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.
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.