Review: These are what Xenosaga robots looked like in medieval times.
It's been a long time coming since its Tokyo Game Show 2006 unveiling, but Level 5's White Knight Chronicles has finally hit western shores, with the ever popular ?international? subtitle attached to it. A hybrid of a standard single-player campaign and online-based adventures alone or with three friends, WKC makes a valiant attempt to offer something for each RPG demographic. On one hand, the JRPG fanatic who likes to level up and manage characters, and the MMO or Phantasy Star Online player who wants to go questing with friends on the other. This ultimately ends up being the Achilles heel of White Knight ? it does both just fine, but not well enough to make the game stand out, even on PlayStation 3 where Japanese role-players are slim pickings. It's a decent enough game with some interesting concepts that are otherwise foreign to the JRPG genre (and a lot of additions and improvements over the original Japanese release), but it's hardly memorable and definitely doesn't live up to its potential.
Before the game begins, White Knight offers the chance to create an avatar. No, this has nothing to do with the blue guys. Instead WKC lets players create a ?virtual you? that both joins the party as a combatant and also as your character for when you tackle the online quests. Surprisingly, the character creator is deep and allows for a ton of varied designs, lowering the odds that anyone will run into a doppleganger when playing online. The engine can render almost anything depending on gender, height, weight, etc. It's almost comparable with the character creators that you see in many western RPGs. The only downside of the character creator is that you cannot alter your appearance or change attributes once the game begins without either starting a brand new game or paying $5 for a character editor ticket... that you can use once. It doesn't let you re-choose gender either, so you guys who thought it would be fun to play as a girl but now regret it... prepare to start from scratch.
Once the avatar is created, the story begins. White Knight uses the familiar ?lords and ladies? archetype; the Kingdom of Balendor is having a celebration for Princess Cisna, who is turning 18 and thus it's the day she ?reveals herself? to the kingdom. The hero of the story is Leonard, who at the time is a mere lackey at a local winery who is charged with visiting the nearby village of Parma to get their supplies for the celebration at the castle. At this point, your avatar is introduced as a new employee, and the duo travel to get the wine. Once they return, all hell breaks loose and Leonard eventually finds himself face to face with a huge set of knight armor. Naturally Leonard is a perfect fit for the gear and suddenly he becomes a ?pactmaker? with the White Knight. At the same time, the Princess is kidnapped and Leonard, along with friend Yulie, the mysterious Eldore, and your created character - henceforth known as The Avatar - head out on a quest to rescue her.
If you played Final Fantasy XII, you already have a basic gist of how to play White Knight Chronicles. Leonard and crew can roam plains and dungeons freely, with enemies spawning all around the party. Some of them are harmless and won't attack unless provoked, while others are immediately aggressive in their pursuit of killing. There's no shift to a battle screen or anything, but instead it all takes place in real-time. It still uses a form of the traditional turn-based system; you have to wait for a circle to fill before the attack can be selected and executed. In an attempt to streamline the experience, only the character you play as (every party member is available) can be directly used. All the leader can do is issue orders and tactics, and there's no way to select specific moves or spells. Thankfully the game is smart enough to know when to at least cast healing spells if it's necessary, though I had a really hard time convincing the other party members to use their spells for healing status effects. It's quite well-managed and I can't think of a single time that the AI did something truly detrimental to the party.
White Knight is unique in that every party member can be customized in numerous ways. Sure, learning skills is not a new concept; as seen in dozens of other RPGs, WKC characters earn skill points to divvy up to learn spells, attacks, and raise attributes. However, adding to the deep customization functions are ?skill sets? that give you control over what moves you and other party members have at your disposal. Depending on what weapon they are using, it's possible to create numerous macros with specific skills, tailoring every character to an exact science for any situation. Want someone to be the healer... but also a strong attacker? No problem. Need someone to be the mage but at the same time an expert with a long-distance bow? Sure. The whole thing is quite robust and effective, and a novel way of giving the player control of their party without actually issuing direct commands to them. It's even possible to create combos, though they take ?action chips? to execute, and aren't effective enough to stick with. This is especially true for Leonard, as those Action Chips are needed to summon the White Knight, and really shouldn't be wasted.
While this deep and highly customizable system is nice, it's unfortunately not really necessary. Every character can get by with just a basic attack and mid-level healing spells because the single-player game is mindlessly simple. Even at the tail end of the game, most small monsters take three or four hits to go down, and the larger, more "difficult" encounters are just battles with time long as someone is able to heal frequently. If one were to come across a truly challenging encounter, transforming into the White Knight is basically the ?I win? button ? the overwhelming strength of the Knight cuts down anything in its path. The boss battles are dull exercises in whittling away HP ? you can just transform and lay waste to them, with absolutely no fear of death. If the Knight somehow gets low on HP, having someone there to heal makes it irrelevant. It's great that you can't turn into the White Knight whenever you want, but considering you'd only need it for boss fights or encounters with multiple ?large? monsters, it's typically at your disposal when the situation demands it.