What Begins As A Fun, Customizable RPG Quickly Turns Dull
White Knight Chronicles is not a bad game. The graphics and gameplay are perfectly serviceable, and the customization options are great, especially for a Japanese RPG. The real problem with WKC is that developer Level 5 has failed to connect these elements in any meaningful or engaging way, making for a game that feels very inconsequential and yes, forgettable. As sad as it is to say, this game is not worth the long wait or the full asking price of sixty dollars, especially in this crowded market.
That said, the game does start out with a lot of promise. Upon starting a new game, players will be faced with a character creation screen. There are myriad options when crafting your digital avatar, from nose and neck width to iris color. It's all fairly standard stuff in Western RPGs such as Mass Effect or The Elder Scrolls, but not so much in JRPGs. Strangely, however, your created character acts not as a main story character, but a mostly mute tag-along who just sits awkwardly in the back of the cutscenes. The fact that your created character has absolutely no bearing on the story whatsoever seems odd, to say the least. It would have been more logical for Level 5 to replace the generic and whiny protagonist Leonard with a fully voiced version of your created avatar, but I digress.
Like the avatar creator housed in the beginning of the game, battle customization is extensive and full of options. There are eight different specializations for characters: swords, long swords, bows, axes, spears, staves, elemental magic, and white magic. Each of these categories houses its own skill trees, complete with new skills and stat upgrades. Characters gain customization points quickly, so it is entirely possible to master an entire skill tree in less than ten hours of gameplay. Because the total game clocks in around 40-50 hours, and most characters can only use six out of the eight skill trees, this means that all of your characters will basically be jacks-of-all-trades by the end of the game. While each character can only wield one type of weapon at a time, it is possible to use both types of magic in combination with any weapon. Additionally, it is possible to chain multiple attacks (both physical and magical) together into a combo move, which can then be activated with the press of a button. Activating a combo will begin a little button tapping mini game that forces you to hit X at the right moments to continue the chain. Combos can be absurdly powerful at times, easily capable of defeating most enemies with one blow (provided you time the button-tapping mini game correctly.) They do, however, require more AC (basically WKC's regenerative equivalent of MP) to use than a normal attack.
Unlike with weapons, all of the characters can wear any type of armor. While vendors sell several different armor sets, there is always a definitive "best" armor set that adds more defense points than the rest. The same typically goes for weapons. This will result in your characters all being decked out in the same armor, often with the same or similar weapons. Although you will occasionally stumble upon more powerful weapons and armor in chests and in dungeons, it kind of defeats the purpose of extensively customizing each character's fighting style when there will always be a "best" set of weapons and armor to purchase.
The combat itself more or less boils down to tapping the X button every few seconds until all of the enemies are dead. While technically real time, in that you can freely move your character about the battlefield without restriction, the action itself is of a more turn-based variety. Your attacks are laid out before you on a bar that frames the bottom of the screen, sort of like in an MMO. The D-Pad is used to scroll from left to right, through your available skills, and up and down, through a set of three skill bars that each hold different attacks and buffs/debuffs. This system feels intuitive and fresh. You can only act when an onscreen meter fills up, however, meaning that most of your time in combat will be spent waiting for the meter to fill or watching attack animations. This sounds boring, but it's not a big problem in the grand scheme of things, especially because the battles are so darn easy. I died once over the course of the game, and that was largely a fluke because I wasn't paying attention to my health during a normal encounter. I repeat, I only died once over the course of a 40-50 hour game. Even if you don't mind the slower pacing of the combat, the lack of difficulty will make it really hard to care about most of the encounters. Shamefully, the boss battles are the easiest fights of all due to Leonard's ability to transform into the titular White Knight. All of the characters constantly make a big deal about fighting against the leviathan-sized bosses, which just seems out of place because when it comes down to it, these battles are just a matter of hitting the transform button and spamming the White Knight's most powerful attack until the enemy is dead. I honestly can't think of a boss fight that ever took me any more than five minutes to complete, which is a real shame because JRPG boss battles usually have a tendency to be long, tactical affairs.
All of these uneven gameplay issues would be forgivable if the plotting was good enough, but alas, story is WKC's weakest element. While the potential for an interesting story is there, the game never realizes that potential, instead opting for the most generic and predictable of story arcs. If you haven't watched the GiantBomb Quicklook of WKC, you should. It highlights just how formulaic the story is when the GB staff predicts all of the plot "twists" that the Quicklook has to offer. I can honestly say that, having played a smattering of JRPGs, I was able to predict every single plot twist, large and small, that occurred in the entire game. Again, that's every. Single. Twist. It's like Level 5 wasn't even trying. And while great characters can elevate a story from good to excellent (see: Uncharted,) none of your party members in WKC succeeds at being anything more than vapid and annoying. There is one point in the game (don't worry, I won't give away any specifics) when your characters, having traveled for days to achieve their objective, finally succeed in their goal and get what they were after. At this point, they immediately turn their backs and walk away for no reason, allowing the enemy to simply snatch it up again and run off. It is absolutely impossible to root for characters this inane.
While formulaic, the story is lengthy, and if you can somehow overlook the game's shortcomings it will provide you with a lot of value. The online play adds greatly to this value. The avatar that you created at the outset of the story will act as your playable character in the online realm. There are around 50 quests to complete with up to 3 other players, although no cohesive story ties them all together. This is basically a level grinding affair, but multiple players and voice chat adds a bit of entertainment to the combat. Unlike the games that you're probably used to playing online, WKC can feel pretty unintuitive when it comes to setting up a game. It works pretty much like Phantasy Star Online for the Dreamcast, in that players can meet up in a town (most of the towns are actually created by other players, which is pretty neat) and chat, but you have to go through a separate set of menus to actually join a mission.
Keeping in tune with the overall vibe of WKC, the graphical presentation is uneven. Character models look solid, though by no means great. Environments are typically bland and largely lifeless. The art direction, on the other hand, is top notch. Although many of the normal enemies and levels look formulaic, when the artists really flex their muscles they can create some pretty stunning scenes, like a city that resides on the back of a giant tortoise. Still, these scenes can feel few and far between, and the game can't even come close to Uncharted 2 or Metal Gear Solid 4, or most other PS3 games for that matter, in terms of presentation. The audio side fares worse, with voice overs ranging from bland to laughably bad. It doesn't help that the writing can feel so heavy handed. In typical WKC fashion, the music is your average JRPG fare. It's not bad, but not great either.
Like I said at the beginning of the review, WKC is not necessarily a bad game. It's just that the game never evolves, never progresses beyond what you see at the very beginning. The battle system never really changes, the story never takes any interesting turns, and the character customization becomes less and less impactful as the game goes on, because eventually ever character will end up as a jack-of-all-trades. WKC might not be bad, but it is aggressively mediocre, and those considering a purchase should hold off for the other, more promising JRPGs that are coming right around the bend.