White Knight Chronicles II
I rather enjoyed White Knight Chronicles (WKC). The game was flawed in many areas, to be sure, but there was something enjoyable and, yes, addictive about creating and accessorizing your avatar and tromping through the vibrant world that Level-5 created. When I got word that a sequel was in development, I was hopeful that many of the nagging issues that hampered the first would be ironed out. Unfortunately, for the most part, this didn’t happen. White Knight Chronicles II (WKC2) is definitely a continuation of the first game, warts and all, which is a disappointment considering the unquestionable room for improvement present in the original.
Like its predecessor, WKC2 doesn’t start off very promising. Instead of jumping right into the story arc presented in the first game, we are whisked away to another land, complete with new plot points and brand new characters. To say the least, it’s jarring. One of the charming aspects of WKC was the simplicity of the ‘save the princess’ story when combined with its likeable, quirky characters. With WKC2, the developers seemed eager to wash their hands of the original story arc and dive into something new. Unfortunately, in this case “new” is perhaps better labeled as “convoluted.” Like so many JRPGs before it, WKC2 stumbles through the storytelling process, throwing out too many zany ideas, while simultaneously failing to anchor them to a strong central narrative.
The combat system is also very much more of the same, though there have been a few tweaks here and there. On the plus side, the annoying “long distance melee attack” problem from the first game has been mostly remedied – if you run out of range from an enemy, chances are you will avoid their attack. That said, the one global cooldown-style battle system is very much intact and still quite monotonous. There just isn’t enough micromanaging needed to be successful. You still build combos and give them names (which is mildly interesting), but combat continues to require little more than mashing one button over and over again when that one global cooldown refreshes. Because most of the strategic thinking required happens in menus and not during actual combat, encounters feel lifeless and highly automated.
Level-5 did bump up the difficulty of the game, however, and this slight difficulty increase is a welcome addition. Now combat items actually have value, as you’ll likely end up using some of them to survive, even during battles with some of the more mundane creatures wandering the countryside. Of course, you can still trivialize the single player content by over-leveling via repeated online questing, but that seems to be a necessary evil considering the avatar system the game has in place, and you can avoid this by simply putting off accessing the online portion until completion of the main story.
Also new this time around is the ability for your avatar to transform into an Incorruptus (i.e. the game’s titular Gundam-like mecha-knights) after reaching a certain point in the single player adventure. This is, of course, one of the additions that fans were clamoring for the most, and it’s nice to see that Level-5 took the time to add the feature in (though, it really should have been in the first game). On the down side, they didn’t change anything else about the Incorruptus system, and it, like the combat in general, becomes quite tedious over the course of the thirty or so hour story (not to mention potentially hundreds of hours of additional online questing).
Presentation-wise, WKC2 looks great, as did the original, but you’ll be adventuring through many of the same environments visited in the first game. And by the same I mean exactly the same. Environment recycling is usually a sign of cutting corners in the development process, and one certainly gets that feeling in this particular case as well. The game’s visual package is even more disappointing considering many of the new environments don’t do anything to trump those found in the original; in fact, a few of them, like the wooded area near the start of the game, look utterly bland when compared to some of the fantastic vistas of WKC.
As you might expect, WKC2’s soundtrack borrows heavily from its predecessor, both compositionally and literally. Thankfully, due to the excellent quality of the original’s orchestral score, this is very much a good thing. WKC2’s soundtrack doesn’t rank up there with Nobuo Uematsu’s finest work, but it’s fantastic in its own right, and several of the songs are truly memorable.
When all is said and done, however, the one aspect of WKC2 designed to keep players coming back is the online questing via Geonet (which requires a separate online pass-like code this time around). Like in the first game, you can meet up in player-made town hubs and embark on mini adventures with like-minded, would-be heroes and heroines. WKC2 even ups the ante by allowing up to six people to quest together, compared to four in the original. While questing online can be addictive due to the always-present carrot of new weapons, armor and additions to your online town dangling tantalizingly just out of reach, the same issues that hamper the single player adventure – namely, the shallow combat system and nonsensical story – are present here as well. And the grind involved to get the most coveted gear (hundreds of hours) can quickly erode the perceived value of many of the digital carrots dangling in front of the player. Is a slightly cooler katana worth twenty more hours of running through the same few quests over and over again? Some will soldier on in their quest to get that cooler piece of gear, while others will lose interest and move on to greener, less repetitive pastures.
In the end, Level-5 didn’t do enough to fix the problems present in WKC. Sure, they made some key tweaks here and there, but WKC2 overwhelmingly feels like a lackluster expansion to a deficient game. Why didn’t they fix the convoluted menu and inventory system? Why is the combat still so boring? Level-5 had the opportunity to take a fun-yet-flawed game and turn its sequel into a JRPG masterpiece, but they chose the path of least resistance – a decision which has, in this reviewer’s opinion, tarnished their standing as a triple-A Japanese developer. Hardcore WKC fans may be willing to pour hundreds of additional hours into this sequel, but most will likely be turned off by the confusing story, niggling flaws and generally repetitive nature of the combat and questing.