North America waited a long time for White Knight Chronicles, an epic-looking role-playing game from acclaimed developer Level-5. After being announced years ago, it was released in Japan in 2008, and PS3 owners on the other side of the world anticipated the RPG that the system so desperately needed. Unlike Sony’s consoles in previous generations, the PS3 hasn’t had an overabundance of games in the genre, and with Final Fantasy XIII going multiplatform, White Knight Chronicles appeared to be the exclusive everyone wanted. Unfortunately, as a result of a cliché plot and generic gameplay, it could not live up to expectations, instead resting firmly in mediocrity.
The player’s first task in White Knight Chronicles is creating a character using the incredibly robust character creator. There are dozens of sliders for facial and body features, and a handful of hairstyles for both male and female characters. While this gets the game off to a promising start, it soon becomes clear that your persona is in no way the protagonist of White Knight Chronicles. While that by itself isn’t a major issue, it was more puzzling that the created party member spends most of the game virtually invisible. He or she never speaks, standing silently in the background during cut scenes after being referenced briefly at the beginning of the game.
The actual star of White Knight Chronicles is Leonard, a run-of-the-mill orphaned teenager who becomes an unintentional hero after stumbling upon a suit of mystical armor. If that wasn’t generic enough, his major quest throughout the course of the game is to rescue Cisna, a princess kidnapped during her coming-of-age banquet by a black knight and an evil mustachioed man. Other key characters include a mysterious, grizzled older man experienced in battle, and a spunky teenage girl, Leonard’s childhood friend. From a developer that has given gamers some great narratives and characters, it was hard to believe that the game suffered from overuse of so many role-playing clichés.
While the story never gets particularly fascinating, White Knight Chronicles does feature plenty of large, wonderfully designed cities to explore. These areas can be overwhelming in size, which at first helps create the epic atmosphere that gamers expect from titles in this genre. However, even some of these locations suffer from a lack of originality. More than once, I was reminded of very specific areas in older Final Fantasy games, mostly FFXII. Almost no aspect of the characters, narrative, or environments is distinctive.
The lack of originality is most definitely a problem, but it may have been overlooked if the battle mechanics had been more engrossing. The real-time fighting system seems promising at first, but like everything else, the luster soon wears off. Characters can use experience points earned in battle to unlock new abilities, and every achievable skill is available to any character. This is an interesting concept, because it lets the player decide which party members should focus on offensive magic, defensive magic, and different weaponry, or any combination therein. However, only a finite number of abilities can be equipped during battle, meaning that even if a character has earned every magical spell, he or she cannot use them all in battle. Though abilities can be swapped at any time between battles in the Battle Preparation Menu, constantly changing out skills becomes a chore, even will the ability to save these to use again later. A cluttered menu interface contributes to the annoyance, with players having to spend more time than should be necessary preparing for each fight. Additionally, players only need to find one solid attack, and can get through most of the game with it, saving more powerful or interesting abilities only for larger foes and boss battles. This reduces almost every fight to simply waiting for the circle that serves as a timer to fill up, hitting the X button, and repeating the same action until the foe has fallen.
In addition to using MP for magic spells, White Knight Chronicles also uses Action Chips, which are also earned during battle. Action Chips are needed for some attacks, and are used by all characters, but their most important use is for transforming certain party members into giant knights. Only select characters in the game have this ability, and need the required amount of AC before doing so. This transformation, which is sometimes mandatory, is usually reserved for boss battles, and while the knight armor is equipped, all attacks use MP, not Action Chips. Other than making it more difficult to transform, though, Action Chips do not really add a lot to the combat, especially for characters who won’t need to don the magic armor.
A final gripe about the combat in White Knight Chronicles is the fact that the real-time aspect is basically negated by faulty battle mechanics. Even though fights take place out in the open, as soon as enemies are approached in any given area, the timed aspect of each move still makes fighting essentially turn-based. As traditional as turn-based fighting is, developers in recent years have proven that it is definitely possible to tweak these mechanics to make a rich, addictive battle system. Unfortunately, this never really happens in White Knight Chronicles. Additionally, though you need to be physically in range of an enemy to hit it with a melee attack, foes can hit you with the same attacks from anywhere in the area, meaning it really doesn’t matter if you’re standing one foot or ten feet away from the creature you’re fighting, which is a cheap, annoying tactic. Somehow, a battle system that appeared to be so unique and deep turned out to be repetitive and uninteresting, which is the major fault of White Knight Chronicles.
The one thing that sets White Knight Chronicles apart from other role-playing games is the online cooperative play. Quests can be purchased in-game and played online with up to three other gamers for additional experience and items. These challenges are accessed via the Georama system, in which players create a “hometown” hub that other gamers can join. Quests are then added to the bulletin board, and anyone who enters the hub can jump in to an assignment that’s not full and hasn’t started yet. The towns start off as fields with only a few merchants, but can be customized, with players adding accessories and recruiting NPCs. It is here that players finally get to show off their created characters, as the game’s cast is not used for the online play.
The Georama system could have really set White Knight Chronicles apart in terms of unique gameplay, but because of the uninspired fighting mechanics and the fact that every quest is essentially a grind-fest, the game runs into the same problems all over again. Like with most games, it is more fun to gain experience with a friend or three, but that doesn’t change the fact that the battles are repetitive and uninspired. Completionists will have reasons to finish any quest they can, as some items can only be obtained from these missions, but most players will be able to get through the core game without too much difficulty, making the extra experience unnecessary.
Graphically, White Knight Chronicles isn’t a bad looking game. It has some impressive cut scenes, though it can’t compete with some of the better looking games of the generation. In game, however, the visuals are merely average, with nothing in particular standing out. There weren't any severe technical issues, though some minor clipping occurred at times. The character models are pretty but bland, and the voice acting is fairly consistent, though no character is a standout. With a lot of the dialogue falling into generic RPG territory, there was only so much the voice actors could do to bring the characters to life.
In making White Knight Chronicles, Level-5 created a vast, sprawling world, and then failed to fill it with anything original. Perhaps too much was expected from this PS3 exclusive RPG, but under any circumstances, White Knight Chronicles is just an average title that will quickly be forgotten in the flood of role-playing games coming throughout the rest of the year. Even just a few improvements to the battle system would have made a lot of the other issues forgivable, but as a total package, the game is simply not impressive. Die-hard RPG fans looking for a fix until FFXIII and Resonance of Fate may get some enjoyment out of the campaign or online quests, but the majority of gamers would probably become too bored to continue within the first few hours. With so much hype and excitement behind it, White Knight Chronicles has become one of the first major disappointments of 2010.