White Knight Chronicles Review
For Japanese gamers, 2008's fantasy RPG, White Knight Chronicles (or “White Knight Chronicles: International”, as the U.S. release is called) is old news. The last two years have been tough for American gamers as they waited not-so-patiently to get their hands on the title, and their anticipation has only been augmented by the knowledge that the game comes from Level-5 studios, developers of 2007's incredible RPG, Jeanne D'Arc. Sadly, White Knight Chronicles is bound to disappoint many a dedicated RPG fan.
Firstly, the story of White Knight Chronicles won't win any awards for originality. It follows the exploits of Leonard, a simple wine merchant's assistant living a simple life in the kingdom of Balandor. The narrative's careful to check all the traditional fantasy boxes: Young hero, living a humble life, is suddenly pulled into a large-scale conflict? Check! Young hero vows to rescue damsel in distress? Check! Young hero finds out he's more than just an average Joe, is bound for a Great Destiny and sets out to save the world aided by a quirky group of friends he meets one at a time during his illustrious hero's journey? Check, check and check!
Many of these elements also satisfy traditional JRPG requirements, although White Knight Chronicles tries to mix things up a bit by letting you create your own custom player character rather than starting out as the hero. You have considerable options to choose from and can create nearly any variant on the anime character theme. You can even choose from fifteen voice files, which is slightly odd, since your character remains silent throughout the game. Like most RPG's, the game can be boiled down to three things: questing, learning skills and buying gear. The main quest line in White Knight Chronicles takes you through all these, as well as a satisfyingly wide variety of environments, from quaint villages to teeming cities and through arid deserts to rolling meadows. No matter where you go though, what you mostly do is fight.
Your party grows as you progress, but during combat, you only have access to three members of your party. Sometimes you'll run into a fourth companion who'll temporarily join you, but they appear to only be there for “color”, since you can't control them. Engaging in combat grants XP, XP grants levels, levels grant skill points—yadda yadda yadda. Party members in White Knight Chronicles lean superficially toward individual classes, but they're really interchangeable since any character can learn (almost) any skill and use (almost) any weapon. Skills can be used as-is or combined into complex combos, and party member behavior can be set as well, making them defend, heal or go completely bananas upon sighting an enemy. Young hero Leonard has the added advantage of being able to transform into an Incorruptus (the titular White Knight), which frequently comes in handy when encountering those super-sized enemies.
Aside from crushing the life out of various monsters, half the fun of an RPG is shopping and upgrading your characters' gear. In White Knight Chronicles, you can spend ages in town doing nothing else. Armor and weapons can be scavenged from the treasure chests that are scattered hither and yon, or can be bought (and enhanced) in the shops in town. The best stuff though, comes from a process called “binding”. Binding centers in town allow you to combine existing items with raw materials you find during missions to create potions, accessories, and better, more powerful armor and weapons. The downside? This mechanic is bound to turn you into a compulsive hoarder, afraid to sell or get rid of anything you find, in case it can be used down the line for a binding recipe. Don't feel too weird though, for holding onto that pebble or withered vine because materials are also extremely useful for one of the game's online components—Georama.
Georama allows you to build your very own home town and can be accessed through the sparkly “logic stones” found scattered throughout the environment. You can use all the random things you find on your travels--like rocks, berries, wood and ore—to make buildings, shops, plants and various props for your town. You can then place these things, make the town bigger, recruit NPCs to live there and harvest resources for you, and then use your hometown shops just like the ones you use in the single player game. You can even share your town's stats online and recruit villagers from other people's towns to live in your town, thus upping your stats. Georama is an unexpected element in this type of game, but it's only one of the game's multiplayer components. Players can also buy side quests from Adventurer's Guilds and perform them with other players online, giving the game an unexpected MMO-ish aspect. These gameplay surprises are good, but they represent only a small example of the good side of White Knight Chronicles.
The strength of the game is its main quest objectives. While the story can be trite, the individual quests are varied, interesting, and often funny. The game's sense of humor is particularly apparent in one quest which involves a romance between two grotesquely huge frogs. The writing, in general, is good too and the characters are likable; even sarcastic Caesar and squeaky-voiced Yulie eventually grow on you. The game's second strength is its art. The character design is solid, if predictable, but then again, how varied can anime-style characters ever be? The boss designs are again, not tremendously original, but the bosses are impressive, if only due to their immense size. Where the game's art really sings though is in its environments. A ton of work obviously went into creating the many detailed locations and each of them has a very specific personality. The detail found in the steampunk city of Greede in particular, is truly incredible.
Sound does a respectable job of keeping up with art in White Knight Chronicles, offering a solid cast of talented voice actors (although it's admittedly weird to be on a quest and hear party members talking who aren't even seen). As good as the voice acting is however, the music far outshines it. Each area has its own theme (the themes for the city of Greede and the middle-eastern city of Albana are especially good) and the music does a great job of augmenting the emotion during cutscenes.
White Knight Chronicles is certainly beautiful, sounds great and offers players a lot of content, but ultimately it's uneven and that's due to a few things. Most obviously, once the game starts, you realize you're not the hero—Leonard is—and it's not long before you realize it's not much fun to play the hero's mute sidekick. (I gave up on my character about two hours in and spent the rest of the game playing Leonard.) Then there's the combat, which can be very slow and repetitive. Turn-based combat can be tough for anyone with a taste for twitch-like action but many turn-based games get around this by having characters move even when they're not actually hitting. White Knight Chronicles' combat feels extremely slow due both to its cool-down meter, which prevents you from continually attacking, and the fact that the characters stand totally still between attacks.
Another issue with combat is that while you have a slew of attack choices, you don't really need them. They all feel more or less the same, so you can win battles just by picking the most powerful attack and hitting X repeatedly. Adding to this, the AI is so good at healing, there's little need to strategize. Oh, and speaking of AI...the AI is good at healing, but at other things? Not so much. For one thing, party members won't defend themselves if they're attacked, unless your character is in combat mode. This can be really annoying, especially since it's really easy to leave them behind. Frequently, the AI will get stuck miles behind you and you won't know it until you're surrounded by enemies and realize you're hosed because your backup isn't there. You'll find one level with many opening/closing doors becomes a total pain in the ass as party members keep getting stuck behind doors they apparently can't figure out how to open. And in a frustrating example of “the other side of the coin”, many's the time you'll find in complex environments, the AI follows close enough on your heels to block your path and prevent you from getting around them.
These AI issues are bad enough on their own, but they only exaggerate the next worst aspect of White Knight Chronicles—the labyrinthine level design. Countless times you'll find yourself running round and round the granite equivalent of a hedge maze, wondering how the hell you'll ever get out. Someone at Level-5 thought it'd be fun! fun! fun! to wander repeatedly through miles of identical-looking hallways, searching for an objective marker that may or may not be there. Apparently, they also thought it would be fun to make enemies respawn over and over again, forcing you into an excruciating grind circuit. This is worst near the end of the game, where a godawful pre-final-boss teleport pad puzzle will test both your patience and your sanity.
Finally, the game fails in its attempt to add entertainment value through optional content. White Knight Chronicles is a long game, even if you only play through the main quest line. Side quests can be started at any time and you're told you can do them online with other players, but you're also told you can do them solo. This may or may not be true. The first thing you'll notice upon starting a side quest is—surprise—no party! For whatever reason, your party is taken away from you for these, and you have to perform them alone and within a set time frame. I spent an hour doing a tedious fetch quest and failed it right at the end when two huge bosses appeared out of nowhere and splattered me, whereupon I decided side quests were for the birds.
White Knight Chronicles is a beautiful, but flawed game. While much care was taken to create a complex story and extensive artwork to support it, repetitive combat mechanics, tedious level design and exclusionary side quests undermine story and aesthetics, resulting in an uneven RPG experience. The ambitious online components don't do enough to make up for these issues, and in fact, add to them by contributing a series of overly-difficult (but ho-hum) side missions that can't be completed without the assistance of other players. Overall, White Knight Chronicles is a disappointing effort, not worth the 100+ hour time investment it'll take you to play it.