Dark Cloud developer Level-5’s first foray onto the PlayStation 3, White Knight Chronicles tells the tale of a teenaged orphan named Leonard, who through a series of unfortunate circumstances makes a pact with the White Knight, a powerful weapon of war from the distant past. Using his newfound ability to transform into a gigantic armoured behemoth, Leonard sets out on an epic quest to rescue a kidnapped princess and solve the mystery of the Knights.
It’s a relatively straightforward role-playing game, only made less so by the inclusion of Geonet, an online community feature where players can join up with up to three others to participate in challenging optional quests, earning fame, fortune, and materials to help you create and maintain your own online town.
Could this be a wholly original role-playing game, despite starring an orphan with strange powers and a mysterious past? Probably not, but read the review anyway.
What A Wonderful World: White Knight Chronicles takes place in a large, expansive, and vibrant world that teems with life, from the bustling towns to the arid deserts. The art design is a pleasant melding of several disparate elements and influences, from the hint of Persona-esque oddity in certain creature designs to the giant knights, the look of which hints at a possible Gundam inspiration. The familiar feel is counterbalanced by some truly unique settings. The walking city of Gried is completely breathtaking, but not nearly as impressive as one of the environments you’ll find yourself clinging to later in the game. I won’t spoil it.
Building A Better Adventurer: Creating your custom character is just the beginning. I can’t recall a semi-traditional role-playing game that gave you anywhere near the level of control over your characters statistics as White Knight Chronicles does. Every level you are given skill points, which can be doled out in any of eight different skill sets, including six weapons and two types of magic. You can pour all of your points into one specialty, or scatter them about, picking up statistic bonuses from others to bolster your character’s statistics. Once you’ve got some skills lined up, you can create custom combo attacks, stringing together weapon attacks (and a little elemental magic, if you’re feeling fancy), to create devastating sequences limited only by the amount of Action Chips you’ve accrued through using normal attacks.
It can get a bit complicated and time consuming. Characters have a limited amount of skills available at any one time, so a player could spend a good twenty minutes just making sure they have the right abilities on hand for any given quest. Still, it’s a system that rewards the patient and calculating, while not crippling those who’d rather simply hit the enemy again and again until they die.
Quests, Quests, and More Quests: If playing through the main storyline is too easy for you, then you need to give the quest system a try. While the named player characters are off adventuring, your personal avatar can slip off to perform a large number of increasingly difficult quests. While they start off simply enough, requiring you to kill X number of monsters in X minutes, the goals and enemies you face will become more powerful as your guild rank increases and you unlock tougher challenges.
While some quests are doable alone, Level-5 and Sony have created a strong community backbone for online questing in Geonet, encouraging players to play together by maintaining online adventurer logs, friends lists, and lists of folks you might have just run with once or twice along the way. It’s a whole other side of the game, and with a little more polish it could have very well been a game unto itself, perhaps even challenging Capcom’s Monster Hunter series for online adventuring dominance. Okay, a lot more polish.
Level 5 Knows Town Building: Straddling the gap between the questing system and the main story is your Georama, a town you create with materials you find in game then populate with characters recruited in game, but dependent on developing a high guild level through questing in order to grow to any great size. Creating your own town can be quite complicated, from gathering the right ingredients to craft the building you want, to pairing up resident in homes in order to raise the statistics needed to generate rare raw materials, which can then be crafted into rare equipment. This game-within-a-game can function as the ultimate reward for those conquering both the online and offline aspects of White Knight Chronicles, as it takes elements of both for your city to thrive.
Or a hefty wallet. The PlayStation Store is crammed with town enhancements, available for purchase to players too impatient to hunt for the right materials.
Your Style Shows: I don’t know about your role-playing game preferences, but I like to see my equipment choices reflected on my characters immediately, and White Knight Chronicles does just that, maintaining the appearance you give both your custom creation and the story characters throughout the game’s cut scenes. It may not be a big deal to some of you, but it means the world to me.
Some Closure Please?: It’s hard to talk about White Knight Chronicles’ story critically without spoiling major plot points, but I’m tempted, especially considering how predictable the game’s major plot points are. When someone watching me play the game for all of thirty minutes determines the true identity of one of the game’s main villains without possessing any foreknowledge of that game whatsoever, then you’ve got a predictable game, but that’s not my main issue with the plot of White Knight Chronicles. My main problem is that Level-5 built this game with the sequel in mind, so when you reach the end, don’t expect any big revelations or any real closure whatsoever.
One particular story arc, important enough for a series of cut scenes that interrupts the main story sporadically, goes absolutely nowhere. A group sets off on a journey, they continue the journey, stop for a beer, and then continue the journey. Maybe they’ll make the game a trilogy, and they can walk throughout the second one as well.
So Big, So Expansive, So Lost: The large, gorgeous landscapes and dungeons of White Knight Chronicles do have one drawback: it’s incredibly easy to get lost. I’m sure several hours of my 35-hour-plus play through were spent trying to find my way from point A to point B. The maps do contain helpful stars telling you where your next goal is, but when you’re in a multi-level area and not on the level your goal is, those stars disappear. I’m almost get the feeling Level-5 was trying to get the player lost on purpose, as even when you’re travelling with a guest character who should know the area you are in like the back of his hand, he provides no assistance whatsoever in navigating your maze-like surroundings.
The Waiting Game: For all of the flexibility you have in managing your characters’ battle skills, the fighting itself is a major let-down. It’s essentially a turn-based system with an element of positioning that really doesn’t matter all that much. You’ve got a circle meter that fills with varying degrees of slowness according to the armour your character is wearing. Once the circle is complete you can execute a command, and then wait again. Combos briefly turn the gauge into a sequence of timed button presses, but the meter is always there. You can manoeuvre yourself around the enemy, but it doesn’t seem to help you avoid attacks one way or the other. Call it Final Fantasy XI, or Final Fantasy XII without the benefit of highly customisable AI actions; either way it’s not the way I want to fight in a RPG.
Easy Like Sunday Morning: My first death in White Knight Chronicles came about twenty hours into the game, and that was only because my healer got stuck trying to jump off of a ledge and wasn’t actually doing any healing. With such an intricate skills and combo creation system in place, one would expect the game to be a bit more challenging in order to reward those that master it. Instead, I spent most of the game using my character’s low-end attack, building up so I can transform into the White Knight and wipe the field with my enemies. Later in the game I stopped using the White Knight altogether outside of boss fights, in order to ensure I had points available to transform when needed.
The one-handed sword skillset has something like thirty different usable skills. I made it through the game (outside of some experimentation) using one or two of them. That doesn’t seem right to me.
You’re Just There: I spent a good half-hour to an hour creating the perfect digital representation of myself using White Knight Chronicles’ robust character creation tools. I launched the game, excited about seeing how my character fit into the story. Aside from a few references to the “new guy” within the first hour of play and the odd exchanged glance, he didn’t. Outside of fighting, my character might as well have been a cardboard cutout, placed in the background of scenes of great import. In fact, I would have enjoyed the inclusion of my character in the story more had he been a cardboard cutout. At least then I would have gotten a giggle or two out of it.
I realise that your character is mainly in the game to represent you when playing the game online, but that almost makes it worse. Here I am, running off to do all of these quests in the middle of our grand adventure, and no one even acknowledges that I exist, much less my great accomplishments. Level-5 might have been better off making the online game and the offline game two different titles.
What do you look for in a role-playing game? The role-playing genre means different things to every player, so it’s important to know the answer to that question before reading too much into this review. In my case, I want a solid adventure with compelling characters, a solid plot, and a resolution that makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. I also enjoy managing the minutiae, assigning skill points, maxing out my armour and weapon enhancements, and seeing real results of my toil on the field of battle. Going by those guidelines, White Knight Chronicles is, at best, inconsistent. The characters are compelling, but the story falls short, leaving me feeling unfulfilled. The micromanagement I crave is there, but the fruits of my labour are wasted in the single-player story, only ripening once I delve deeper into the optional quest system. Ultimately it doesn’t quite live up to my expectations.
White Knight Chronicles certainly has its fair share of brilliant moments. Creating a devastating combo, harvesting rare components from your Georama, or taking on a particularly difficult quest by yourself – these are the moments when the game truly shines. It also has its share of low points – realising just hitting the enemy repeatedly with the same attack works just as well, catching a glimpse of your wooden character creation in the background of an important scene, or the ending of the story as a whole – which nullify the game’s brilliance, leaving us with a title that’s simply average.
White Knight Chronicles: International Edition was developed by Level-5 and published by Sony Computer Entertainment on February 2nd for the PlayStation 3. Retails for $US59.99/$AU109.95. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the main story completely. Testing online multiplayer questing and extensively explored the Geonet town-building mechanic.
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