Version tested: PlayStation 3
Having spent far too much of my time ploughing through self-consciously epic Japanese games lately, I can't tell you how much of a relief it is to come across one that doesn't take itself too seriously. Despite being marketed as The Ultimate Next-Gen RPG in Japan, plastered all over billboards and convenience stores for months leading up to release, White Knight Chronicles turns out to be unexpectedly lighthearted. It's a game with birds that can inexplicably project holographs from their eyes, drunken midget furries lying around on farms, airships, princesses and ridiculous giant-robot transformation sequences, replete with awesomely wailing J-Rock guitars. Thank f*** for a game with a sense of humour in place of misplaced pomposity.
White Knight Chronicles does have rather a lot riding on it, though. It's been disappointment after disappointment with JRPGs lately in the face of ever-increasing strength from their Western competitors. It's an ambitious game, too, attempting to lure Japanese players online by forging a battle and gameplay system that works simultaneously as a single-player, story-based RPG and as an online co-operative one. And despite the numerous inevitable difficulties with such a far-reaching mission statement, Level-5 has done a fine job.
The game stars a band of lively characters headed up by Lenard - he of the henshin-a-go-go transformation capabilities - trying to save a princess from mysterious assailants in a climate of international unrest. The world is a mix of medieval swords-and-sorcery and occasional random futurism; the titular White Knight is supposedly an ancient warrior spirit, but he looks far more like a massive shiny white robot. Lenard can transform into him in battle at any time once you've saved up enough action points, but usually it's best to save it for the boss fights, which are nearly always preceded by (unintentionally?) hilarious action cut-scenes that culminate in at least one transformation sequence. Lenard's not the only one with that trick up his sleeve, see - enemies have a habit of unexpectedly transforming as well.
White Knight Chronicles' fighting is all in real-time - think Phantasy Star, or FFXII - and always leaves you free to do things like switch between characters mid-battle with a quick few button-presses or run away from enemies on the map. You cycle through attacks and spells on the fly with the d-pad and execute them with the circle button. It looks like an action-RPG, but the actual mechanics are based on numbers and dice-rolls; enemy attacks will still hit you if you're standing behind an obstacle, or halfway across the room.
The lynchpin of the system is combo attacks, which you create and name yourself from the vast selection of commands and actions that open up as you level up your characters. You can string together magic, close and long-range attacks and aerial moves into fantastically satisfying action-game-like chain commands, which then slot seamlessly into your move-selection menu. They're executed with timed button-presses in the field, contributing to the combat's hands-on, action-heavy feel. Hits are pleasingly weighty, especially with axes and longswords, and fights against more impressive enemies can look properly gorgeous, particularly when fighting on a beefed-up scale as the White Knight.
Levelling up earns each character skill points that are put towards unlocking new moves or capabilities in each of the weapon and magic disciplines. You can specialise and unlock the majority of the moves in a particular discipline quite early in the game, allowing you to start experimenting with combos as soon as possible, but spending time gleefully unlocking things in the skill menus and working them into your battle strategy is a great joy in White Knight Chronicles right up to the final hours - and beyond, when you take the game online.
The end result of these impressively flexible skill and combat systems is an easy-to-play and fun-to-watch RPG that feels much more customisable than any other in the genre, and allows you to enjoy it how you want. There's mercifully little pratting about in White Knight Chronicles - no grinding, no wandering, well-placed save-points and a mini-map that always highlights where you need to go next with a little star icon lest you get lost in a combo menu for a while and forget where to go. Because of the constant experimentation you'll be doing with combos and skills, combat doesn't get tired unless you get complacent and start falling back on the same old techniques instead of switching characters and tweaking your battle strategy.
It's a little too easy to fall into such a repetitive pattern. There's not much challenge in the single-player game and as a consequence it's possible to muddle through using fairly basic combos, without switching characters or paying attention to the hidden intricacies of the combat, like elemental attacks. It's only once you get stuck into the online multiplayer that getting intimately acquainted with skills and combos becomes essential to progress as well as entertaining.
The online portion of White Knight Chronicles exists entirely separately from the single-player, but items and experience are transferable. You create an online avatar at the beginning of the game, adjusting fifty-four different sliders to achieve just the right breast size and angle. Amusingly, your avatar is along for the ride in single-player too as an eternally mute accessory to the plotline, standing at the back during dramatic cut-scenes wearing whatever ridiculous cape you've dressed them in and a faintly inappropriate smile.
It's not an MMO, nor a co-operative version of the single-player; you sign up using GeoNet from any save-point, and from there you can access a huge number of multiplayer-specific missions to play with up to five friends. Quests take place in the same areas you've already been to in single-player, and you unlock more by buying them in guild halls or uncovering more of the map on your own. You access quests via your own personal lobby space, to which you can invite friends - jumping into games with strangers is virtually impossible thanks to a combination of confusing menus and a relative dearth of sociable players, but this might change come the Western release.
It clearly takes a lot of cues from Monster Hunter, which is hardly surprising considering that series' incomparable success as a social multiplayer game in Japan. Completing quests slowly increases your rank, and the vast majority of the quests themselves are amazingly boring. It's like Level-5 took all the grinding and metaphorical rat-punching that's so appreciably absent from the single-player and shoved it all into a near-endless sequence of practically identical online quests. Basically, they're little more than a way of harvesting the endless materia items necessary to craft powerful custom weapons and armour.
This, naturally, is quite a disappointment for anyone hoping for some interesting co-operative story-based play from White Knight Chronicles. The multiplayer is still a great way to show off and experiment with the game's combat system - that it works so well both online and offline is indeed an achievement for Level-5 to be proud of - but when White Knight Chronicles was first announced, I had visions of a co-operative story-based JRPG rather than a huge but repetitive selection of monster hunting and fetch missions. Monster Hunter has done that to death in the past, and done it better.
Disappointing multiplayer doesn't take away from how enjoyable the game is, though, or how well-thought-through and impressively integrated its gameplay systems are. Level 5 has taken its inspiration from a lot of sources for White Knight Chronicles, and the result is a fresh synthesis that is a definite jewel in the platform's crown. It's funny, innovative and satisfyingly complex without ever being overwhelming, a JRPG for the lighter of heart and more action-orientated player. Level-5 was aiming to breathe a little fresh air into this genre with White Knight Chronicles, and in that respect it is a complete success.
8 / 10
White Knight Chronicles is out now in Japan, with a European release date yet to be announced. A half-decent working knowledge of Japanese is necessary to enjoy it at this point.