Version tested: PlayStation 3
It is, without doubt, one of the most off-putting introductions to a game this year.
First, an overlong cut-scene full of arcane terminology that will go over the heads of all but the most attentive devotee of Sony's one remaining international Japanese role-playing game series. Then, a five-minute escort mission in which you're given the keys to a fully-equipped knight, levelled to the nines, yet given scant instruction in how to bend his action to your will.
Starting a story in media res may be a sure-fire way to hit the narrative ground running. But drop a player in the middle of a cat's cradle of game mechanics with no tutorial, and they'll become tangled in a confusion that's tough to shake.
Fight your way through the town unscathed and, following another jargon-rich cinematic, you're sat down with four characters and piles of skill points and asked to pick and choose scores of abilities for each. It's an exhausting, 40-minute introduction of concentrated tinkering: the kind of fine-tuning a developer could risk asking of a player with 20 hours invested, but which has no place in a game's early sheets.
Contrast this to the breezy, grab-you-by-the-lapels introductory sequences of JRPGs 15 years this game's senior, and it's hard not to feel that this once great and ubiquitous genre has gone astray.
The problems aren't limited to the game's introductory sections. White Knight Chronicles II shares an identity crisis with its chosen genre. Once the cornerstone of Eastern development, the Japanese RPG has floundered in a post-PlayStation landscape, stymied by scaling budgets, changing fashions and the rise of the blockbuster Western RPG.
The economics of JRPG manufacture demand that high-production specimens must sell in huge numbers to a global audience in order to be profitable, leaving its architects grasping to include Western trends and sensibilities in their creations in the hope of aping their successes.
For White Knight Chronicles II, Level-5 has eyed up World of Warcraft for inspiration, blurring the lines between offline and online RPG by allowing players to chase the single-player storyline or engage in online quests and hunts with friends. It's not such a bad idea, as Dragon Quest IX (also by Level-5) has shown that incorporating MMO-style features in more traditional single-player adventures can prove popular.
But White Knight Chronicles II, even more than its forebear, is an MMO crammed into a single-player RPG's jacket. In battle you take control of just one member of your team (switching characters is a needlessly protracted trip through nested menus) while damage reports, buff details and loot drops are reported via a news ticker feed ŗ la Final Fantasy XI. You are just a cog in the machinery of battle, your companions controlled by an AI that has considerably more agency than you - and as a result, the abiding feeling is that you are playing that most empty of propositions: an offline MMO.
There are genuine online portions to the game, however, and these have been expanded to allow up to six (rather than four) players take on side-missions and quests together. The experience points your character accrues online apply in the offline game, too.
The Georama system also makes a return, allowing players to create their own custom hometown that can be uploaded to Sony's servers and then visited by other players. But Level-5's attempts to integrate the single-player and online portions of the game are superficial and, beneath the topsoil, the MMO portion and the single-player JRPG portion clash like tectonic plates, creating a feeling of structural instability.
The MMO mindset can also be seen in the way the game has been stuffed with monetised features. Some of these are borderline acceptable, such as certain hairstyles or items of clothing that have to be bought before they can be applied to your character. But others leave a sour taste in the mouth. For example, should you want to re-customise your character's appearance, you'll need to purchase an Avatar Makeover Ticket from the PlayStation Store.
In MMOs, players are familiar with paying for these features. But as a great many players will come to White Knight Chronicles II as an offline experience, some of them will find these decisions irksome.
Peel back the MMO veneer and there's a routine JRPG beneath - evidence that Japan's development community is still more concerned with paying lip service to Western fashions than implementing genuine change. For genre fans, that's no bad thing. Despite the treacly introduction and the initial feeling of lonesome powerlessness in the game world, White Knight Chronicles II is a competent if unremarkable Japanese RPG: a largely linear, battle-heavy experience whose unique selling point is granting you the ability to transform into a giant, blade-wielding knight during battle.
As you fight enemies, you accumulate Action Chips. Collect seven and you're able to transform into an Incorruptus, a towering Jekyll to your diminutive Hyde. During battles you fight a mixture of human-sized monsters and giants who can only really be felled by transforming to their size.
At an early stage, you learn the rhythm of battle: hacking away at smaller enemies until you have accrued enough chips to transform, at which point you can decimate the opposition. There's some additional tactical consideration as, if you save up until you have 10 or 15 Action Chips, your Incorruptus will be stronger.
It's a good idea but, as with the first game, the execution is lacking. Strikes with your weapon lack bite and the awkwardness of switching between targets during a battle leads to frequent frustration.
Level-5 gives you generous freedom to set up your team of fighters howsoever you like. Each character is given a bank of skill points, which can be spent on acquiring new abilities in any of eight different disciplines. Each category has 60-odd different abilities that can be purchased to build up your fighter's vocabulary of moves.
Once you've spent your points, you must then assign these attacks to any of the 21 action slots available to each character. In battle, you only have access to these hand-picked moves - so full responsibility for, say, ensuring your team has an adequate healer rests with you.
While this tactical freedom is welcome, in battle the interface for picking attacks is clunky, and too often your focus is on the battle with the menu screen and not the monsters behind it. The result is a battle system that is interesting but rarely enjoyable: a design that works on paper, but fails in execution.
Yet, at moments, the game looks nothing short of beautiful. Purplish mist drifts through dark green forest glades while swarms of pinprick fireflies hover lazily in the warm air. The wind exhales and trees and plants bow in unison: a simple, naturalistic effect not used nearly enough in games.
Level-5's eye for detail can be seen in the yellow butterfly flapping around a bloom of flower heads and in the grand, snow-capped canyon that carves a path through ancient rock. Catch the game from the right angle and it's as pretty as Final Fantasy XIII, all soft light and hard detail. Likewise, enemy designs are rich and interesting, and the world enjoys a welcome diversity of locations and people.
The story, however, is lacking. In a generous bid to help newcomers bed in with the characters, Sony includes the International edition of the first game in the package. But even with full familiarity with the cast, this a far from engaging yarn. Far too often, plot points exist to facilitate thinly-veiled and uninspired fetch quests - a huge disappointment coming from a developer whose work with the Professor Layton series exhibits boundless creativity in this regard.
As such, White Knight Chronicles II flounders. It's a hybrid that fails to find its own identity in terms of its structure, and its convoluted battle system is poorly explained and, once mastered, reveals itself to be broad but ultimately shallow. Those improvements from the first game are overwhelmed by a more general sense of ennui; what were once interesting innovations lack the polish and endurance to inspire over the course of a sequel.
A disappointment, then - for fans of a genre for whom disappointment is a familiar bedfellow.
5 / 10