Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Reviewers and game writers of all stripes love to pontificate about trends and ‘shifts’ of all sorts when talking about specific genres or generations. RPGs are no exception, as many have suggested that the most recent generation of consoles is seeing the rise of western RPGs and the fading of traditional Japanese role-playing games. With Mass Effect, Fable II, Fallout 3, and Oblivion all outshining the likes of Lost Odyssey and The Last Remnant, many are wondering if we have merely seen a string of sub-par games, or if JRPGs are on their way out.
Many gamers, myself included, waited with baited breath for White Knight Chronicles to come out and give PS3 owners something to cheer about. Both the system and the genre could use a white knight in shining armor to come and save them, and with every other game being sequel number four or thirteen, the fact that WKC is an original franchise does not hurt. An original and superb PS3 title is just the game we have all been waiting for.
Unfortunately, we are going to have to wait a bit longer, since WKC is not that game. It is a decent JRPG with a fun online component, and a fine-looking seventh generation console video game. It makes no fatal mistakes, but possesses no great virtues. It is an average game made worse by the sense of tremendous opportunities squandered. Lower your expectations a few pegs and you have an enjoyable JRPG that, while it won’t convert anyone to the genre, will still endear with its original gameplay elements and likable characters. Put your expectations back where they should be, and you will see that WKC does not hold a candle to any decent RPG of the last generation including Level 5’s PS2 titles. Persona 4, Star Ocean 3, and Final Fantasy XII all outshine the game in every way, including music, voice work, and graphics if you value design and detail over resolution.
It may be better to say that WKC feels unfinished. It seems like 3/4 of a really good RPG. I’ll start with the positives. WKC begins with one of the most detailed and customizable character creation mechanics I have ever seen. While you will not be customizing innate skills or abilities like in many WRPGs (innate differences between characters are relatively small) there are enough physical categories and slider bars to make any Bethesda game blush. It is an interesting set up, having your own dude run alongside the main cast through story scenes and battles alike.
Combat is quite enjoyable thanks to a few interesting systems. Each character has three command trays with seven slots each, allowing you to prepare 21 unique commands that are easily switched on the fly. Combat is in real-time with a brief wait between commands similar to FFXI or XII. This keeps the action quick with just enough time in between commands to incorporate some strategic thinking. The tray system allows you to prepare characters to use multiple weapons, spells, skills, or other commands without having to use the main menu in battle, something that is likely to get you killed. On top of that, there is a fantastic combo attack system where you can build and name your own chain attacks (I named my combos after philosophers because I’m pretentious like that) and unleash them with cinematic camerawork in battle.
Comrade AI is decent. They are on the spot with curing and will use combos if you give the all-out attack command using the L3 button. With the massive environments and gigantic enemies, battles often reminded me of The Lord of the Rings, which is a good thing. It is epic and fast-paced yet demands foresight, planning, and creativity, as combos and special attacks use up AC, or action chips. You’ll need AC to transform into the White Knight or use combos, and it can take time to recover it by slaying enemies. It is easy to be overly conservative or over-zealous in combat, so finding the right balance and rotating members is a must.
The biggest problem I had with WKC is that the game just gets the numbers wrong. Veteran RPG gamers will know what I am talking about. RPGs are about numbers, and numbers create incentives. For instance, magic is practically worthless, since it drains large amounts of MP needed for curing, is absurdly slow, and is easily interrupted by enemy attacks. Transforming into the White Knight makes battles a bit quicker, but is rarely necessary nor does it even look that cool. In White Knight form, the fancier attacks eat up gobs of MP needed to maintain the transformation, but they are only slightly stronger than more basic attacks. This is also the case with more advanced weapon skills; many use up large amounts of AC but are almost identical in damage output to simple attacks. Thus, save combos, you are encouraged very strongly to use basic attacks throughout the entire game.
Furthermore, in part thanks to the MMORPG vibe, the sense of character progression is slow and slight. When I began the game, my attacks were doing about 20 damage and I had around 50 HP. Twenty hours in at level 30 with ten strength and HP upgrades and a sword ten times stronger than the one I started with, my attacks do about 60 damage. When transformed into knight form, standard attacks do about twice that and I have 400 HP. None of this is to suggest that every game needs to allow for 99,999 HP and six digit damage tri-Ace style. But the issue with WKC is that the lack of progression is not even so much a problem of enemies getting stronger, as many carry over from environment to environment. You will likely have seen every attack you’ll use well before the game’s halfway point, and your character will not seem to develop much outside of possibly learning to use a few more useless spells or another weapon. It does not help that the challenge is low, even if you avoid synthesizing weapons and always getting the best armor as I did. I died exactly once when I ran out of healing items during a chain of four bosses in a row (no, it wasn’t the last boss). You really do not need much strategy; you can fight every boss exactly the same way. Make CPU characters prioritize healing, burn up combos and regular attacks, rinse and repeat.
There are a lot of silly glitches as well, the kinds of things that I refuse to believe game testers did not notice. Enemy attacks track your characters, often through doors even whole floors away. Knights could hit my characters with melee attacks while they were across the room, while my attacks could not. Trailing party members occasionally get stuck behind walls or in rooms, meaning you may switch characters and suddenly find yourself five hallways away from the battle. Also, there is no true pause button. While you are setting up your attack trays and allocating skill points, the game goes on (Infinite Undiscovery did this as well if I recall), and enemies can sneak up and attack you. And do not think you are safe just because you cleared the room, since the enemies will all instantly and simultaneously respawn after a few minutes. This is irritating if you’re a popular guy like me who is always getting phone calls and surprise celebrity visitors. It is the sort of semi-amusing feature that would work if you could turn it off.
The above stated avatar creation mechanic is a neat idea, but it too feels hollow since your character does nothing to influence the story. Were there some degree of variation based on meaningful dialogue trees or your avatar’s gender — if your avatar could have even the tiniest bit of influence on what happens, the game would be much more interesting. Instead, the avatar’s sole purpose is for online questing, a critical portion of the game that is totally separate from the offline single player experience.
Speaking of which, I should note that WKC is not an MMORPG. There is no persistent virtual world in which you can interact with thousands of other players. It is more accurate to think of it as a co-op mode. This in itself is still pretty revolutionary for a JRPG. There are dozens of missions you can buy in the game and then go off questing with your chums online. You will need to complete quests to find certain materials needed for the fairly deep and vastly time consuming weapon and item synthesis system. While it is loads of fun for people who enjoy Monster Hunter style grind fests with their friends over the net, there are again many poor design choices. No auto-run, auto-battle, or headset compatibility to improve communication during combat, for example. Offline you can only do quests solo while your story characters sit on the sideline. Why this is the case is a mystery to me.
There is a customizable virtual lobby called “My Town” where you can meet up and chat with friends. The quests themselves are straightforward — usually go fetch / kill something — nevertheless it can be addictively fun with the right compadres. If you are not interested in the online portion, then you will need to think long and hard as to whether or not WKC is your cup of tea. The main game’s replay value is very low thanks to an uninspired story, completely linear plot progression with no multiple endings or branch points, zero meaningful side quests, low challenge, no extra difficulty levels, no bonus dungeons or bosses, and not even a fun mini-game or two. Simply put, it feels unfinished.
Continuing with the central theme of my criticism, WKC’s graphics and overall presentation both seem like works in progress. There is a lot to praise, but also much to criticize.
The main story characters are all attractively designed. Faces are expressive, outfits are detailed, and the crisp resolution and near non-existent load times make you glad you own a PS3. All weapons and armor have a unique look and will change your characters’ appearances, even during story sequences. You can put everyone in their underwear if you are into that sort of thing. The style is unambiguously anime, somewhat similar to The Last Remnant but more colorful and brighter.
WKC’s biggest graphical success is in its environments. They each possess a fantastic sense of scale. From deserts to forests to caverns to mountains — each is massive with no load screens dividing sections. The detail is breathtaking, from the petals on the smallest flowers to rock formations along cliffs. The outdoor settings are possibly the most attractive I have ever seen in an RPG.
Sexy as most environments may be, there just are not that many of them. The number of places to explore outside of towns never reaches two digits, and beyond gawking at the scenery and harvesting materials, there isn’t a heck of a lot to do.
The most glaring graphical issue is also a gameplay one. I have said before that graphics should not be a major priority for any dedicated gamer. Nevertheless they greatly affect our experience of a game and our sense of the characters. There are certain things that fans of a genre come to expect, and among JRPGs, one of those things is a good bit of flare and pizzazz when it comes to magic or special attacks. Sure, it’s the same game if you cut attack animations and just display the name of a spell and flash the damage count on the screen. But well-designed games draw you into the game’s world by having good effects. Whether it is the various weapon skills and magic of Secret of Mana, the over-the-top limit breaks and summons of FFVII (who doesn’t remember the first time they saw Neo-Bahamut on the PS1 demo?) or the gorgeous special attacks of Xenosaga — every generation and every console sees RPGs trying to outdo each other with fantastical effects.
Simply put, WKC lacks eye candy. Cool as it is to mix it up with combo attacks, at the end of the day, each strike looks like an ordinary attack. Magic spells are even worse, as many spells look like they could have been done on SNES; the firebolt spell is basically a yellow and red circle that floats toward an enemy and then disappears. Even changing into the White Knight looks lame, and there are no crazy ‘pwned’ style attacks while in the form. Pick any of FFX-2’s transformations or skills out of a hat and you’ll have something more colorful and visually interesting.
Is it a deal breaker of a criticism? No. But this is the PS3 we’re talking about here, and with such an opportunity to show off what the system is capable of, it is disappointing that the designers did not even try. The utter lack of any even remotely impressive visual effects during combat feels incongruent with the game’s thematic inspiration as a shounen henshin anime style adventure. The genre the game conjures is called “Tokusatsu” in Japanese, which literally means special effects. These are few and far between in this game.
Here again, White Knight Chronicles is very average. The effect noises and sounds are right in that range where they neither annoy you nor stand out as particularly good. The voice work is acceptable, though uninspired. Charisma and personality are in short supply as virtually every character with dialogue fits into a standard anime template as far as expression and tone go. You feel like you’ve met all of these characters before in a prior RPG or anime. Eldor is the mysterious old swordsman, Yuri is the pining childhood friend, etc. etc. The writing is part of the problem so I would not get my hopes up for great English voice work when it is released abroad.
The music is where the sound transcends average and falls all the way to mediocre. Outside of the opening and ending themes and a few respectable compositions during events, most of White Knight Chronicles’ soundtrack is instantly forgettable. It is astonishingly consistent in this fashion. Just about every village theme became annoying after about five minutes, and overworld tracks from deserts to dungeons are all extremely thin, evoking only the vaguest impression of an environment. There are exceptions and most of it works as background music. Nevertheless, we’ve seen better from Nishiura in his work for the PS2. Disappointing is the word that best fits this game’s music.
Beginning with the daringly original concept of “knight goes on a quest to save the princess,” WKC’s story plays it safe to a fault. It would be one thing if the writers used the classic framework and tried a subversive or offbeat take on such a tried and true formula (princess rescues the knight maybe?). But thanks to gobs of tiresome anime tropes and a paint by numbers plot, the whole story feels like a cliché on top of a bigger cliché.
Starring boilerplate spiky-haired teen #379 aka Leonard, the story begins with our hero tasked with the transportation of booze to a royal banquet. The royal party is crashed by some bad guys and the evil black knight (black means evil in case you’re having trouble keeping up), who kills the king and kidnaps the princess. In the scuffle, our teen hero, conveniently and inexplicably a ninja-esque warrior who can slay knights and ogres, finds a giant magical suit of armor.
It is not poorly done, it is just that it has already been done to death. Many of the interesting moments and cutscenes feel like knockoffs of Miyazaki flicks, colorful as they may be. There is not even room for intrigue or speculation as every twist / betrayal / random secret power revelation is foreshadowed by enough sinister close-ups and sideways glances to insult the intelligence of an eight year-old. What’s worse is that the cast is devoid of characterization. We learn precious little about Leonard, his past, or why a wine currier can fight like a Jedi. The same goes for most of your party. Kara and Eldor are the only mildly intriguing characters. Everyone else is just there and their actions often seem senseless. The plot feels like it was written to allow for a few specific moments, like a scene where the princess dances on the surface of a lake with Leonard. Never mind that how they can do this is never explained, never mind that she does not even know Leonard at this point, and never mind that she just watched her father be brutally murdered. None of that compares to the fact that the scene is cheesier than a fair in Wisconsin.
Characters never seem to reflect or react to major revelations or events. Things just trudge along mindlessly in a story that makes Rogue Galaxy look like Xenogears. The plot picks up a bit towards the end with a twist regarding advanced ancient civilizations and warriors from the past coming to the present. It connects several major characters and adds some sense to the narrative. Many gamers will not be aware of the fact that the story they are so arduously working to advance is the first part in a trilogy that will likely take several years to be resolved. Were it a particularly good or interesting story, this might be awesome. Since it is not, it makes the ending very unsatisfying.
For the most part, the game controls just fine. The camera is not too hard to use, and slow down and frame rate issues were few and far between. The menu interface is a bit clunky. Each character has their own item stock a la Suikoden, which theoretically can be cool but is often just annoying here. There is little character-specific equipment, so you will be exchanging items a lot, and the process is not as fast as it could be. Combat is also encumbered by inconsistent target switching. Many times, I could not revive an ally or change the enemy I was targeting because the camera would not rotate enough or the cursor simply would not move to the desired target. With zero opportunity to pause and organize yourself in combat, seamless controls are a must, and while WKC is fairly smooth, it definitely has room for improvement. Be sure your action trays and items are properly in order before getting hostile.
At the end of the day, WKC is hard to recommend for people who are looking for a good offline stand-alone adventure. Even where the game innovates, specifically the battle and avatar systems, the game slips up by improperly balancing damage and incentives and making the player-created character totally inconsequential. The story campaign is easily completed in 25 to 30 hours, so really the game makes an excellent rental. If it’s online gaming that you are focused on, add a few points to my final score and have at it. I suspect there will be some patches and changes for the North American release, and if they address even some of the problems mentioned here, you will have a very worthwhile game. Ultimately I think the franchise has potential. Nevertheless, it’s still very skip-able for people with a long backlog of games to get into.