Level 5 is no stranger to the RPG, having let loose Dragon Quest VIII and Rogue Galaxy on the PS2, both splendid games in their own regard. Now the company has laid before us their latest effort, White Knight Chronicles. After a mandatory install, the game falls in to the intro, an interesting mix of FMV and game engine, and is almost reminisce of Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast.
The first port of call is to create the in-game avatar from one of eighteen base templates. The game is already setting the scene as a kind of medieval jaunt, with music that wouldn’t be out of place in a large and raucous festival. Able to choose between male and female characters, the base template can be customised to the player's liking, from head to foot size, muscle to body mass, there's enough tinkering to cater to everyone's tastes, nine pages of it in fact. If you can't find a face you like here, you're probably still single too.
With a dashing beard and smirk chosen as the “usual” facial expression, it's time to head in to the game proper. Fitamari, the 179cm, 75KG, balding man with a slightly effeminate voice is heading in to the wilds, only to find that the avatar is merely an ensemble character and not the lead …
First impressions are quite positive, visuals are bright, colourful and lush, introducing the player to the story of royal family stuck with a tragic past, the death of the queen, in a long running war and now the beginnings of a truce with the Farians, at least so it would first appear. For the first ten minutes there's really little else to do than to watch the unfolding story, and one thing becomes apparent quite early on: the voice-acting and lip-syncing is a little second-rate. It's not ear bleeding, but conversations do tend to sound a little like a sound-studio script rather than an interaction and sometimes lips don’t even move.
Finally, after the initial visuals, it's back down to Earth in the humdrum of the under-classes on the city's streets, far from the riches of the palatial surroundings first witnessed. Wondering around the environment, it doesn't take long to discover the NPCs of the game; conversations with these digital people isn't voiced, there are a lot of them though, so there can be a fair chunk of reading to get through. Also introduced are the Logic Stones, where the game can be saved, the party healed, items used or even, should you really want to tinker some more, change the appearance of the in-game avatar.
Pressing select brings up a menu allowing the currently controlled character to emote, as might be done in an MMORPG. Despite going around trying a number of these on different NPCs across the town, none of them would react to the different poses. Seemingly no-one was impressed with Fitarmi's Karate Pose, intimidated by his scolding, and were certainly more than cold-hearted to not respond to his tears of sadness. It makes it all seem rather pointless, particularly given there is no one around with which to dazzle your wiley charms, or so you'd think at first. The problem here is White Knight Chronicles doesn't make a hugely impressive initial impact. The first two and half hours are spent establishing the various aspects of the game, and it's not till late into that, that the GeoNet multiplayer feature is introduced, but more on that later.
It's in Balastor Plain where the first taste of combat is experienced. The player can only control one character at a time (though party members can be switched between by bring up the select menu). Attackable enemies are visible in the game world, so there's no need to engage every single one, though it does still seem to be difficult to avoid random encounters. Many creatures won't even engage you unless specifically targeted, but once attacking, creatures from further away start to join in, and it’s easy to get swamped.
The different skills available and selected via the d-pad are actioned once an active-time-battle like period has elapsed, as all skills charge at the same rate, it’s possible to switch between them without resetting the turn. The fighting plays out a little like that seen in MMOs, it's not strictly turn-based, but no actual combat is performed by the player himself; he's able to move around the battlefield freely, deciding when to use the current action, if it's ready to be deployed. The results of battles are listed on screen, so thankfully there are no transitional scenes in and out of battles slowing things down, in fact it feels very MMO like in that regard.
The first critters to the slaughter are Kibbles, who stumble around in KKK like masks carrying a huge bone for a weapon – they're unlikely to trouble even these low-level characters, and given that only one battle command is available initially, there's really very little to this early combat, but it plays out reasonably quickly. Polkans with their acorn shell-like helmet and Giant Vespids with their nasty looking stingers fall equally fast, rewarding the sword-play with much-needed experience points; it's not long before the first level-up notification is seen.
New skills are learnt by spending skill points on them, and four of these are award every time a character levels up. The nice thing here is the huge amount of them, characters can specialise in One-Hand Weapon, Two-Hand Sword, Spear (1-hand), Bow (2-hand), Two-Hand Axe, Staff, Elemental Magic and Holy Magic. If the goal is to get every single skill for any one character, it's going to take several hundred points to achieve - the only problem is finding enough space to assign all the different commands to the task bar. Later in the game it’s possible to rebirth characters; this knocks their level back several times over, but returns skill points, and as a bonus gifts another forty of them, allowing them to be re-assigned and perhaps tread a different path.
Whilst exploring the open world areas, it's worth looking out for flashing glowing stars, treats and item rewards are there for the taking, but only for those gamers paying attention to what's around them. Should you wonder in the wrong direction, your companion will helpfully ask if things are heading in the right direction. Thoughtfully, the developers included both a mini-map and a larger variation available via the menus, albeit without a key-guide to show what the various icons mean.
Once the prelude has been completed, the game really begins to open up. The world map gets more locations, the exploration increases, the enemies encountered become a bit harder, bigger and more impressive. Huge trolls and giants will cross your path, and defeating them, despite a little lacklustre combat system, is still enormous fun. Like in other Level 5 games, new areas usually require a little bit of grinding in order to get through them without too much trouble – but it's a small price to pay for the bigger adventure.
With all the single player shenanigans, it's very easy to overlook what Level 5 have produced for multiplayer RPG goodness in the GeoNet. It's more than just a lobby system, the hub allows you to blog your adventures, share pictures, stories and experiences with other White Knight Chronicle players, and if so desired, go out on four player missions for loot and jollies – this is why you spent all the time creating that avatar. Whilst the level recommendations for missions are a bit too low to comfortably complete the selected area, and the fact you might have to party with undesirable types at times, the system works extremely well. So it's not co-op for the storyline, but it's something different and rarely seen in this genre.
Despite some niggles, mostly with the combat system, White Knight Chronicles is a super RPG and not just a filler before Final Fantasy XIII hits the shelves. With a solid single player story, and dozens of multiplayer missions via the GeoNet, there's a lot of game here to enjoy. Looks like Level 5 have conjured up another RPG gem.