For many, Level-5 hold a special place in their hearts for their solid work on the PlayStation 2, with memorable games such as Dark Cloud and Rogue Galaxy, and their charming Professor Layton series on the DS. When they revealed White Knight Chronicles as their first title on the PlayStation 3, a certain buzz was generated, especially considering the promise of unique online play as well as a fully-featured story mode. Expectations among some fans were so high that it was perhaps inevitable that they would not be met, but unfortunately White Knight Chronicles fails to excite on any level, instead providing a much more standard RPG experience than anyone else was expecting either.
You begin the game by creating an avatar, with impressive control over its physical and facial characteristics. There are some truly horrific creations that can be created with this tool, and take it from us, we made a giant with a huge chin, beady eyes, permanently warped eyelids and an Obelix/Fu Man Chu style moustache. However, what soon becomes clear is that you are not creating your own version of the main character that will be questing through the game, but a silent side-character, present for all events of the story and who levels up alongside all your other characters, but who is only truly utilised in the game's 'GeoNet' online play.
'GeoNet' is an interesting idea. It lets the player create their own online town from a list of houses and accessories, which other players can visit. Once you want to do more than just look around a town, up to four players can partake in online 'sub-quests', in which each player uses their avatar. The status and equipment of the avatar reflects your progress in the main game, and more sub-quests also become unlocked as you play further through the story. However, these sub-quests can also be undertaken by a single player if you so choose. The multiplayer, as we said, is indeed interesting, especially when you have a good group together and can co-ordinate successfully, but the game definitely feels as though it should have been a completely online title, rather than splitting its focus. Although, that said, it most likely would still have felt by-the-numbers.
The main story of White Knight Chronicles starts off innocently enough. The youth-destined-for-greatness this month is Leonard, an apprentice at a wine shop in the kingdom of Balandor. The city comes under attack by a group of evil people called the Magi, led by a standard medieval Darth Vader lookalike. They're after the Incorruptus, a giant suit of white armour recovered from ancient ruins, that also proves to be quite a powerful weapon. However, through a series of misadventures, Leonard ends up reaching it first and bonding with it, although he is unable to stop the villains from kidnapping the kingdom's Princess Cisna to use her power to awaken other similar knights' armour. You know the drill from here, set out into the world to rescue the princess so that she can eventually bake a cake for you. We're all for a simple story well told, but White Knight Chronicles' story just feels tired and by-the-numbers. The game lasts for about 30 hours, although we must admit it felt a lot longer due to the slow pacing.
Like the story, the gameplay too is fairly yawn-inducing. They say first impressions count, and your first couple of hours with the game will be spent roaming a generic medieval town, before roaming a generic green field and then roaming back through it again escorting a slow-moving caravan. However, running around environments is just one side of your typical Japanese RPG, the other major component being the battle system. As mentioned, the game feels very much like an MMORPG, with enemies visible on the game map, thus in theory allowing you to choose whether to engage them in combat. However, many will simply attack you anyway, and distance does not seem to be a problem when they try to land their attacks.
When you finally want to engage in combat, you'll find it's a standard turn-based affair. You wait for the on-screen wait-circle to fill up, which will then allow you to perform an attack of your choice. For players used to faster-paced action, the game moves at a snail's pace, as you control a single character while giving basic orders to your AI-controlled comrades (who usually do a so-so job of assisting you). The abilities which are available in battle can be chosen through the game's menu between battles, allowing you to fill up your limited number of command slots with various types of attacks, and create your own combos of several attacks if you're short on space. The combo-creation system is a good idea, but half the time we couldn't work out whether our created combos were actually working effectively, or simply performing the first half of the move. Levelling up allows you to unlock more abilities, spells and moves from different classes, but once again you're limited to how many you use in-battle by the command slots. This makes the game ultimately too simple and dull to play, as generally you'll find that you'll just keep using your most powerful attacks over and over again (while waiting for the circle of boredom to re-fill).
Occasionally, you'll feel the need to transform into the game's titular 'White Knight', which does inject some excitement and fun into the gameplay. The White Knight towers above your party members, and deals out huge amounts of damage with monstrous attacks. You can activate this mode by using up 'AC', which is also used to deal out combos. This means that you can't use the Knight as often as you'd like, which is fine for balancing issues, but also limits how much you play as the White Knight in White Knight Chronicles. It's not a night-and-day difference between regular gameplay and White Knight gameplay, but considering that the regular game feels so generic, any spark of creativity and awesomeness goes a long way.
As we've mentioned, we feel that the design of White Knight Chronicles leaves a lot to be desired, with a very tired medieval-fantasy feel to almost the whole game (with a couple of exceptions). While the FMV sequences are nicely rendered, the in-game graphics feel two years old, probably because they actually are, seeing as the game was released in Japan in 2008. Character design is particularly uninspired as well, making us glad that we had our Fu Man Chu abomination running around to spice things up. There are some nice tracks in the game, including the main theme, and the voice acting is also of a pretty great quality, but there has simply been no effort put into the lip-synching of the game. Characters will barely open their mouths before expounding full sentences, which means that either everyone in this game is a ventriloquist or there are issues.
White Knight Chronicles just doesn't feel very fresh. Perhaps it's because it's arrived at our shores two years late to the party, with the sequel already announced and in production. It may find fans in the ranks of gamers who appreciate JRPGs and have enormous amounts of patience for the games. We found that the game was largely dull, slow and bland in just about every aspect, with occasional sparks of creativity and life in such cases as the White Knight itself. However, even with the added bonus of the online multiplayer, this isn't really a game that will appeal to or be enjoyed by the casual RPG player. If you find yourself choosing between this game and another RPG with some unique twist in the gameplay and story, we say go for that, because unfortunately there are very few surprises here.