Coming back to White Knight Chronicles' world after nearly a year to see what's changed for the international version has been altogether very confusing. I'd forgotten that the game makes you bumble through about two hours of introductory nonsense before letting you play with the excellent, creative combo system and rockin' giant robot transformations that I fondly remember, and lost 20 minutes hunting around in menus for all the missing options like a halfwit.
It takes a while to get going, but once it does the game's as likeable now as it was last February when it picked up an 8/10 on Japanese import. It's full of the sort of colourful light-heartedness and creativity that are unfortunately rather hard to find in the genre nowadays.
A whole year, though. As you may have guessed, it doesn't take this long to translate some nonsense about kidnapped princesses and possessed sets of armour - what we're getting is a bigger, more complete version of White Knight Chronicles than it was at launch, bolstered by all the patches and online content that Level-5 has been drip-feeding the Japanese audience since then. Given that the online multiplayer was disappointingly half-baked at launch, full of potential that was never realised, this is potentially significant.
The single-player's changed as well, obviously, in that it's now in English with American voice-actors. The standard isn't groundbreaking, but the characters' over-egged enthusiasm does at least match the cheerful, quite cartoony aesthetic. Translation hasn't helped the script much - the story was never a good reason to like White Knight Chronicles - but it hasn't ruined it either. The lip-syncing is a bit off sometimes, and the battle cries are still quite generic and repetitive, but it's nothing to cry over.
I can't be entirely sure whether this is my imagination or not, but I swear they've changed the music a little - the squealing, Power Rangers-esque J-rock guitar solos that used to accompany Leonard's transformations into the giant White Knight are gone. More noticeable is the addition of Live Talk, which makes your party members rather more communicative.
Characters will have a blether to each other while you run around in the overworld, coming out with context-sensitive quips ("A troll? At this time of year?"), story banter ("I hope the princess is safe!" "I'm sure she is!") and, from time to time, irritating generic nonsense ("These guys? Now?"). It's supposed to add atmosphere and camaraderie, make the characters more personable, but unfortunately it just made me sick of their voices until I learned to filter out their chatter.
The international version of White Knight Chronicles also boasts a whole new online-focused game mode, the Georama system. It's a town-building subgame that echoes Dark Cloud, one of Level-5's previous games, allowing you to create your own village of NPCs recruited from the single-player game to act as a lobby for multiplayer questing. This was added to the Japanese version at the end of last year, and the level of customisation is impressive. Characters set up shop in your village and offer some show-offy unique weapons and items, too, and it's a nice way of highlighting your achievements within the game, functioning as an interactive trophy room for friends to wander around.
Unfortunately the actual online questing in White Knight Chronicles still has the same problems it did a year ago. To recap, the online mode is entirely distinct from the single-player story - you access isolated multiplayer quests from the world map, taking your custom-created avatar into an instanced level with up to three other players.
It's not, disappointingly, a co-op version of the main game, but rather a collection of MMO-style slaying and fetch-quests, which the superbly flexible combat system can support admirably. Voice chat and keyboard support have been added as concessions to the Western way of doing things - unlike our Japanese friends, we like to communicate through more than emotes - and the quests can be fun, but they lack variety, and accessing them at all can be completely impenetrable thanks to a bewildering sequence of menus.
The game also doesn't let you dabble in online questing until hours into the game - it's almost as though you have to earn the right to have any fun - so players hoping to have a quick go at an online quest just to see what it's like are out of luck. Even when the online quests do open up, the game still does a terrible job of explaining how to go about them, hiding everything behind layers and layers of menu obfuscation.
Originally you had to purchase online quests from a vendor in a town, then start them up from a save point; the international version comes with around 50 missions ready-unlocked on the disc, all of which pop up on the world map as soon as the online mode becomes available.
This is actually problematic, as all of them are far too high-level for beginner players - people are likely to want to jump straight into an online quest as soon as the opportunity presents itself and will find themselves swamped in a sea of far-too-difficult slaying quests without anyone to share the burden. If you hadn't played White Knight Chronicles before, it would be difficult to even tell the difference between the single-player story quests and the 50-odd optional ones that suddenly materialise. It just doesn't do a very good job of explaining itself.
Level-5 really needs to make this more accessible. Admittedly the game's online features are primarily designed for players who have completed the single-player quest, but there's no way of knowing that. A lot of people are going to be buying White Knight Chronicles on the promise of its online multiplayer, or at least be curious about it, and they won't appreciate having that aspect of the game withheld from them for so long - or how difficult it is to understand when you eventually do get there.
White Knight Chronicles might be bigger, then, but it's no better than it was before - the translation and voice-acting are competent, the Georama system is a great but a superficial improvement, and the online questing has, if anything, become slightly more confusing. It's still strongest as a single-player game with an inspired combat system; the multiplayer is admirably ambitious, but it's still not an essential aspect of the game. There are many, many extra hours of extra content hidden away in there, but you still have to be very patient to find it.
The international edition of White Knight Chronicles is due out for PS3 soon. The game is already out in Japan and reviewed elsewhere on the site in that form.