Version tested: PlayStation 3
In recent years the distinctions that once separated videogame genres have blurred and faded. Is Mass Effect 2 an RPG or a third-person shooter? Is Heavy Rain a point-and-click adventure or a QTE thriller? Puzzle Quest is as much a Tolkien-cliché RPG as it is a match-three puzzler, while Peggle is Pachinko meets NBA Jam meets LSD rainbow unicorns. Blockbuster series such as BioShock and Uncharted are slippery in the hands of genre, borrowing as they do elements and ideas from a broad lineage, while WarioWare and Retro Game Challenge boil down gaming's first principles into a hotchpotch stew that defies easy classification. Systems ooze into systems, enriching one another, and so the old videogame terminology becomes obsolete through promiscuous evolution.
Nevertheless, this diversification works best through osmosis, not Frankenstein-style stitching. In the case of White Knight Chronicles, the bolting together of a traditional single-payer JRPG with an MMO-lite multiplayer component is somewhat awkward. The first 20 minutes of the experience are spent designing an avatar who takes at most a secondary role in the main bulk of the adventure, only slipping into the protagonist's shoes when taken online to engage in multiplayer side-questing.
Of course, RPGs have always expected their players to assume a transient role controlling a group of characters, but the disconnect between the character you create as your likeness for White Knight Chronicles and the character who drives the narrative forward is a little too jarring for comfort. It's best approached as a game of two halves then, despite the fact that your character's weapons, skills and competence carry back and forth between the two modes, and achievements reached in one area are relevant to the other.
As a single-player RPG, White Knight Chronicles continues Level 5's breezy, fairytale approach to the form. As with the company's work on Dark Cloud and Dragon Quest VIII, a grand yet bubbly orchestral soundtrack fills the warm air of some of videogaming's most welcoming vistas. Rolling hills seasoned with flowers in full bloom connect the game's expansive, enchanting towns and cities, and you'll often pause to admire the rickety wagons winding their way along sunset-drenched pathways in between clobbering the local hostile wildlife. It's a sentimental rendition of countryside living, for sure, but no less engaging for it and, for a genre that's perhaps grown too po-faced in recent years, White Knight Chronicles provides a breath of fresh air.
The story, too, aims to provide a light-hearted counterpoint to the angst and turmoil of so many recent Final Fantasies, but nevertheless ends up settling into a sort of primary-coloured cliché. You start out as a runner for the local wine merchant Rapacci Wines, on an errand to a local town to fetch a clutch of bottles for a royal festival later that day. Sadly, the scriptwriters' ambition extends further than alcohol deliveries and on your return the castle is stormed and the princess kidnapped, laying the stage for a 30-hour quest that takes you down well-worn narrative pathways. It's a story told in simple language without much flair or character and given voice by some mediocre acting. However, the cut-scenes are directed with competence and some drama, although never quite enough to sustain interest.
What will carry you through the course of the adventure is the battle system. Your party of fighters is free to engage any foe encountered in the game world, play switching seamlessly from explorative to combative with the unsheathing of a sword. As in an MMO, you control just one member of the team, issuing offensive and defensive commands when an action gauge fills up. Using the d-pad, you can cycle between 21 fully customizable attacks, spells and combos, all selectable via a neat interface at the bottom of the screen. As characters level up you earn points with which to purchase new moves which can then be slotted into one of the 21 spaces that make up your 'live' repertoire.
In contrast to Final Fantasy XII's similar system, you're free to purchase skills in whatever area you want for a character right from the start of the game, allowing you to build a personal, specialised team immediately. Switching between characters mid-battle is straightforward, but if you'd rather just stick with one fighter, general AI behaviour can be set to handle the rest of the team, making appropriate use of the moves and combos you've prepared for each.
Single moves can be incorporated into strings, which, when triggered during a fight, require you to press the action button in a QTE-lite in order to sustain the combo through its entirety. As such, it's possible to lose hours to the team set-up, and building a balanced team of fighters is an enjoyable challenge.
However, the game's easy difficulty never demands the sort of thoughtful preparations that the system allows for. Once you gain access to the titular White Knight armour - which turns one of your characters into a 30-foot hulking knight (known as an Incorruptus) - there's even less incentive to strategise in the menus. Both combos and transformation into medieval mecha require action points, which accrue at a rate of one per fill of the turn gauge. As a transformation requires a minimum of 7 AP you need to take a long view of your combat strategy, saving up AP for the dungeon's inevitable boss battle.
Outside of the main campaign, White Knight Chronicles extends its appeal by way of the Georama, an MMO-lite arena in which you can team up with up to three other players and take part in side-quests. Experience and items won during these missions feed back into your main game, but there are more compelling reasons to keep returning to this area, especially for fans of Monster Hunter-style micro-missions.
Since its release in Japan over a year ago, Level 5 has been adding new features and refining the Georama, incorporating voice chat, a facility for players to 'blog' their adventures on a message board and the ability to build and furnish your own Georama area for other players to visit. Played in a group of four, the battle system sings, recalling the finest moments of Phantasy Star Online as team members settle into natural roles. As with Monster Hunter, the multitude of quests on offer are often too pedestrian to excite much, but in the past 12 months Level 5 has redressed this with some more exciting marks.
Despite their relative strength, the disparate halves of White Knight Chronicles fail to gel in meaningful ways. Limiting the relevance of multiplayer side-quests to monster-hunting and restricting the rewards primarily to items for crafting lessens the impact of what might have been. Meanwhile, a lacklustre, clichéd storyline that demonstrates only faint echoes of the imagination and flair that fire Level 5's Professor Layton series fails to capitalize on what is otherwise a bright, engaging world.
With a sequel already announced for Japan, Sony and Level 5 seem keen to replicate the success of other long-running JRPG series, and with this expanded International Edition, it's clear they're hoping White Knight Chronicles' popularity will travel. But while this is a competent debut, its strong ideas are held back by some poor execution and an unwillingness to let go of genre trappings. If Level 5 can truly scrub out the lines that separate their ideas into a meaningful, coherent whole, then their vision of the JRPG - or whatever they may call it - could stand tall.
7 / 10