Everybody has expectations when it comes to video games. Just as when Valve or Bungie release a new FPS, expectations are equally high when role-playing veteran Level 5 releases a new RPG. The pedigree of the developer suggested that White Knight Chronicles would be nothing short of a masterpiece, with previous gems Dark Chronicle, Rogue Galaxy and Professor Layton sitting proudly on its résumé. But, as the industry has proved countless times before, expectation often comes hand-in-hand with disappointment.
Before the obligatory drawn-out intro, the start of the game presents players with the opportunity to create an avatar. The customisation is in-depth, with options to change everything from hair colour to cheek bone structure. Perhaps the most interesting device in the game, this avatar serves to marry the single-player with the multiplayer, and is not the main character in the game as you might expect. While in single-player this speechless avatar won't affect the outcome of the story in any way, he (or she) manages to bridge the multiplayer to the narrative without ruining continuity.
The aforementioned obligatory drawn-out intro (which all RPGs must have) introduces the bustling city of Balandor, where celebrations are under way to mark the 18th birthday of Princess Cisna. A celebration isn't a celebration without alcohol, and thankfully our plucky protagonist Leonard is on the case. An employee of the Winery supplying the event, Leonard is sent on an introductory quest to collect a wine shipment from a nearby village. This gives players a quick chance to get used to the basics of combat before things get serious.
Unsurprisingly, upon returning to Balandor, things have indeed gotten serious, and Leonard discovers that an evil group known as the Magi have attacked the city. Chancing his way into the castle, Leonard finds the Princess in a spot of bother, and does what any budding hero would do, and lends a hand. Escorting her to the bottom of the castle, Leonard discovers an ancient suit of armour known as the Incorruptus. With the Magi hot on their heels and life and death in the balance, Leonard manages to form a pact with the titular White Knight, and with his new powers, forces the attackers out of town. As they flee, however, they manage to capture the ill-fated Princess, which sets the scene for the 30 hour-odd rescue adventure that ensues.
Although it can just about carry the weight of the gameplay, the narrative is incredibly weak. The characters are as shallow as they are generic, and the actual plot is nothing more than a mindless mash-up of every other RPG that's ever been released. There's just no motivation to find out what's going to happen next, giving the game a vacant, meaningless quality to it.
Graphically the game is disappointing too, if only because of how fantastic the game looked back in the trailer that accompanied the announcement of the game. The environments are pleasant enough, if a little repetitive, but the character models are uninspired and generally the game lacks the polish of a title that's been in development for such a long period of time. Whinging about graphics isn't something I like to make a habit of, but again I'll reiterate the importance of expectations - White Knight Chronicles promised a whole lot more.
Structurally, the game is straight out the RPG handbook; your growing team of adventurers wander from town to town, traipsing through monster infested dungeons with cutscenes interrupting the action every now and again to advance the plot - fairly standard stuff. The game attempts to innovate in other areas, though, most notably in its adoption of mechanics more commonly associated with the MMO genre.
Combat illustrates this point nicely, and is particularly evocative of Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII, which in turn is based on the online-only Final Fantasy XI. With an enemy in sight and your weapon at the ready, a circular gauge known as the Command Circle, displayed on the right hand side of the screen, will gradually fill, and when it does, a selected skill will be executed. As you fight, Action Chips (AC) accumulate, allowing you to use some of your more powerful skills.
With each increase in level, a character is rewarded with Skill points, which can be distributed into a number of weapon-based skill categories. By allocating points to these disciplines, you can tailor your character to a specific class. Say, for example, you're training a character in the ways of the warrior; you might want to invest points in Longsword or Axe skills. Or, if a mage is more your style, Staves and Elemental Magic are clearly the way to go. The game also lets you create your own combos by combining two or more skills, and even lets you name them. With a new skill or combo learnt, it can then be added to the action palette where it's ready for use in battle.
The development mechanics are largely successful, and give progression a satisfying feel. Saying this, it fails to save combat itself from the torment of tedium. Due to the nature of the Command Circle, all you're really doing is waiting around the whole time, which is especially frustrating within a combat system that is essentially real-time. What makes things slightly more exciting is the gargantuan White Knight, which Leonard can transform into should the need arise. The White Knight's attacks are far more powerful than Leonard's, and make taking down bosses and other large enemies a whole lot easier. Transformation requires AC initially, and then MP to sustain the form. Should you defeat an enemy with half your MP remaining, however, and then revert to your human form, the game will refuse to let you transform again without resting. This wastes Action Chips and forces frugal use of the power, which spoils an otherwise enjoyable aspect of combat.
Although White Knight Chronicles is predominantly a single-player affair, there are some welcome online features that have been integrated into the experience, and this is where your avatar comes into its own. A wide range of quests can be undertaken with other players online, with money and loot distributed accordingly upon completion. These can be taken on alone too, and add a serious amount of time to the game's lifespan.
Fans of Dark Cloud and Dark Chronicle will be pleased to see the return of the Georama system; a town building mini-game that allows the organisation of buildings, shops, and other scenic items to create your very own home-town. You can even recruit characters from the main game to live in your town, who affect things such as the quality and range of items on sale. Although this may seem fun on paper, in practice it's time consuming and offers little in the way of reward. If you're particularly fond of your town it can be uploaded to the game's online platform GeoNet, where other players can check it out for themselves, or use it as a lobby before taking on a quest.
White Knight Chronicles isn't a bad game; there's a decent amount of content on offer and some interesting innovations, but - and returning to this ongoing theme of expectation - it should have been something better. Level 5's last big RPG was the fantastic Rogue Galaxy, a game that truly pushed the boundaries of the genre on the PS2, and White Knight Chronicles feels like a giant step backwards from that. If you've been looking forward to a good JRPG on PS3, try not to let the score below put you off too much; there's a lot to enjoy here if you can look past the flaws. Ultimately, however, there are better JRPGs out there, and White Knight Chronicles is far from the spectacle we were all expecting.