Review: White Knight Chronicles (Sony PS3)

White Knight Chronicles
Genre: RPG
Developer: Level 5
Publisher: SCEA
Release Date: 02/02/10

Level 5 has managed to develop a solid reputation as a developer, thanks to some solid and quirky releases over the years. RPG fans will immediately recognize them as the developers of games like Dark Cloud, Dragon Quest VIII and Rogue Galaxy, strategy fans will know them for Jeanne D’Arc, and DS fans will know them for the Professor Layton series. Needless to say, anyone familiar with those games should be somewhat excited for their first next-gen release, White Knight Chronicles. As the first PS3 title from Level 5, fans obviously have high expectations for the game, and these expectations are only increased with the knowledge that your character can turn into a giant armored knight, which is awesome. Between the interesting concept and the promised online multiplayer support, White Knight Chronicles was a game that looked to be one of the great exclusive PS3 releases for 2010. It also looked like it was going to be a great exclusive non-action RPG, something the PS3 has been lacking since its debut. Unfortunately, White Knight Chronicles doesn’t actually manage to convert its interesting mechanics and concepts into a great game, and much of its elements are confused or misplaced, making it less of a great exclusive game and more of a disappointing game that will only appeal to a small group of players.

White Knight Chronicles tells the tale of Leonard, an assistant to the wine seller in the town of Balandor, and how he is suddenly thrust into the role of the hero after a series of incredible events. In short, Leonard sneaks into the castle during a celebration of the princess’s birthday, and during the celebration, the kingdom is attacked. Leonard ends up finding an artifact in the castle basement known as the Incorruptus, which is a gauntlet that allows the wielder to turn into a giant magical knight, which he uses to turn back the invaders, though they manage to kidnap the princess in the process. This starts Leonard off on a quest to save the princess and defeat the evil warlord before he achieves his goal of bringing the five Knights together in some sort of vague attempt to remake the world in some fashion. On the positive side, the concept of the Incorruptus is interesting, and while we’ve seen this before, it’s not so frequent a plot element that it feels abused or tired. The dialogue isn’t bad in most cases, either, and while many of the conversations are packed with the expected anime conventions, they often work well enough that you can forget that they’re kind of clichéd. There are some really neat ideas here, too, like Greede, a city on the back of a giant walking monster, that are interesting and give the game a fresh feel when you see them.

That said, the actual story is atrocious. It’s hard to narrow the bad elements of the story down to a few basic bits because so much of the story is so bad, so often, that picking out individual problems is like trying to pick out grains of sand in the Sahara Desert. The plot elements aside from the Incorruptus are so cliché that every time some plot element comes up you expect to see “As made famous by…” like some sort of RPG plot karaoke. Also, the fact that the Incorruptus gimmick is relatively fresh as an RPG plot concept is cancelled out somewhat by the fact that LEVEL 5 ALREADY DID THIS GIMMICK back in Jeanne D’Arc. This is not at all helped by the fact that the writers seem incapable of making the events of the game in any way convincing, as everything feels forced and ridiculous at all times. Every time you find the bad guys as they’re in the process of finding some sort of artifact, they try to force the princess to unearth it, she refuses, your team shows up and acquires said artifact after defeating the enemy that shows up, and the bad guys magically whisk her away, despite the fact that your team totally could have saved her if they were paying attention. The ending sequence is forced, the big plot revelations are simultaneously obvious and nonsensical, and the game just kind of… ends. I understand that Level 5 intends to make sequels to the game, so the fact that they just cut the story off here is so that they can do more with the next game, but the way it was handled here was inane. When you get to the end of Mass Effect, which players knew up-front was going to have a sequel, you KNOW it’s THE END. The game makes this obvious. When you get to the end of White Knight Chronicles you’re left going “That’s it?” and wondering why you bothered. This is not a good response, and it makes the campaign feel worthless.

White Knight Chronicles, while visually interesting, doesn’t really take advantage of the PS3’s capabilities as well as it could. That’s not to say that the game doesn’t look good, as the environments are generally pleasant looking, the lighting effects are good, and the various special effects are vibrant and impressive. The characters are generally well animated, especially in combat, and the larger monsters and the Knights are equally as impressive all around. That said, the enemies are generally rendered less impressively than the plot-important characters, and the enemies in general repeat a noticeable amount as you progress. The DESIGNS of many of the enemies are interesting, especially those of the larger enemies, but after the hundredth time of seeing the same enemy, the artistic design is rendered moot. Further, the plot-important characters can be odd-looking many times, with odd dark circles under their eyes or other strange shading and texture issues, and while these issues aren’t constant, they are obvious when they occur. Aurally, the in-game music is your typical orchestral fantasy fare, and generally sounds rather nice all around. The sound effects are also quite effective, and the various battle and spell sound effects help to bring battles and such to life. The voice acting is generally adequate, though none of it stands out. The main characters are generally acceptable and do their jobs fine, though the secondary characters and bit parts are often bland or annoying, so it’s kind of a wash. Also, the voice acting also doesn’t match up with the characters when they speak, leading to numerous, AND I MEAN NUMEROUS, situations where words are being spoken but no one is actually talking. It’s one thing when the words simply don’t match up, which is forgivable when you realize the game is translated from Japanese, but this is some straight-up eighties anime translation failure. If someone isn’t talking, THERE SHOULD BE NO VOICE ACTING. Either match up your script to the original better or re-render the scenes, because this is incredibly lazy.

White Knight Chronicles is one of those RPGs that essentially tries to implement MMORPG mechanics into a single player game, so anyone who’s played Final Fantasy XII or .hack will know what to expect. Alternatively, if you’ve spent any time with Final Fantasy XI, or to a lesser extent Everquest, you’ll feel that this is also kind of familiar. The left stick controls your character and the right stick controls the camera, and everything is presented from a third person perspective. When not in combat, the X button interacts with NPCs and objects, the Triangle button brings up your various character and status menus, and Square brings up a box for text broadcasts that allows you to type out messages when playing online. Circle cancels out of most windows and actions, Start pauses the game, and Select brings up a window that allows you to quick change your active character, bring up the map, and other things. Interacting with characters and moving around the game world is quite easy, and the various shops and such you can visit are also easy to work with and buy from, no matter what you need.

Sooner or later you’ll need to head out into the fields and smite stuff, of course, and these sections are also fairly easy to play and control. You’ll see most of your enemies wandering about in the field, either blissfully unaware of their fate or charging full on in your direction, depending on if they’re passive or aggressive, or for you MMO players, if they’re aggro or not. Once you get in range of an enemy, pressing X draws your weapon, whatever you have armed, and you’ll start to charge your action meter, which is a circular meter that fills around a display of your selected attack. Once the bar charges, pressing X again uses whatever action you’ve chosen, while R1 puts you into a blocking stance. The triggers cycle between whatever enemies are visible on screen at the moment, and pressing L1 allows you to use the D-pad to select your target of choice if you don’t feel like cycling for a target. What attacks are available to you show up on the bottom of the screen in your action palette, of which you can have up to eighteen commands and several universal actions set. By default, everyone can use an item, change their gear, change targets, and defend by choosing the appropriate action from the list, and characters that have an Incorruptus can summon it from this palette as well. The eighteen commands you can select from aside from these will be whatever you assign to the list, based on what skills your character has learned and what you’ve equipped them with, and a simple press of the X button will use whatever skill is highlighted, either at no cost or at a varying action point and magic cost. You’ll have to monitor your team’s magic (for spell casting) and health (for not dying), though the game is generally good about keeping the team’s AP in check, so you need only monitor yours. AP regenerates as you fight, while health can be replenished by healing or over time and magic will replenish as time elapses. All can be replenished with items, of course, if you’re in a hurry to cast some spells.

As your characters level up, they earn base boosts to their stats as well as Skill Points, which can be used to upgrade their proficiency with various spells and weapons. The main characters cannot equip certain weapons, depending on which character you’re working with, but your custom character can equip anything you desire, allowing you to build them as you see fit. There are six weapon types in the game: swords, which are your typical one-handed swords, longswords, which are two-handed large swords, staves, which are good for attacking and support skills, axes, which are two-handed heavy damage weapons, spears, which are one-handed weapons with a good offensive and defensive mix, and bows, which are good for ranged attacks. Every character can also learn offensive and support magic regardless of their weapon choice, allowing you to build purely physical/magical or more balanced characters as you desire. Upgrading particular weapon skills unlocks more skills and abilities, as well as permanent stat boosts based on the weapon type, until you max out that weapon and move on to the next one.

As you learn skills, you can build them into combination attacks that branch from one to the next as you repeatedly press the X button. Various attacks are set up for this sort of customization, as they can launch or spike enemies to continue combinations as the case merits for added damage. Combos cost more AP than regular attacks, however, as each attack beyond the first costs one AP in addition to its regular costs, meaning you can’t abuse these combinations and have to weigh the risks of when you use them, as AP doesn’t regenerate quickly. You’ll also spend a decent amount of time summoning your Incorruptus in battle, either to fight bosses or massive enemies who hit like a tornado. Summoning the Incorruptus simply requires you to switch to a character who can do this, which means you’ll want to summon them prior to a battle if possible, as you can’t substitute characters in the middle of combat. To summon the Incorruptus, you simply choose said option from the action palette and your chosen character will summon their Knight into battle, which you then take control of. Knights cannot access the character’s actions, but get all new heavy damage attacks of their own to use. Each attack costs magic to use, however, as the Knight can only stay active so long as the user has magic to keep them summoned. In full-party battles this is hardly an issue, as your allies can keep you healed while you focus on big damage, but in solo battles where your Knight faces a giant monster, managing your magic points and healing items (and you’ll need healing items as you can’t cast healing spells) becomes more complex. You’ll find items that can upgrade your Knights as you explore, however, offering them more damage and defense as well as new techniques, allowing you to balance out the challenge of later battles… so long as you find these items, of course, as some are tucked away in locations you wouldn’t otherwise explore.

Once you’ve built up your custom character a bit, it’s time to jump onto GeoNet, which is pretty much where most of your time will be spent. As you wander around the various towns in the campaign, you’ll find vendors who offer to build and upgrade your gear and shops that sell you various quests only your character can undertake. Should you try to do these quests and make these upgraded items on your own, you’ll find yourself grinding for hours and hours to little overall benefit, which will ultimately just frustrate and annoy you. When you hop on GeoNet, however, everything changes. First, you can now take on missions with friends, allowing you to clear out missions in record times with minimal difficulty, as two (or three or four) bodies are better than one. Second, you’ll be able to build your own town in GeoNet to your specifications as you invest money and materials into its construction. By doing so, you can in turn upgrade its ability to produce various necessities you might need, such as minerals, lumber, insects, and other such consumables which can be used for upgrading and building gear. Finally, you can visit the towns of other players when you’re looking for such things, allowing you to do your shopping online, so to say, without having to spend hours grinding and hunting for that one last thing you need. As such, building the gear you want isn’t just about grinding (though if you want it to be it certainly can be), as you can also look around towns and go shopping, or have some friends jump in to assist as needed, allowing you numerous ways to get the gear of your dreams.

The storyline campaign in White Knight Chronicles takes around thirty or so hours to blow through, depending on how much time you spend exploring and grinding, but once you complete the story you can continue onward with the side quests and GeoNet play as you wish. You can also start over with a New Game Plus if you wish, though this doesn’t improve the enemies you face in any notable way, making it kind of silly. Most of your time will be spent on GeoNet leveling up your crafting and mission ranks to get better missions and gear, as well as building up your town to get what you want available to you when you want it. The game also offers a neat feature for leveling your custom character: when you reach level fifty, you can reset your level down to level thirty five, which then in turn gives you a cumulative Skill Point boost to rank up your weapon and magic skills even further. As such, you could potentially max out every weapon and magic skill tree, if you have the patience and time to do this thing. Even if you don’t, a few character resets are certainly feasible, which should give you a boost against some late-game missions as you progress further and further into the game. You can also drop some real world cash into various housing items for your town if you wish, which will allow you to improve the quality of your town and make it a little more fancy when compared to other towns around, which might entice players to come to your town to buy materials… which, in turn, makes you a tidy profit, giving you more than just cosmetic reasons to make your town into something special.

Unfortunately, for everything White Knight Chronicles does to make its gameplay shine, it does just as much to tarnish that shine just as quickly. The single player campaign is generally rather easy, with the exception of a couple of “I totally did not realize that you were going to force me to play as this character I never use and wow now he’s dead” boss fights, and the story just… ends. This isn’t to say that there’s isn’t fun to be had with the story mode, but if that’s your main reason for getting the game, you’re going to be heavily let down, as it’s a small part of the overall package. Further, the combat mechanics could stand to undergo some significant balancing. Now, each of the attacks you can learn as you spend your skill points can be assembled into a combination attack, but these attacks can also be used individually unless they’re conditional attacks that need to be part of a combo to work. This is fine. What is not fine is the fact that almost all of the attacks you can earn are pointless to use outside of the combos, which can’t be used all that frequently without item usage to keep your AP up. For instance, in the Sword weapon class, there is a lunging strike that does a significant amount of damage for its overall lack of cost, hits consistently, and is a solid go-to attack for most scenarios. When compared to a Sword attack that deals flame damage, costs 4 MP to use, and burns 1 AP as well, you would expect that said flame strike would deal a significantly larger amount of damage, but even against ice-type enemies it only deals about twenty five to thirty percent more damage per hit. Why would anyone use an attack that costs so much, relatively speaking, and does so little? This is a problem with all of the weapon skill trees, unfortunately, leaving you spamming the same attack forever until you need to burn some AP on a combo instead of encouraging variety. While the ability to make your own action palette based on your personal needs is also nice, as is the ability to save multiple action palettes, the fact that you have to build palettes for every member of the party gets boring after a while. On that note, while it’s nice that White Knight Chronicles makes your characters actually wear the armor they’re equipped with instead of keeping their avatars the same, well, when everyone is equipped with the same two suits of armor, this also becomes somewhat bland and boring in a hurry. The option to maybe customize the suits based on the character or something similar would have helped make the story feel less like work than it actually does.

Once you go online, the dynamics of how the game works change a bit, but things don’t get much better. Online play is, to put it politely, a grind-a-thon that rivals even the most belligerent MMO. Your objective is to level up your Guild Rank, which allows you to unlock new quests with nastier enemies and more involved objectives. This, however, means that you’ll spend a not insignificant amount of time repeating quests to boost your Guild Rank because even if you complete all of the quests available to you, this won’t necessarily level you up. So, up-front, you’ll be grinding to increase your Guild Rank. Then you’ll have to grind to build new and interesting items, either to find the items needed to make the gear you want or to earn enough money to buy the items needed to make the gear you want. If you want to upgrade your personal town to a level where it generates cool items, well, that’s more grinding. Want to level up high enough to revert your character and boost his or her skill points? More grinding, and if you want to do it enough to max out ALL of your skills, well, you’ll probably be grinding for a very, VERY long time. Now, old-school RPGs made you grind a bit to survive the next sections of the game, and MMOs make you grind to reach and survive uber high level quests and PVP arena battles, but White Knight Chronicles doesn’t really do either of those things. The game seems to understand that it’s supposed to make you grind, but the “why” of the grind isn’t really clear. Yes, there are higher level quests that can be challenging, but the quests you’ll be grinding on are generally not that challenging or interesting. If you can carry this badass character and his or her amazing Georama over to the next game, then fine, it stands to reason that leveling up your character to amazing heights would be beneficial, but otherwise, the only reason to grind for the multiple days and weeks you’ll need to grind to hit the highest possible levels overall is because the game asks you to, which isn’t a convincing argument. The MMO style of combat also doesn’t help the online component much, as the game amounts to pressing X a bunch of times when your action bar fills. Action RPGs get around this by, well, being action oriented, and giving the player something to do, while MMOs give the players jobs to choose and specific roles to play in battle that can make a battle go smoothly when used effectively. White Knight Chronicles has no systems that make playing with more players more involved or fun, it just lets four characters hit an enemy instead of one, and this gets boring fast.

With a better and more involved story and some added depth, White Knight Chronicles could have been an interesting single player game, and with some gameplay tuning and less of an emphasis on grinding for the sake of grinding, it could have been an interesting multiplayer game. Unfortunately, it has neither, and as such, it’s hard to recommend to anyone who isn’t looking to grind for hundreds of hours just because. The game looks and sounds acceptable, and the gameplay is certainly easy enough to figure out after a little bit of playing around with it. You can see where there were some great ideas in the development process, also, as the ability to build custom combos, the ability to level up characters however you see fit, and the ability to build weapons and gear you can’t find in the shops are all good ideas that make the game feel like its own unique thing. The GeoNet online component also shows the makings of a great online system, thanks to the ability to build your own town, complete with its own specialized shops that pay you money when others use them, and the ability to quest with friends to complete missions. That said, the single player game suffers thanks to a horrid story, an ending that comes out of nowhere and leaves you underwhelmed, some unbalanced combat structure and an overall lack of depth. The multiplayer also doesn’t achieve the greatness it’s aiming for either, partially due to some significantly annoying forced grinding for no adequately explained reason and partially because the combat systems don’t feel particularly interesting when playing with others. White Knight Chronicles feels like it’s full of great ideas that never achieve the greatness they could, as the core game is simply bland when everything is all said and done. The game shines in small ways, but is rather bland in most respects, and while a sequel could refine the great concepts and remove the bad ones, this particular game never quite manages to get out from under the weight of its flaws long enough to be anything other than adequate.

The Scores:
Story: BAD
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: GREAT
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:
White Knight Chronicles is something of a step down for Level 5, and while there are some really interesting ideas in here, they’re buried under layers of mediocrity and adequacy that make them hard to find and harder to enjoy. The game looks and sounds good enough for a Playstation 3 title, and the game is simple enough to play if you’ve played RPGs in the past. There are some neat ideas in the single player campaign, with the Incorruptus use, the ability to level up different weapon skills based on your personal interests, and the ability to build your own combos. The multiplayer also has some neat concepts on display, like the ability to build your own town, customize said town as you see fit, and bookmark useful towns with good item shops. However, the storyline of the single player game is abysmal and unsatisfying, the combat structure could use some fine tuning and work, and you really kind of need to spend a good amount of time with the online component to get the depth from the game that’s in there, as the single player campaign only scratches the surface. Further, the multiplayer expects you to devote an unreasonable amount of time to grinding if you want to get anywhere with it, and once you spend some time with friends online you begin to see the limits of the combat system, as it does nothing to improve the multiplayer experience and just kind of remains the same through the entire game. White Knight Chronicles has some good points, but the overall game is generally adequate at best, and does not make a convincing argument for anyone to own it unless they loves them some grinding. Here’s hoping Level 5 can do more with the sequel.

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