When I first heard that developer Level-5 was handling White Knight Chronicles, I was excited. After all, this is the studio behind such classic Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) as Dark Cloud, Rogue Galaxy and Dragon Quest VIII (not to mention portable hits like Jeanne d'Arc). Although it took years for White Knight Chronicles to arrive in the United States, it was still eagerly anticipated by RPG fans. With the 360 boasting more and more JRPGs, it seemed like Sony's console was losing its grip on the genre it had once so stubbornly clutched.
Unfortunately, White Knight Chronicles (known as "White Knight Chronicles International Edition" in the United States) is one of the first major disappointments of 2010. The end result, which is far removed from the promise of the original concept trailer, not only looks far worse, but has a flawed battle system, poorly-told story and a number of technical issues. I'm amazed that this game, which had so much potential, actually came from a studio with such a vast amount of experience. As sad as it is to say, White Knight Chronicles is a letdown.
White Knight Chronicles follows a humble staffer at a Balandor winery named Leonard. Leonard is tasked with fetching a large shipment of wine to be served at the princess' coming-of-age celebration at the castle. This is obviously a big deal for the winery, so Leonard hastily embarks on his first miniature quest.
Of course, no RPG could remain that simple. A group called the Magi, disguised as a traveling circus, attacks the castle of Balandor during the party and attempts to assassinate the royal family. Leonard, in the process of delivering the wine, gets caught up in the chaos and does his best to rescue the princess. This -- as you might imagine -- culminates into a frantic race through the castle where Leonard stumbles upon an ancient suit of armor, which is promptly "unsealed" by the princess' latent magic.
And so the story begins!
As intriguing as the premise of White Knight Chronicles might be, the actual tale is far from a masterpiece. It feels like an amateur effort, as there are a number of narrative crutches that are used throughout. The most obvious of these is the introduction of special telepathic birds that can be used as holo-phones. Yes, you read that correctly. These super birds lead me to believe that the developers couldn't come up with anything clever for allowing the characters to communicate across long distances, which fuels Leonard's quest to find the princess. Even with a number of enjoyable plot twists, White Knight Chronicles just doesn't offer a compelling story.
When it comes to the actual gameplay, White Knight Chronicles is a mix between a traditional JRPG and an MMO. While there is a full, single-player story to experience, White Knight Chronicles also features a bunch of multiplayer-compatible quests that can be tackled with friends -- or on your own, if you prefer. At the start of White Knight Chronicles, players must create an avatar that will serve as the bridge between the story and the online multiplayer. The created character will journey with the main cast of heroes during story progression (just don't expect them to speak) and that character will also be used as the player's character during online sessions.
This dynamic is certainly appetizing, but the pieces that make up the experience just don't work well. The battle system is the main reason behind this failed effort, because it's not only boring but flawed.
In White Knight Chronicles, players control one character at a time while the AI handles the remaining two. Occasionally a fourth guest character will join the group, but that's neither here nor there. Every environment is fully traversable and enemies show up on the map, just like an MMORPG.
At the bottom of the screen is the character's action palette, which is a simple menu that can be navigated mid-combat with the D-pad. As characters level up, they'll earn Skill Points which can be spent to unlock actions. These actions can then be assigned to the action palette, just like in an MMO. These actions can range from standard sword strikes to more advanced techniques like elemental spells, character buffs and more.
Although it's possible to create your own combos out of individual actions and assign those combos to slots on the action palette, the White Knight Chronicles battle system ultimately boils down to one thing: waiting. Every action is governed by the Command Circle, which is essentially a cool-down meter near the middle of the screen. Players must wait for this circle to fill up before executing an action, then wait again after the action is performed -- and the wait times are almost always the same. This process is repeated ad nauseum, with very little reason for the player to select anything other than the most powerful attack in their repertoire (or occasionally cast a restorative spell). During all my time with White Knight Chronicles, I was able to get by with a single spell, occasionally switching things up if the spell clashed with my opponent's elemental alignment.
This tedious, uninteresting system might explain why White Knight Chronicles is boring, but it certainty doesn't account for the flaws. My overriding complaint with the game -- one that dampers the entire experience -- lies in the game's measurement of distance. In White Knight Chronicles, distance is irrelevant to your enemies. Monsters can attack your characters with a close-range attack from across rooms. So long as you are currently engaged in combat with that monster, you are vulnerable to an attack. I have actually fled from a battle, entered a tunnel, turned a corner and emerged from the other side, only to be struck by an attack from an enemy on the other side of the tunnel.
"Distance," in other words, doesn't matter to your enemies. But it matters to you. Your characters cannot attack an enemy with a close-range attack if they're too far away. If your characters are forced to play by the rules but your enemies are not, this is called a "gameplay imbalance." This fact renders the entire 3D nature of the game almost completely pointless and makes ranged classes a joke.
If this wasn't enough to convey my issues with the game, then we need only note the awful pop-in that occurs not only in the game world but on the mini-map itself. The environments are usually free of this issue, but there have been countless occasions where my characters will be running through a valley and suddenly a horde of monsters will pop into existence around my party.
Equally frustrating is the unusual inconsistency when casting area of effect (AoE) spells. Not only does the White Knight Chronicles interface offer no visual feedback for where the spell will hit, but it will often miss enemies that are very clearly standing in the spell's approximate range.
Lastly, one of the most important parts of the battle system is Leonard's ability to transform into the great White Knight. This would normally be very cool, as the knights are massive in comparison to normal enemies and perform devastating physical attacks unique to the knight itself. Unfortunately, Leonard is forced to revert back to human form once all the enemies in the immediate area have been defeated -- even if he has more than enough magic points to sustain the transformation. This can be aggravating when there are monsters visibly strolling around in the distance, but nothing can be done to prevent the reversion and the subsequent waste of Leonard's Action Chips, which are used to transform.
White Knight Chronicles also has a few technical issues. During my time with the game, I stumbled upon two separate occasions of the game freezing, and one occasion of my controls locking up during battle. This might not happen to you, but one of my colleagues also experienced the same control problem, which is troubling. There were also a select few NPCs in the game that didn't have complete text bubbles when spoken to. Unusual indeed.
With all these complaints leveled at the game, it might be hard to imagine that any enjoyment could be gleaned from the experience, but certain aspects of White Knight Chronicles are entertaining. Although the battle system is flawed, it's still possible to grind your way through enemies, level up your characters and unlock plenty of new abilities in one of the available disciplines. And while the visuals aren't nearly as impressive as we were originally led to believe, the environments in White Knight Chronicles are still pleasing and very expansive. I must give special credit to the design of Greede -- a sprawling industrial city built upon the back of a gigantic monster. The architecture, music and culture built around Greede were certainly highlights of the White Knight Chronicles experience for me.
The music in White Knight Chronicles is generally quite good and the English voice acting is also commendable. There is some serious talent contributing to the cast, so it's unfortunate that the lip synching technology behind White Knight Chronicles is so abysmal. This isn't just a matter of character models not mouthing words properly due to the change in languages -- this is about the character models not even opening their mouths during certain sections of dialogue.
Although I would have much preferred the entire White Knight Chronicles story to be multiplayer accessible, it is nice to have the option to tackle isolated quests with friends. There are plenty of quests to choose from, especially ones aimed at players that have already completed the main story. Players can sign into GeoNet, the online interface, from any save point and set up multiplayer sessions from there.
It's great to see the inclusion of integrated message boards and blogs, but the overall interface is awkward. In order to actually set up a game, my friends and I had to trade friend requests both ways (the GeoNet friends list is separate from your PSN friends list) and then sign out and into the GeoNet system in order for the friend additions to register. Three more lobbies later and we were finally playing an actual quest.
This multiplayer mode isn't perfect, but it gives players more content to work through outside of the main story and that's something we can all appreciate. Battles are somewhat more interesting when you're coordinating with your friends as opposed to watching the AI do its thing, but most of the same problems you'll find in single-player battles will still happen during multiplayer romps. At least players can find a town-building Georama system in place, which allows players to customize their "lobby town" for other players to enjoy.
I was extremely excited for White Knight Chronicles. The game comes from the folks at Level-5 and it combines traditional JRPG mechanics with MMO functionality. That all sounds like a roaring good time. But White Knight Chronicles is a disappointment. Besides the unimpressive visuals and poorly-told story, the game suffers from a flawed battle system and inconsistent gameplay rules.
With all my criticisms on the table, it might be easy to dismiss White Knight Chronicles as an awful game. It's not. But it certainly isn't as good as the developer's previous efforts, and the few intriguing plot twists and smart ideas that went into this title just can't save it.