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.
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