Its predecessor, the often derided but still likeable Final Fantasy XII brought a lot of new ideas to the table. It took what Square-Enix and the rest of the industry had learned about MMORPGs and extracted some really good, core concepts. They instituted a living world, where many NPCs had their own schedules, livelihoods, and missions. It took a lot of us by surprise when we would be out on a regular monster hunt, and suddenly an NPC would heal us or give us some other kind of assistance. We didn’t even need to ask!
But what made it magical is that the NPC wasn’t always there. In fact, they usually weren’t, and that made the experience feel less like an automatic function of the game. It was more like someone else was playing in the same world as you — even though that wasn’t possible.
Now, some people were put off by the battle system, considering its sharp departure from the standard aesthetics of the Active Time Battle system, Final Fantasy’s combat standby. But in all reality, what did the new system change? It let you move around and retreat from enemy area attacks, which introduced new strategic elements. It also removed the transition screens between the regular world and the battle screen. Lastly, it did one really, really important thing: It put wildlife in the world.
Beforehand, Final Fantasy locales were pretty barren. The scenario writers and programmers often did a good job of hiding it by creating a placid or melancholy mood to fit empty screen sequences, or by offering frequent and random battle encounters. It basically broke up how often you were on an empty screen.
Outside of these minor changes, however, the system retained all of the characteristics of the ATB. Timers still went up, skills were still menu-based, and it made excellent use of a programmable AI system. Now, we’ve all made jokes about the Gambit system, how you can turn it on for all characters and therefore put battles on autopilot. But it also shortened how long battles had to take, and offered a more realistic dynamic to the battle scenario. It gave the user a lot of choices, and allowed for the friendly AI to be user-programmed, instead of simply relying on vague motivators like “aggressive” or “stay away”. As someone who’s played a lot of games, FFXII showed me the evolution of what Star Ocean, Kingdom Hearts, and other games like them had attempted.