Though perhaps, not quite as hotly anticipated as another Japanese RPG that’s around the corner, White Knight Chronicles has kept people waiting a long time all the same. It’s coming from the same minds that brought us Dark Cloud and Rogue Galaxy, and after a year of stewing around in localization, the game is finally ready for Western consumption. Hopes for it are mounting, but can this knightly new entry ride high among its peers?
On the night of Princess Cisna’s debutante ball, a mysterious organization known as Magi decides to crash the party, seeking out an ancient weapon lurking beneath the castle’s dusty corridors. The princess is absconded with, but the power of a lumbering, mech-sized knight has been left to you, kicking off a grand adventure of swords and sorcery in pursuit of the one that got away.
Even if the concept of giant medieval robots piques your interest, White Knight Chronicles’ story won’t quite hold it. The world and its inhabitants are generic and wholly uninteresting, and the plot fails to rise above its “save the princess” impetus until near the end, at which point the game abruptly comes to a close to make way for the next installment of the planned three-part series. Perhaps most disappointing, however, is how the game lazily integrates your custom-made avatar into the tale. With the way that Leonard and the party casually ignore your character’s mute existence, you’ll feel more like a third wheel than someone with a meaningful impact on the story…not that there was much to affect, to begin with. Plus, it’s just flat out creepy to witness your character’s vacant gaze linger on in the background of each cutscene.
With large environments, busy towns, and free-roaming active-time battles, White Knight Chronicles resembles a number of other recent MMO-inspired Japanese RPGs. And while the game ultimately doesn’t do much to define itself past those borders, it does have a few good ideas that keep the ball rolling.
First up is the player-made avatar: a male or female party member built from the ground up. With sliders for the eyes, hair, body, and face, you have a decent amount of options available to create your digital self. The avatars themselves don’t have any direct bearing on the story, but the idea of having your own customized character is definitely a welcome gesture, especially in a Japanese RPG.
Laying into the game’s MMO theme, White Knight Chronicles features open-ended character development that lets you spec out individual party members’ magic and weapon skills to your liking. Whether your want to abide by a character’s preconceived specialty or build a completely new class from scratch, the choice is entirely up to you. You’re given a good amount of freedom, down to the intricate skill combos you can fashion for use in combat. The AI-driven result may not steer quite as well as the gambits in Final Fantasy XII or the tactics in Dragon Age, but it’s gratifying nonetheless to see your own tailor-made army assume their roles on the frontlines with the skills you’ve chosen for them.
The main single-player campaign strings you along a linear quest that’s traditional to the bone. Points marked as stars on the map will indicate where to go to meet your next objective, but if you like to tread off the beaten path, side-quests assigned by guilds grant enticing rewards for completion like rare item synthesis materials. These side-quests can be taken on alone at your own leisure, but if you wish to tackle some of the more difficult ones, you’ll have to find others to group with through GeoNet. In short, GeoNet acts as a social networking hub for players to chat, post messages, and party up online. And though it’s perfectly capable at doing just that, it also flourishes as an experience completely separate from the single-player campaign, with plenty of side-quests to dig into as well as a rich town-building metagame that will easily get its hooks into you.
With a merely passable single-player campaign, White Knight Chronicles would be an altogether forgettable game were it not for its strong online component. The central campaign will last you anywhere in the neighborhood of 20 plus hours to beat, but if you invest some time in side-quests and renovating your digital homestead, expect the numbers to bloat well beyond that.
Combat in White Knight Chronicles consists of real-time, free-moving battles on open fields, with a pace that forgoes the turn-based tactics of old for a more modern MMO-style experience. When a prominently-displayed ring timer fills up, you’re free to perform actions, like attacking or using an item. Skills you’ve learned are mapped onto bars anchored at the bottom of the screen, and a live recount of all the action taking place is filtered back to you through an in-game text box. It can all seem like a little much, especially to those used to old-school turn-based RPGs. But in reality, the combat isn’t all that deep, and in some ways is a lot more basic than it appears at first.
The only thing that the game adds to the formula is the concept of action chips: a type of currency accumulated during battle that’s used for executing skills, combos, and magic attacks. You’re free to cash them in as you will, but perhaps the most practical use is saving up for the pricey White Knight transformation, which costs about seven action chips in all. Against bosses and other giant-sized enemies, it’s pretty much a given that you’ll hop into your trusty mech. In less demanding confrontations, however, it’s overkill. The game doesn’t find too much balance between these two extremes, so it falls on you to properly spend your chips on the right skills and situations.
Determining when and where to use up your action chips adds an extra variable to consider in combat, letting you choose how fast or slow certain fights can play out. And though battle is otherwise a pretty decent facsimile of other working systems out there, a few noticeable snags keep it from being as good as it can be. Enemies can and will tag you from bafflingly long distances, attack you through walls, or in some cases even walk through them. A general lack of strategy and enemy variety hurts the game’s depth, and overall, there really isn’t anything special about piloting the White Knight after a few rides in the cockpit. It’s a game with reasonable amount of complexity, mostly supported by its open-ended character development scheme. The magic just doesn’t take long to wear off.
White Knight Chronicles doesn’t quite hit the same visual high notes as its peers. The game’s fairly generic sense of style fails to make a lasting impression, and the in-game HUD displaying all of the real-time combat information is a pretty big eyesore. On the plus side, most everything is done in-engine, and it’s great to see characters wearing what they’ve got equipped during cutscenes.
The voice acting is serviceable, though it can sometimes be all too noticeable when the lips don’t quite match up to VO. The overall presentation is decent, but nothing extraordinarily distinct. The gigantic Knights, though, look pretty darn cool.
Disappointingly, White Knight Chronicles is a game that’s not too memorable in most respects, saved only by strong character customization and online play. If you choose to make the best out of its full breadth of features, then the game proves to be a more-than-adequate time sink. It’s certainly less so as a single-player experience, but even the most hardened Japanese RPG fan will find a few things to appreciate about this gentle giant.