someone a bunch of spell types, I still need to BUY the actual spells. Grind, grind, grind.
The graphics are amazing, all around. It seriously looks better than some of the next-gen stuff I've seen. The music is prety good, but nothing too memorable yet. The voice acting is acceptable, however, the sound quality of it is pretty poor. Basically, the whole game sounds like it's being spoken through a walk-talkie. Overall it's a neat game, but I still haven't decided if I like it, which kind of scares me.