Almost a year ago, I was reading up on this title through a Famitsu review. I know that Japanese have a different taste than Americans when it comes to gaming. That taste has been different since the video game industry was born. Different expectations and different ways to play have always led to this difference in opinion with final product.
So, when Famitsu published their score for White Knight Chronicles as a 29/40 it didn't give me any reason to be concerned. Quite frankly, what the Japanese like we usually don't like as Americans, and vice-versa.
So the tale begins
White Knight Chronicles follows the adventures of an ex-wine delivery boy named Leonard. He is pulled into the middle of a confrontation with battling nations and is pretty much forced to rescue Princess Cisna from a group of evil people. Along the way, or rather during a rescue, he runs into an ancient armor that is called White Knight. As stated by one of his followers, many people have tried to use the armor and have died in the process. Thankfully, Leonard gets the armor on and is determined to rescue Cisna with the armor's help. Along the way he will run into other forms of armor sported by good/bad folks with different missions to accomplish.
That is the story of White Knight Chronicles.
The game is pretty straightforward when it comes to the 'story'. It doesn't mince words or create complicated plots, it simply says that a princess was kidnapped and our hero has to rescue her at all costs. Sure it's nothing new and sure it's the same story that any Legend of Zelda tells, but what makes this unique is the armor and the different lands that you visit. Along the way, through the adventure, you will run into different pieces for the White Knight armor. The first piece comes in the form of a shield and you can imagine what comes next (hint: you use your fists at first). The different armors in the story bring along their own tales of sadness and woes. There's a Black Knight armor that is hunting for a specific dragon. At first you don't know why, but later it's revealed (not telling, don't ask!). The story branches off a little to keep it from stagnating. I find this sort of detail very fascinating and give Level-5 props for making the story a little more interesting than a 'rescue' story typically forms into. With that said, my big problem with the story in the game is the severe lack of character development.
You're literally thrown into the role of Leonard and you don't really have much info on the guy. You're not sure if he's got a past, you're not sure if he's meant for greatness, you're not sure of anything about him. In brief flashbacks you get an idea that he and Cisna had some sort of past, but there's not enough detail to really suffice a built relationship. He goes from bored wine guy to hero that is broken-hearted about the kidnapping of Cisna. What makes this worse is that Level-5 tried to build a relationship as the adventure happens. It's tough to see the two fall in love when they actually haven't really met or had any physical, Romeo & Juliet-esque contact. There's basically one moment where Leonard is talking to the kidnapped Cisna through a strange, pudgy bird. Suddenly she likes him and the relationship is established. It's a poor way of doing things and it's one of many examples of why you won't care about Leonard or his emotional well being.
Anyway, enough about the story, let's get to the gaming.
The game is a standard RPG. Level-5, who is known for some of the more epic role-playing games out there (Dragon Quest VIII and Rogue Galaxy come to mind). They know how to get people going in the game and they especially know how to keep them. It's a simple formula of making the gamer feel like they've accomplished things. White Knight Chronicles takes that same formula and makes it work like Level-5 has always done. Your characters travel out into the world and beat up poor monsters/bugs to gain levels and achievements. It's a standard way of doing things and it harkens back to the very beginning of video game RPGs as we know it. I read a few complaints from other reviewers about this and I'm not quite sure what they were expecting from the game. It's been this way forever, in terms of leveling up. For me, I didn't have a problem with spending an hour or two building leveling up and gaining gold. It makes sense to build your characters up. So, expect your action RPG element of traveling around and building your character's stats. If you need a picture of how this works just look at Final Fantasy XI. This game works almost exactly the same way as Square's MMORPG.
So what's the big deal? Well, there is an element of unfairness to leveling up. As a typical gamer would say, "The game is very unbalanced." I've been playing the game since Friday and I haven't died yet. I've faced a large amount of bosses and haven't been killed once. Most RPGs either do one or two things to prevent an unbalance. The first, the game reads your levels and ups the levels of monsters to make the fighting more challenging. The second, you level up before you hit new areas, which keeps the game almost always even with your characters. White Knight Chronicles pretty much let's you do what you want freely and doesn't send much to challenge you when you get on a roll. For example, you can level up as much as you want, and sure there's a curved arc to the equation that allows for slower leveling up, but you can pretty much bowl through every type of enemy (even the larger Trolls -- they take up half the screen). The game makes the killing quite unfair, which is very unfortunate. If you're looking for challenges then you might be disappointed.
One aspect of the fighting that is enormously unfair (in your favor) is when you have the White Knight armor on. I'll get to how you can put it on and off, because it's not a simple matter of just going to a menu and putting on, but when you do have it you score huge hits on nearly ever enemy (like bosses). For example, there is a part in the game where you go head-to-head with a large dragon. If you put the armor on you suddenly become 10-15 stories large. You and the dragon fight each other (your little friends are stabbing at the dragon's knees) and when the dragon hits you it takes off 43hp. When you hit the dragon it can do up to 223hp of damage. It's pretty much like this all the time when you've got the armor on. Now, I know what you're going to say, "But, wouldn't that make the game really fun?" My response to this would be yes and no. Yes, because you would pretty much kickass the entire game. No, because the point of a game is to have fun and to have challenges. If you don't have any challenges then what's the point of the game? That would be like me playing basketball against Steven Schardein; it would be over too quickly to enjoy.
Moving along, let's talk about some great positives in the game. The first big positive is how the skills/magic are earned through the game. While I haven't played many recent RPGs in the last year or so, I was really pleased to see White Knight Chronicles sporting a points system that allows players to purchase skills/magic. You earn the points through the slaughtering of your enemies and leveling up. You use the points to unlock sword skills, magic skills and pretty much every type of skill you can think of to improve your characters. You might have three to four different ways to attack with your sword. As you purchase these skills you can place them on a status bar at the bottom of the screen. You can mix-match the skills and you have multiple status bars at your disposal at any given time. So, you can flip from status bar to status bar by simply pressing up and down, during a fight, to scroll through the appropriate actions you want to use. The best comparison to this, if you need one, is the macros system that Final Fantasy XI sports. This entire system was ingenious and worth the hours I put into White Knight Chronicles.
Another positive about the game is the presentation value. Not expecting any less from someone like Level-5, or more specifically Akihiro Hino, the entire atmosphere of White Knight Chronicles has epic written in sharpie all over it. The first thing you'll come in contact with is the gorgeous soundtrack. Orchestrated music that should send any Final Fantasy junkie into a coma induced by love is what White Knight Chronicles is sporting. Music doesn't get enough attention by the mainstream audience, but this time around it deserves your attention. You'll find really dramatic pieces that reinforce tragedy, triumph and love. Music is 90% of a production and this certainly proves it.
As for the visuals, the landscapes are vast. You'll have an endless amount of eye candy to look at, as the Playstation 3 will load everything at once and not have any pop-ups as you progress from your adventure. Sometimes you'll run into some bland areas (such as caves), but other times you'll find areas that have so much activity going on that you'll think you could be in anime. For example, the desert portion of the game has some really great sand-blowing effects and heat effects (wavy heat effects) that look nothing short of stunning. When you reach the city that is built on the back of a monster (which is damn cool, by the way) you'll be fascinated by the activity in the city. You'll see moving clouds, smoke, and beautiful waterfalls. You'll truly understand why the Playstation 3 is a graphical beast and why the potential for better looking graphics is a scary one. Add all of these things to some sensational shading and lighting effects and you'll just want to play the game to look at it.
Continuing the review, so the big question to ask now, "Is the game fun?" The game is fun, but not as fun as past Level-5 games have been. I was addicted to both Dragon Quest VIII and Rogue Galaxy. When I came home I wanted to play those games. I wanted to continue some good stories and continue the fight against challenging opposition. With White Knight Chronicles I'm waiting for the game and the story to get good. This isn't to say that it isn't fun, but it's not close to the fun that the previous two titles I mentioned emitted. Yes, you'll be drawn to play the game and get to the end of the story, but you won't have a connection like the other two titles brought. For me, I had fun with White Knight Chronicles, but the connection wasn't as strong. I need a better story and I need more balanced gameplay. I'm not sure if an update could bring the fight up in the enemies or not, but if I was Level-5 I would surely give it a shot. The lack of challenge makes the game less fun, but it's still fun. The addition of GeoNet, which is 2-4 players online, helps add a new dimension, but I would prefer the game focus on offline play. Online is neat and interesting, but for an old-time gamer looking for an epic experience it just doesn't provide a substitute.