White Knight Chronicles is one of those long awaited games for the Playstation 3 that we have seen footage of at every E3 for years. The wait certainly wasn’t helped by an exceedingly long wait for the game to be localized for Western release. Combining an MMO-like online component with a single player JRPG sounds like a perfect way to increase playtime and allow people to continue exploring a game’s world, but have Level 5 bitten off more than they can chew with this challenge?
The story is a variant of one of the most basic video game plots in existence. A princess is in trouble and it’s your job to go save her. Leonard is the hero of the story who was delivering wine to Princess Cisna’s coming-of-age party when a mysterious group known as the Magi crash the party and kidnap Cisna after killing her father and the foreign dignitary that he had hoped to foster peace with. During this raid Leonard attempts to escape with Cisna through underground passages beneath the palace and ends up randomly coming upon and gaining the power of a Knight, a long dormant weapon from ancient times. So now you have a kingdom with no ruler, an impending war with a neighboring kingdom, a princess to save and the power to fix any one of these problems. Leonard is a typical adolescent boy, so he decides to think with his lower brain and you go running off after the princess.
None of this dooms the story to being bad, sure it is rather a cliché to be a young boy fighting to save a princess, but it’s how the story is told that makes it bad. It seems like every fifth or sixth time someone in this game opens their mouth they’re saying something stupid that makes me cringe. If you're a fan of JRPGs you will be more prepared for these moments than most, but even I was not fully ready for it. I think the inclusion of voice acting has been a detriment to low quality JRPGs with a lot of clichés in their stories because it makes them that much more obvious. There just aren't enough positives in this game’s story to make up for all the times when I wanted to turn the TV off, or at least mute it. Sappy romance scenes even make an entrance when Leonard dances with the projected image of the princess across a lake. Why exactly Leonard could walk on water at that point is beyond me.
The gameplay mechanics in White Knight Chronicles seem like an inexplicable decision on the part of the developers, until you remember that this game is not just a JRPG but also an MMORPG. The battle system plays out in real time as you take control of one of the three members of your party. Every 5-6 seconds a ring in the bottom right corner will fill up and then you can use one of your character abilities. Most abilities cost action chips which you replenish by either taking damage or dealing damage, while a few cost MP. You don’t get a massive amount of action chips, so most of your moves will be taken up performing the cost-free basic attack again and again. It is an extremely slow battle system that is for the most part boring. Most fights take absolutely no strategy to win and you find yourself cursing the slowly filling ring as you wait to press the button for your next basic attack. Characters that are in battle that you don’t directly control can have their general tactics set, but these are very limited, so if you want someone to tank you are going to have to do that yourself and trust the computer to complete the relatively simple jobs of dealing damage and healing.
Leveling the characters gives you skill points that you can use to customize each character’s job. The skill choices are based around the weapon that you want that person to use or whether you want them to heal or cast black magic. Weapons range from a bow, 2-handed sword, and axe for damage dealers, to a wand for casters, and a one-handed sword or one-handed spear for tanks. Skills you obtain when putting points into each of these weapons are designed well enough to allow for different playstyles while still giving you the tools you need to do the specific job it is designed for. However, using these skills brings forward one of White Knight Chronicles’ biggest annoyances.
You have 3 menus of 7 possible skills that you can assign each character, and they can only use these 21 skills that you assign them. This leads to a massive amount of largely boring menu work as you assign skills to each character that the AI will probably never make them use anyway, but you have to assign them for it to even be a possibility. Characters also have a limited number of items they can carry and use during battle, which is expected and fine, but their equipment is included in these items. This means that whenever you want to switch around equipment you either have to do it from the item screen (which doesn’t let you see how the new equipment affects the character’s stats but does let you switch items from character to character), or change equipment in the equipment screen, go back to the item screen to pass the equipment from one character to another and then back to the equipment screen in order to equip the character that received the items. Both of these are poor choices for a single player JRPG that were a consequence of the inclusion of the MMORPG multiplayer.
The big draw of the battle system is the ability to turn into the massive knights. For 7 or more action chips certain characters have the ability to turn into ~20 foot tall knights which do massive damage. Every action you do in knight form costs MP and your MP slowly depletes just from being in the form. If your MP depletes completely then you are forced back into human form. The actions you have available to you are based on how many action chips you use to go into knight form but they are all just single target melee abilities or larger area of effect abilities of varying types and cost. Sadly the knights come down to being an “I win” button for any fight that might have otherwise been challenging. Just make sure you save up enough action chips and you can massacre every boss or otherwise tough enemy without much worry. The only time using the knights requires any form of strategy is when they are fighting alone and can’t heal since you have to balance doing greater damage with not depleting your MP. If you have a healer even this becomes a non-issue and you can just slowly bash away with basic attacks without worrying about running out of MP or dying.
Once you finish the single player you still aren’t quite done with all the game has to offer. As I’ve mentioned before there are also some MMORPG aspects to the title that help give it longevity. When you start up the single player you are asked to customize and name your own character that adventures alongside the main characters in the storyline. This is largely meaningless as your character is mute and does nothing meaningful in the story, but it transitions nicely into the multiplayer since you will already be acquainted with your avatar for the online portion of the game.
Quests take place as instances within previously visited areas of the single player. You and 3 of your friends, or newly met strangers, can work through quests with varying objectives that usually end in some form of boss battle. Once you complete the quest you are given guild points which work towards increasing your guild ranking, which in turn gives you access to new quests. The only annoying part to this system is that the quests are designed for certain levels, so if you start playing multiplayer after completing the single player you are in for a whole lot of low level quest grinding before you can host quests that are appropriate for your level. Luckily you can join any quest regardless of your guild ranking, so you aren’t totally limited to low level questing, you just can’t host those same quests until you increase your guild ranking.
Probably the best part of the online is the ability to make your own town using the georama system, similar to that in Dark Cloud. You purchase buildings to place in your hometown and throughout the cities. In the single player you can find residents with different jobs that you can recruit to inhabit your town. Once you have spruced up the place you can upload it to Geonet, which allows anyone to visit and see what you have to offer. It makes for a great space to hang out with your friends and from here you can host and join quests with people you know instead of allowing the game to find random people for you. Geonet also has a forum that you can access directly from the game, but it's annoying that it forces you to agree to a terms of service every time you sign in.
Graphically White Knight Chronicles is pretty average from a technical standpoint. There are some nice large areas that you can explore, as well as large towns, and everything looks fairly pretty from a distance, but the closer you get the sloppier it looks. This also applies to the characters themselves, as White Knight Chronicles is home to some of the most obviously bad lip synching I have seen in a long time. One wonders if they even knew it was a problem since they never fail to do a close up whenever someone talks during a cutscene. Most of these cutscenes are done using the in-game engine, which is nice because it means that the characters will actually change appearance when you change their equipment, but this does result in some hair clipping into armor. Other cutscenes are pre-rendered and look markedly better, though still not amazing.
Sound design doesn’t come off any better sadly. Voice acting ranges from decent to downright terrible, and I’m still trying to figure out why that one rabbit had an Indian accent. It’s hard to tell if I was cringing because of the lines they were saying or how they said it sometimes, but regardless the combination was hard to listen to. Music is muted and doesn’t stand out very much but when you listen it does fit the mood nicely enough.
Value is easily White Knight Chronicles’ best feature, but even that isn’t amazing. The single player only lasted me 23 hours with a good amount of exploring on the way, which is pretty abysmal for a JRPG. That is made up for with the multiplayer that I mentioned before, but there aren't that many unique quests to complete before you start merely repeating the same quests with higher level enemies, so it isn’t endless or anywhere near as compelling as a typical MMORPG. There is a new game+ feature but it seems pointless since all the enemies stay the same level and the story is unchanging.
White Knight Chronicles seems like a really cool idea. Combining MMORPG style gameplay with a JRPG could help to keep people engaged in a game that would otherwise be a one-shot deal. Sadly, this focus seems to have a detrimental effect on the game in general and has made the gameplay go at a snail’s pace. The single player is too short, and the item management is annoying. It isn’t without its good sides, since the online questing aspects and the ability to visit other people’s hometowns can be a lot of fun, and I love having large areas that I’m free to explore in the singleplayer campaign, but overall this is a decidedly below average JRPG.