Knights of ye olde republic.
A gallant Hero can be many things to many people—and before you've finished watching so much as White Knight Chronicles' attract-mode opening movie, it's clear that this is a game that wants to fill as many gaps as possible: It's the square peg stuck into the round hole of the Japanese online console RPG market; it's the tarry wad of oakum jammed into the breached hull of crossover RPGs that can't decide if they're traditional or real-time, high-fantasy or sci-fantasy, serious or silly. As it turns out, White Knight Chronicles is a little bit of all of the above.
[image1]It's also ambitious as hell—the very notion of seriously trying to tempt (understandably-)skittish Japanese gamers into an online environment full of... well, the sorts of personalities who alas typically populate multiplayer online games... through the 'gateway drug' of a traditional single-player-RPG-cum-online-co-operative experience is something you have to applaud, if even it's largely for the attempt.
If you've even a functional, passing acquaintance with JRPGs, one of the first things you'll see is that White Knight Chronicles has a lot of inspirational ground it wants to cover. In a world composed largely of the most recognizable, cloak-and-sword high fantasy, you'll see glaring intrusions of modernism that go way beyond the usual jutting shards of 'steampunk'.
For starters, the kidnapped princess (yes, we are at least staying that traditional) is quickly hauled off by the bad guys in a rather gothically-styled hovering airship, to which many of the game's fiefdom-dwelling earthbound characters react with modern-day dismissiveness—instead of the cowering-in-terror superstition you might normally expect. This gives the first clue that things here might not be the usual high-fantasy norm. Also, there's main character Lenard's occasional mystical transformation in battle into The Incorruptus, the “White Knight” of the title—effectively a towering, semi-sentient piece of magical, robotic powered armor.
The Incorruptus is supposed to be a sort of spirit-warrior artifact from an ancient race, prone to occasional, permanent 'bonding' with a singular human that it deems worthy of the extra-natural pact. Sound familiar? It sure as hell looks, and feels, suspiciously like something out of Evangelion. Our protagonist Lenard can transform into this massive, gleaming-white warrior in combat, at the expense of action points otherwise used in regular fighting, of course—but you probably want to save those action points for when you need to take out a Boss.
[image2]The good news is that, should you opt for the Awesome Transformation early on, you're probably going to stomp uncontested ass. The bad news is, the bad guys are hip to the whole magic-ass armor thing.... and in fact have been busy themselves, not only acquiring another of the powerful relics, but doing their best to assure they collect the whole set presumed to be floating out in the world at large (Protip: They do not intend to 'trade with friends.')
Picture the real-time fighting scheme in games like Final Fantasy XI, and you're headed in the right direction: While employing the usual RPG tropes of item-based attacks, healing and augmentation, the combat takes place in real time. It's on you to juggle threats as best you can—swapping party characters as needed (or when they unexpectedly die, succumb to poison, fall asleep or lose their spell-casting voices), frantically toggle through spells, attacks and combos with the d-pad, or frantically worm through the scads of items you've collected, trying to put that Heal potion or revive-from-the-deal powder to use while your party still has the upper hand.
To watch a player mash and stress his/her way through a tough battle, you might think the game an action-based one, but the combat actually shakes down along the familiar lines of stats and 'die-rolls'. It might appear as though you can wait for your attack of choice to spool up again on the circular display, whack the enemy, and then run just out of retaliation range/line-of-sight, but the likelihood is that once the foe in question fills his attack-gauge, you're still going to get hit—even if you've pulled back beyond apparent melee-range, even if you've apparently made your way behind cover.
The key to victory is in the massively-customizable Combo attacks. You'll create and label them yourself in the combat sub-menus, cobbling together melee, magical, ballistic, and even aerial attacks into long slotted-together multi-strike combinations. Once engaged in combat, these combo slot-lines of attacks can be pulled up (or down) with the d-pad, and woven into effective chains with timed presses of the X button. Against significantly larger foes, there will be the additional requirement of targeting specific body-parts. If you must fight an enemy that is several stories higher than you, there's nothing quite so satisfying as knee-capping the creep with a battleaxe. If the battleaxe in question is wielded by an anachronistic shiny-white, anime-inspired robot, so much the better.
[image3]White Knight Chronicles' online experience is a sort of parallel universe to the solo game, existing on its own and yet allowing the transfer of items and experience from the single-player game. I probably should have mentioned that you're going to start Chronicles by cooking up your custom avatar with a respectably silly number of attributes. Between the available choices of eyebrow width, facial moles, and goofy-ass default expressions, you should be able to cobble together something that looks not entirely unlike your real-world mug.
In kind of a nice touch, this doppelganger will actually appear as one of your party members in the single-player game, mute but well-meaning, where you can get a good look at him. And if you decide at this point, as I did, that you've managed to create a Frankenavatar that looks more like an uncomfortably-stoned Orlando Bloom than your actual self, you can always replace the monstrosity later by 'purchasing' a 'makeover' ticket via the Playstation Network. (Thanks a load, Sony and Level-5!)
At this point, you again become aware of the filling-a-gap quality that exists in White Knight Chronicles. It reminds one of an early mid-game cinematic involving an Incorruptus transmutation and a three-way swordfight that again can't decide if it's aping Evengelion or Pirates of the Caribbean. It's not a massively-multiplayer game, and it isn't some co-op equivalent of the main story campaign; instead, you can sign up (using GeoNet) from any 'Logic Stone' saving point, gaining access to a plethora of co-op oriented missions (handily purchase from in-game adventure guilds) for you and your online friends.
The problem is, the multiplayer experience seems to be heavily tipped in favor of less-than-intuitive menus, generic grinding online fetch-and-hunt quests that—might seem petty to say, but it's true—have already been done better in existing games (*cough* Monster Hunter *cough*) with half the online 'communal' ambitions of White Knight Chronicles.
[image4]That being said, it's difficult to argue with the cool, customizable aspect of being able to arrange your own fantasy-world GeoNet lobby space—your virtual home away from home. Only time will tell how successful is the lure/gambit of trying to get more Japan-side gamers out into online game-space. If nothing else, venturing online is another way of collecting the assorted materia to forge the game's more rare and powerful custom-cooked armor and armaments.
White Knight Chronicles is one of the those games for which I have to pull out a trusty descriptive tool in the editorial arsenal, one that has served me well, if releuctantly, over the years: “Ragingly adequate." It has the double-shot quality pedigree of SCEA and Level-5—but then you'll encounter an inventory system that still seems clunky. There's a good deal of light-heartedness and offbeat humor in the cinematics, but the story progression as a whole has predictable and almost stale elements you'd expect from greener producers.
Level-5's White Knight isn't talking backwards, exactly... but at times, he does seem to be a little mumbly and mealy-mouthed. It's certainly got nothing to do with the game's visuals, sheer size, or attitude. On the whole, it's a great-looking game with an impressive amount of territory to explore, and it's largely free of the suffocating pomposity that seems part and parcel of so many Japanese-influenced RPGs.