White Knight Chronicles: International Edition
As I sit here and write this review, a little devil version of myself is yelling in my ear all the reasons why I should rip this game apart. “It’s terrible!” my little red doppleganger goads. “The online quests suck and you only died once in that easy, piece of crap single player campaign!” Floating next to my opposite ear, a white-robed, angelic version of myself is looking dejectedly at the floor. I glance in his direction. “Well?” I ask. He slowly raises his eyes to meet mine, then offers a quick shrug. “Alrighty then,” I mutter to myself and turn back to my laptop screen.
This game sucks. It’s a flawed, piece of sh–
A whisper in my ear causes me to look up. “What?” I ask, fixing my gaze on angelic me. “Fun,” he says hopefully. “Didn’t you have fun playing the game?” I lean back in my chair. Yes, I did have fun didn’t I? The story was certainly well-paced and the voice-over dubs were surprisingly inspired. And exploring those gorgeous environments while hacking up funky-looking beasties and collecting badass looking weapons and gear was absolutely addicting. “Fun,” I say to myself, a smile slowly forming at the corners of my mouth.
“Nooooooooo!” screams mini evil me, his pitchfork raised threateningly. “It’s an abomination! An atrocity! A horrific mess of shitty MMO elements with the most annoying ****ing menu system ever created! Every single one of the design team should be tied to the stake, lit on fire and– “ I flick the enraged devil me off my shoulder. His long string of colorful obscenities slowly fade as I’m overcome by a wave of calm contentment. “Fun,” I say again to myself.
Looking back at when I first slid White Knight Chronicles into my PS3, “fun” was definitely not the word that popped into my head. The game starts out by dropping the player unceremoniously into what appears to be a very robust character creation process. The number of options available for tweaking your character’s looks and abilities rivals Dragon Age: Origins, and I quickly went to work building the strapping, scruffy, masculine warrior type of hero that I usually create in games like this. I messed around for a good half hour, tweaking and re-tweaking continuously until I finally came to the last step of the process. I settled back in my chair and then examined my dashing hero-to-be. You can imagine my surprise when I realized he looked like Conan O’Brien with an 80s perm. Dismayed, I scrapped my work and started over. The end result of my next creation was Conan O’Brien with a Duran-Duran hairdo. Another few futile attempts later – all of which ended up with the same Conan result – and I finally just said “**** it” and created blond-haired, huge-eyed female anime character.
Disappointed at my inability to make a non-anime looking hero (and definitely not thinking about the word “fun”), I moved on to the actual story section of the game. Imagine my surprise again when a few minutes into the plot I realized the character I created was a mute sidekick to the main protagonist.
I’d like to stop here and say that these first few annoyances I had with White Knight Chronicles (henceforth WKC) were flukes, and the rest of the game played beautifully – the absolute picture of blissful role-playing perfection. But, I’d be lying. No, WKC‘s annoyances are plentiful, varied, and effect nearly every aspect of the game.
“You can chew through enemies like a champ while watching TV and mashing one button”Take the combat system, for example. The player is given access to one, all-encompassing global cooldown, and that cooldown manages every single combat action in the game. Dozens of abilities can be learned (from eight different combat trees) as you level up, but what the game’s combat essentially comes down to is whole lot of waiting. Use an ability… wait four seconds. Use another ability… wait four more seconds. Games like Dragon Age really challenge the gamer to keep track of multiple cooldowns, and are constantly keeping you engaged in the action. In WKC you can chew through enemies like a champ while watching TV and mashing one button. A fun combo-building system helps alleviate the monotony (who hasn’t wanted to create a long fiery combo named “FLAMMING METEOR FISTS OF DOOM?”), but a mix-up of the one-cooldown method would definitely have went a long way.
Also, the way the game determines distance when attacking is odd. Let’s say you run by some random scorpion creature with no intention of fighting it. As you walk through the monster’s melee range, it begins “winding up” it’s Pincer Slash attack. You keep on running and the scorpion is still sitting there, preparing the attack. Now you are about 30 yards away and the monster unleashes its “melee” attack. The attack will still hit you, no matter how far you have run. This system just feels wrong and makes any semblance of evasion or hit and run strategies moot.
And don’t get me started on the game’s archaic and infuriating menu and inventory systems. Simple tasks like equipping your character have you fumbling through unintuitive sub-menus and asking questions like: Why can’t I see stat changes when equipping items from the Item menu? Why are the Equip and Item menus even in two different places? Why is the option to repair weapons under the Heal menu? And despite the fact that you can carry an unlimited amount weapons and items (in the general inventory), each individual character in your party can only carry 20. Digging through multiple characters’ individual inventories for a specific item might have been kosher back in 1996, but today it’s just silly.
Okay – time for a breather. Six paragraphs in a row of negativity can be a bit trying (and there are still a few more to go yet), so I’d like you to take this moment and think about ponies, rainbows and Bob Ross. *waits* Feeling better? Alrighty then, let’s move on.
Holy crap this game is easy! In the 35 hours it took me to beat WKC, my party was wiped out once. And that one time I ran into a series of four boss battles with my healer at half mana. Very rarely at any time during the game is there any sense of threat, no matter how menacing any of the huge monsters look. This is mostly because mana and health regenerate quickly after you leave combat. There were times when I tried to stay in combat as much as possible, just to see if I could deplete my healer’s mana and add a bit of a challenge, but I could rarely accomplish this – and even when I could, there were always the five billion mana potions that I had collected (and never used) to fall back on.
Another reason the game is so easy is because at an early point in the story, you are given access to online guild quests. Using your in-game avatar (i.e. your created character) and tackled with up to three other people, these quests offer some substantial item rewards, not to mention the simple xp gain from killing beasties. Doing even two or three of these quests will transform your avatar from mute sidekick into an unstoppable killing machine on the field of battle in the single-player campaign.
The last gripe that I’ll mention here involves the game’s localization. In an apparent attempt to piss off japanaphiles across the western world, Sony decided to remove WKC‘s original, Japanese voice acting. Well, let’s be honest, they didn’t remove the actual voice acting (we all know a blu-ray disc can easily hold more than one language track), but rather, removed the ability to access the Japanese dialogue. Once again, standards that were okay a decade ago due to limited storage considerations are not applicable today, and not including the Japanese language in the “International” version is just plain lazy.
Whew. Right about now you’re probably wondering why I ever mentioned that “fun” word near the start of this review. Such a flawed game couldn’t possibly have any redeeming qualities, right? Well, amazingly, WKC does manage to pull free from its volatile concoction of nagging flaws and stand proud as fun JRPG that I actually recommend for people to try. Wait! Wait! Don’t run off now… at least give me a chance to explain why this game is worth playing.
First off, the story is stellar. Now, it’s not stellar as in that it’s unique or deep or mind-bending in any particular way – in fact, the plot’s backbone is a fairly derivative “oh no, the princess has been snatched and we’ve gotta save her!” kind of a deal. That said, the pacing and focus of the story are both excellent. Many JRPGs try to wow you with contrived storylines and jumbles of ideas woven together in such a convoluted way that most people don’t even know what the hell is going on. Remember Final Fantasy Tactics? An admittedly great game, but with a plot that was utterly impossible to comprehend. WKC offers a direct, powerful story that focuses on the characters, and adds in just enough spice at just the right time to keep you anticipating what happens next. And of course, there are the game’s titular Knights – massive weapons of power that infuse the plot with an awesome Gundam-like badassery that the geek in all of us craves.
And how about those gorgeous environments? Majestic canyons complete with roaring waterfalls and exotic wildlife, expansive grasslands with wind-tussled foliage and sparkling brooks – even the game’s desert areas are visually stunning wastelands, with craggy cliffs dumping rivers of sand into shimmering dune seas. And the creatures that prowl these landscapes are no less stunning. Lumbering Ice Dragons, exotic half lion, half hyena beasts and many more mythical animals roam the expanses, all exquisitely detailed and imaginatively designed. Top it all off with a soundtrack that ranges from simply good to truly epic and excellent English voice-overs (yeah, yeah – they still should have included the Japanese as an option), and you’ve got a combined audio/visual package worthy of high praise.
“The sheer number of buildings, people, landmarks and bits of scenery that you can find/create and add to your town is staggering”The town building and online questing portions of the game are also quite noteworthy. Once you’ve finished the single-player campaign, WKC invites you to jump online, join a party and tackle some of the many (50 in all) guild quests available. Completing these quests will earn you points towards a higher guild rank, and the higher your guild rank, the more challenging (and rewarding) quests you can undertake. As players reach higher levels they’ll be able to use the hundreds of different items to bind (i.e. create) new weapons and armor, or even buildings and structures for their own personal hometown. Citizens for your town can be recruited through the single-player story, and the sheer number of buildings, people, landmarks and bits of scenery that you can find/create and add to your town is staggering. The best part of all this is that you can upload your town and allow anyone to come in and use it as a hub for questing or just plain ol’ socializing.
And that’s where the fun comes in – challenging these high level guild quests with buddies online, building up your town and creating awesome new gear. Even better – the difficulty of these higher level quests ramps up significantly, and if you don’t work together (unlike in the single-player campaign) you will die horribly. Of course, the menu system still sucks, and digging around in separate character inventories is still annoying, but the thrill of creating that sweet, new, wolf head-pommeled katana (which, like all other weapons and armor in WKC, looks incredible on your avatar) and using it to slay some high-leveled beasties is intoxicating.
If you ever got sucked into Phantasy Star, Monster Hunter or any other Japanese-style, mission-based online RPGs, I highly recommend giving White Knight Chronicles a try. The number of issues with the game is concerning, especially considering the pedigree of the development team (Level-5 of Dark Cloud and Rogue Galaxy fame) but once you get used to the awkward menu system and wait-heavy combat mechanics, there’s a whole lot of fun to be had. A sequel has already been announced in Japan, and if Level-5 can learn from their mistakes while simultaneously building on the current game’s strengths, WKC 2 could end up being a must-have JRPG experience. As for now, consider White Knight Chronicles to be this year’s probably-should-try-but-may-be-disappointed JRPG experience. If you do decide to give it a go, come to my hometown and check out my sweet wolf-head katana. It’s totally super awesome. And stuff.