White Knight Chronicles is an RPG made by Level 5, the creators of Dragon Quest 8, Rogue Galaxy, and the Dark Cloud series. It was announced early on in the Playstation 3's life, and many in both Japan and the West eagerly anticipated it... until it was met with disappointing sales in Japan. Now - more than a year after its original release - the game is finally coming over stateside with considerably more options, but will the game prove to be a good buy for RPG-ers, or will its Western additions and core gameplay fail to please the people who've been waiting so long for its localized release?
The story of White Knight Chronicles is, for the lack of a better word, cliché. It focuses around a guy named Leonard, who works in a winery. After a few quick events Leonard, accompanied by your avatar (more on that later) journeys to a nearby town for a regular wine delivery but comes back to his city and quickly finds it under attack, with the princess (who he spontaneously loves for no solid reason) being put into danger. During this hecticness, Leonard obtains the ability to turn into a White Knight – the closest thing to a medieval, giant, sword-wielding mech – and the princess gets kidnapped. The rest of the story follows Leonard as he meets up with people who join up with him and have their own little secrets while always on the tail of the guys who stole the princess.
If the player can ignore the generic-ness of the story, it really is not as boring as it sounds. This is primarily due to the fact that the game KNOWS that it is cliché-ridden, and characters will either outright comment on it (one of the villains bemoans how Leonard is always 'just in the nick of time') or do something else to make the situation humorous at the story's expense. However the story still remains predictable and aside from a few twists near the end of the game, the player will probably be able to figure out what will happen next. It's fairly obvious that Level 5 really did not put as much emphasis on the story here as they did on other elements of the game, but it's still disappointing that your created character has absolutely no role in the story outside of the very first scene. He or she is just kind of “there”, with everyone ignoring him/her.
The game makes it obvious that Level 5 put the most effort into making the overall gameplay incredibly solid. The battle system is similar to the system used in Final Fantasy 11 and 12: enemies and allies alike take turns attacking or supporting each other after a circular “bar” fills up, but maintain the ability to move around the battlefield in real-time. To prevent people from abusing the system (attack, then run away outside the enemy's range so they can never attack you) the system makes it so that if the player or his allies are in the range of an enemy when the enemy's turn comes up, it can strike the player with the prepared attack no matter where the player runs to afterwards (though the player can still dodge and block attacks).
One thing that White Knight did not fortunately pick up from FF12 is the license system, instead opting to use a skill point mastery system. Player skills are situated into one of eight categories: six weapon-based categories including knife, sword and spear, as well as divine (white) and elemental (black magic). As the player levels up, he or she can assign points anywhere he/she wants and gain additional usable and passive abilities as a result. However, the player is never given enough points to master all the trees – though fortunately there is a way to reset point usage in a new-game+ quest and give additional points – so the player can never be an all-wielding god and must specialize in one thing or antoher to do well. This system allows players to customize characters any way they want, while limiting point-spending enough that all characters can not be the same as the rest.
This level of customization is also shown in the player-avatar creation, which occurs at the beginning of any new game (or with a ticket that's buyable with real-world money). This customization system is easy to use yet is amazingly deep; it even gives the option to the player to customize MOLE POSITION on the face. A player can customize virtually anything on the body from size and curvature to jaw depth and expression, so it is virtually impossible to come across another player who has a “clone” of your character. In fact, this creation engine is so varied that it was used to make every single NPC in the game look different from each other; a keen-eyed player will notice that NPCs have pieces that are selectable during avatar creation, but also enough non-usable pieces to make them stand out.
The real meat of the game, however, comes from the stuff outside of battle: the binding system and the online gameplay. Like other Level 5 games, players can mix two items together to get new armor and weapons. However this version of synthesis (called “binding” in the game) is far more restrictive, requiring you to have a particular number of certain materials to get the armor or weapon a player might want. On top of being able to synthesize equipment the player can also upgrade the equipment he or she already has, allowing a person to go through a good chunk of the single-player game without needing to buy new equipment if the current stuff is properly upgraded. However, to get the higher-end, cooler-looking armor and weapons players will have to take on side-quests. These side-quests can be taken on by the player... but only the player's avatar is allowed in, making the quests that have the worthwhile material incredibly hard to complete.
Enter online mode, by far the most fun element that White Knight Chronicles has to offer. Players can go online by signing into Geonet at any of the save crystals in the world, and there are quite a few things to do while logged on. The White Knight Team implemented a social message-board that reminds me heavily of the quick, short-post type of topics I saw in games like Dot Hack and Dot Hack GU (and based on topics there, I'm not alone in this regard). Each player also gets his or her own home-page and “hometown”, which is literally what it sounds like: each player gets a place that they can spend in-game money on to expand and build houses and monuments, and recruit people from the singe-player portion to come and live there. The general-store owner changes his selection of stuff based on what jobs the residents currently have and how many of a particular occupation are settled in town, so the variation in towns is huge. Couple this variation with the fact that it costs a pretty penny to expand a hometown and make it look decent and the player can spend hours on this feature alone. After the person's done, s/he can then invite players to come in and take quests as well.
Doing quests online is similar to doing quests offline, only a player's allies will obviously also be human-controlled. There is a decent variation on what a player can do in a quest (from simple slaying missions to getting to the end of a dungeon by figuring out different door-lever combinations), and both USB-keyboards and voice-chat is allowed. It also massively helps that as of this writing, the general White Knight community is incredibly helpful and friendly; I have rarely met a person whose main purpose is to cause grief to the other members of the party, even if no one in the party knows each other. The only thing that hampers online communication is the horrid, horrid censorship feature that can never be turned off. It makes absolutely no sense; a person is allowed to say something like “damn”, but words like “after” or anything with “con” in it (including, believe it or not, the pre-made “Congrats!” message that Sony themselves put in for people who didnt have a keyboard or headset) are starred out, and there's no way to un-censor the words outside of typing them out with spaces between.
The graphics for White Knight Chronicles are not the best on the market – which given that it's an almost-year-and-a-half-year old game is understandable – but is still solid: every piece of armor looks different from each other, and the same could be said about the weapons as well. Not one character looks the same as another (unless they're hooded knights), and the surroundings that the player wonders around in are vast and amazingly varied. There is not one time that I can think of where I felt like I was wondering through a copycat dungeon while playing through the game.
The graphics and gameplay are assisted by a well-made, fun soundtrack. The main theme song can stay in a person's head for ages, and the other music, while not as memorable, are still varied and fun to listen to and fit the area or event that is currently being played. The voice-acting is also solid, as everyone gets into character fairly well... the only thing that really takes people away from the experience is the questionable script, which has many awkwardly-worded lines.
Unfortunately, while I did enjoy White Knight Chronicles tremendously, I still have a few grievances aside from the ones already mentioned. The major one is in regards to cost and in-game boom-for-the-buck: it costs so much to just upgrade your town just a bit that you'll be spending an hour or more just trying to afford it, which can ruin the immersion for a player. Furthermore, the binding system isn't very useful until the player gets into the higher-rank quests, as most of the low-rank, single-player gear have similar stats to buyable armor but have different looks. The other issue I have with the game is with New Game Plus. While chests in new game+ have better equipment the second time around, the game locks binding and prohibits players from doing online quests in dungeons that they have not unlocked in the CURRENT walkthrough. This makes New Game+ feel quite a bit like a punishment for taking the mode, as the player is forced to go through a story (albeit with skippable cutscenes) that he or she has gone through before just to go on a quest that they want to.
White Knight Chronicles turned out to NOT be a single-player-focused RPG with an “epic” storyline, unlike how Sony advertised the game. What it DID turn out to be was an incredible game with very fun, heavily-customizable gameplay and an amazingly in—depth and fun online system and community. As long as a person is going in expecting a game with solid gameplay and a bit of an online focus, he or she will probably enjoy White Knight Chronicles massively, and I suggest that any other RPG-er at least give it a rental and see how it is.
- Neil Chatterjee