At first glance, White Knight Chronicles doesn't appear to be pushing the JRPG envelope. It starts with a captured princess and a young boy charged with retrieving her, it's set in a medieval fantasy world, it features characters who can transform in battle to enhance their abilities. But what Level-5 is attempting is actually something new for the genre. In a country where popular online console games are still a relative rarity, White Knight Chronicles is attempting to seduce Japanese gamers into playing an online RPG by giving them everything they're used to from single-player ones.
The online and offline portions of White Knight Chronicles are entirely separate. You can't play the offline story co-operatively with friends, or play missions from the online game alone. The single-player game is an epic fantasy story starring a transforming hero; online it's a mission-based multiplayer game for up to four players, structurally far more similar to Phantasy Star than, say, Final Fantasy XI. White Knight Chronicles is two games in one, rather than online and offline versions of the same thing.
"Players should be able to find it really easy to play both an online game and an offline game, in the same title," Level-5's studio head Akihiro Hino reckons, as we catch up with him in Tokyo. "When we started working on the plan for White Knight Chronicles three years ago, there were not many online games available here in Japan. We wanted to create an online game that could convey that multiplayer fun to as many people as possible - a game in which players could casually move from online to offline."
Naturally there is some interplay between the two game modes. Your single-player level might affect which quests are available in multiplayer, and certain items will be transferable. But it is the developer's expectation that the majority of gamers, at least in Japan, will only try their hands at the online multiplayer once they've completed the single-player story, so it's important that the two sides of the game function completely independently.
White Knight Chronicles stars Lenard, a boy caught up in disastrous events in his kingdom's palace during the princess' coming-of-age ceremony. A rebel group called Wizard captures the princess and razes the palace to the ground, and Lenard finds himself stumbling upon a magical piece of armour as he attempts to flee. This armour gives him the ability to transform into the titular White Knight, a seven-metre-tall, ancient warrior who could be mistaken for a giant white Gundam robot.
The game's battle system is built around this ability, and the main theme running through the gameworld is the contrast between micro and macro. It's a game obsessed with scale, throwing you into battles with gigantic, Shadow of the Colossus-scale bosses and set in a world where entire towns are built on the backs of towering leviathans. Lenard's transformation gauge isn't just a gimmick, or a way to take a few extra hit points off an enemy; it's at the heart of WKC's large-scale battles, and gives them a lot of visual impact.
Level-5 has faced a considerable challenge in creating a battle system that works equally well in a co-operative RPG and a single-player one. The emphasis is on personalisation and visual flair; it uses timed button-presses to simulate cool-looking, action game battles, both large-scale and small. You can arrange different moves in sequence in the battle menu, so instead of seeing the same combo attacks in every battle throughout the game, you can arrange for Lenard (or anyone else in your party) to strike an enemy a few times before throwing him up into the air with the sword, then use a fireball spell, then smack him back down to earth again, for instance.
The move-set customisation looks really flexible, and the moves for each different weapon and type of magic can be combined freely. Switching between combo sets is going to be a big part of battle strategy in WKC, and especially in multiplayer, it will be interesting to see how players combine their combos for the most effective and visually arresting battle strategy. "We wanted to achieve a battle system that can work both in online and offline modes, and so we wanted to provide a command set-up system that makes sure players can easily reflect their own battle styles, preferences and tactics," Hino explains.
Given that repetitive and boring battling is one of the chief problems afflicting even the best JRPGs, WKC's system is an intriguing alternative. The extent of each weapon's move-set is unknown, and it will be difficult to incorporate enough variety and customisation to keep things interesting through all 100 hours of WKC's single-player storyline as well as online, but what we've seen so far is encouraging.
As well as creating your own battle combos, White Knight Chronicles also lets you create your own avatar, who turns up both in the online game (as your player character) and offline as an incidental character in the main plot, accompanying Lenard and colleagues for the latter part of the story. We caught only the barest glimpse of the game's character customisation, but the fact that it includes an ear angle slider suggests that it's rather more comprehensive than we'd expect for the genre. Hopefully, then, the online world won't be populated by identikit avatars with slightly different swords.
We won't have to wait long to find out, of course, because White Knight Chronicles will be released on 25th December in Japan. Bizarrely for a game so close to release, there are still a lot of important questions unanswered. We've seen that you can use text and emotes to communicate in multiplayer, but Level-5 won't yet confirm whether or not the game will support voice chat. We've seen players invite their friends to play an online mission and gather in a lobby, but we've not seen how it's possible to meet new players and make new friends online.
Given that this is a Level-5 game, we know that White Knight Chronicles has a high chance of hitting the mark as a traditional-but-compelling RPG in single-player, and the battle system really does look impressive. But the developer's lack of previous experience with multiplayer and reluctance to confirm specific details about how things like communication and picking up quests are going to work has us concerned that the online mode will end up as a peripheral feature, rather than the incredible co-operative JRPG experience that Western audiences have been hoping for. Look out for our review in the New Year to find out.
White Knight Chronicles is due out on 25th December in Japan, and should be out in Europe next year. It's a PS3 exclusive.