"I didn't discover the gameplay's biggest flaw, however, until the final boss battle."
Last September, I took on a unique personal challenge: to play a direct sequel without playing the first game in the series. I dove into White Knight Chronicles 2 with gusto, and nine months' worth of weekend playtime later, I've finally reached its end.
Sadly, even after all of those hours with WKC2, I really can't tell you much about its story. This game really expects you to have played the first, and makes no allowances for those who haven't. Who are these characters I'm playing as? Why do they talk about that random NPC like I should know him? What are we really trying to accomplish? All of these questions (and more) ran through my head as I played the game, but they were apparently unworthy of even one sentence of recap in the eyes of the developers.
Here's what I can tell you, though. In WKC2, you play as a group of characters who are trying to help their kingdoms fight back against the invading Yshrenian Empire. When the game begins, two members of your team have access to giant, mech-like suits of armor, and by the game's end, they can get up to two more such suits. The invaders have armor of their own, and would really like to get their hands on yours. This may be the real reason behind the war... but I'm not sure.
Aside from the main quest, you can easily spend at least 20 hours tackling a few varieties of sidequests that may involve killing something, getting an item for an NPC, or sometimes even just talking to a set of people. Ridiculous as it sounds, several sidequests had me simply passing messages between two or three people who were standing right next to each other. They were friends, but apparently not the kind of friends who tell each other things. As part of the main quest, you are sent back in time on a few occasions and, oddly enough, you can continue your sidequests even during those journeys back into the years before your characters (or the questgivers) were even born.
Of course, the game's not all about running around talking to people. WKC2's combat uses an active time battle system – that is, each character has a meter that fills up over time, and once it fills they can take an action. Meters fill at different rates based on how you've equipped your characters, so the archer clad in leather will attack more quickly than the sledgehammer-wielding tank in a suit of plate armor. There are three different types of physical attacks as well as a number of types of magic, and learning your enemies' weaknesses can be crucial to success, especially in battles against larger beasts. Most of the time you can switch between characters at will, but I tended to play primarily as my main damage-dealer and leave the healing to my team.
When you defeat an enemy, you don't typically get equipment as a reward. Instead, you get items that you can use to craft new equipment or consumables, some more rarely than others. Frustratingly, several of the sidequests require you to obtain items dropped only by specific enemies at a very low drop rate. Were you to try to grind for all of these items, it could easily add another 10 to 20 hours of unsatisfying gameplay to your WKC2 experience.
With a system like this, it is essentially mandatory that enemies respawn over time, even if you haven't left an area. The problem is that this game over-delivers in the respawn department. In fact, there were times when I started a fight by taking out a set of low-level enemies around a larger boss-type, and by the time I had finished off the larger enemy, the low-level jerks were already back.
As your team levels up, they earn skill points that can be used to learn skills from eight trees: six that relate to a type of weapon and two for magic. The game begins with a team that's already at level 30, so your characters have a pretty firm basis in one tree, but by the end of the game, they have earned enough skill points that you can safely divide your efforts between two trees and still get to (or close to) the top of both. You can't use every skill you've learned in battle, but must instead choose the skills you want to fill up three sets, of seven menu slots each, with. This system is definitely generous and I rarely strayed from the skills I had put in the first set of slots. When I chose to pick something else, though, it worked well within the battle system, because I had just enough time to find the skill I wanted while my ATB meter filled up.
All of this means that you have a lot of potential to tailor characters the way you want them... but it somehow still manages to be very monotonous. The same kinds of enemies level up and appear throughout the game, so once I knew that a certain enemy was vulnerable to a certain attack, that's what I always used against it. I didn't discover the gameplay's biggest flaw, however, until the final boss battle. In that fight, I learned that I'd be watching the game's ending scenes on YouTube, because I hadn't built my team the right way. Without certain specific abilities (and the MP to use them over and over), it appears that I had no chance against the end boss, despite mopping the floor with everyone who preceded him. It was very disappointing, and it definitely discouraged me from going back and trying to level up my team "just a bit more" to see if I could take him down.
Sadly, the controls mainly serve to enhance the feeling of monotony. Nearly everything is bogged down by at least one layer of menus too many, so you spend a lot more time in the menus than you'd really like. For example, the menu where you learn skills is separated by several button presses from the menu where you select the skills you want to use in battle. The same is true for navigating the menu where you see the items you're carrying and the menu where you equip things. Fortunately, the only time that the controls really cause trouble in combat is when you choose to switch characters, which may have contributed to my choice to play as the same character as much as possible. Other than that, the controls do a fine job of handling the demands of vanquishing your foes. It's easy to pick the attack or skill you want to use each turn, easy to move around your enemies, and easy to change your teammates' tactics. You automatically lock onto an enemy when you initiate combat, and as long as other enemies are visible on screen, it's easy to switch to a new target. If someone is shooting you from off-screen, however, you'll have to move around until he's visible before you can switch your lock to him.
White Knight Chronicles 2 certainly has its flaws, but it is not without merit. Specifically, this game looks great. The environments are varied and you are hit with probably the best looking area right at the outset, which creates quite a first impression. As the game begins, you find yourself in a forest area that somehow includes sectors that are experiencing all four seasons. It might not make much sense, but it's a great showcase for the game's graphics. The flora is gorgeous, and the fauna is convincing – I actually felt bad for the wild boars when they trembled as I knocked them out. As you progress through the game, you find yourself in a number of areas with views of huge chasms or wide open plains, and they never fail to impress. The cities in the game each have their own architectural style, from small rural villages to medieval castles to steampunk, and they're all worth seeing. The only complaint I could lobby is that the lip-syncing rarely matches up with the dialogue, but that's absolutely nit-picking.
The sound isn't as good as the graphics, but it's still one of WKC2's better qualities. The music fits well with the game, and the voice acting is high-quality. It's not all good, though. While you're walking, your party members sometimes talk to you and each other, which is intended to help immersion, but gets annoying when they say things like "Haven't we been this way already?" "Yes, we absolutely have been this way, 800 times or so. I wasn't really thrilled about coming here again either, but I've got to find a Fire Giant Eye, so we don't really have a choice."
In the final analysis, I will freely admit that I had an OK time with White Knight Chronicles 2. I've certainly sunk time into worse games, but I'd rather put my time into something better. It looks great and sounds pretty good, but is so repetitive and drawn out that it becomes hard to focus on the game's merits. If you enjoyed the first game, you'll certainly enjoy this one. If you didn't play the first and you don't mind grinding, you can have fun with White Knight Chronicles 2, but I'd strongly advise that you play its predecessor if you're interested in knowing what's going on.