JRPGs are a very tricky genre. Unless you’re a tried and true franchise like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest or even Pokemon, new IPs in the world of the Japanese role-playing game always catch flak for bad storytelling, poor voice acting, clichéd stories or a wonky combat system.
I say this not only as a lifelong gamer, but as someone who considers themselves a connoisseur of JRPGs. I’ve played every main Final Fantasy game, vowed one day to grind through the Dragon Quest games, and given nearly every new attempt at a JRPG a try. Some I thought were incredibly underrated, like NIER and Lost Odyssey. Others would have been better left never reaching existence, like The Last Remnant or Infinite Undiscovery.
This is where White Knight Chronicles comes into play. The two games in the series are made by Japanese developers LEVEL-5, who were behind the legendary Dark Cloud games, which I was also a huge fan of. So imagine my excitement when it was learned that they were returning to making a “unique” game just like they used to.
While I don’t want to say my excitement was met with disappointment, it certainly wasn’t met.
The original White Knight Chronicles was met with mixed reception, which is common for nearly all JRPGs this generation, in some kind of perpetual hatred that our western gaming minds have for anything that makes just a little bit of nonsense.
So here’s a sequel that LEVEL-5 promises fixes many issues the original game had, and even included a re-done version of the first game to appease those disappointed with the original release. But is it enough?
For the remainder of the review, while I’m technically supposed to be writing solely on White Knight Chronicles II, everything I mention will be in reference to both the first and second games since they are both on disc. It’s very clear that both games were meant to be played back-to-back, not because both stories combined are slightly less than the length similar to that of something like Final Fantasy XIII, but because story elements are dependant upon the gamer remembering exactly what happened at the end of the first game, since the second game literally picks up right where the first left off.
This is a major point in favor of the game since the original White Knight Chronicles didn’t sell that well, therefore many gamers would be lost if the original adventure was not included.
White Knight Chronicles, like an alarmingly large amount of JRPGs, has a story that closely resembles that of Star Wars. During a time in which it seems peace might reach the two warring nations of Faria and Balandor, an evil entity (who happens to have a deep ominous voice and wear shiny black armor) invades the kingdom of Balandor and kidnaps Princess Cisna.
You play as Leonard, a simple boy who works for a winery and is in the middle of training a new worker, an avatar that you customize and create with no set name or voice work, when suddenly you find yourself at the castle delivering wine while this whole invasion is happening.
Leonard witnesses the princess being kidnapped and takes it upon himself, a pink-haired jailbait named Yulie and a grizzled old, slightly insane warrior Eldore to repel the invasion and save the princess. In the process, the party happens across an ancient suit of armor in the basement of the castle called an “Incorruptus,” which has the magical power to consume anyone worthy enough and temporarily give them amazing combat powers. Leonard forms a pact with the magical spirit housed within the Incorruptus and vows to save the princess at any cost.
Honestly, I thought I had seen everything in Japanese entertainment mediums, but apparently I hadn’t, since they finally found a way to combine their fascination with western fantasy with their love of giant, powerful mechs, but in the form of knight armor instead of robot armor.
The story really isn’t anything gripping. There are your normal twists and turns here and there, but it’s largely a bunch of old clichés that have been plaguing RPGs for years, like the whole evil side holding someone important in exchange for a terrible power that can be used to take over the world, or an ultimate ancient war between good and evil that happens to fall upon the most unlikely person when the can is re-opened, or a giant turtle monster that happens to house an entire city on its back…..okay maybe the whole thing isn’t clichéd, but a pretty hefty portion of the game is.
The point is, most JRPGs have that sort of slow period at the beginning where the story is slow and not much is happening. While things pick up a little bit as the game goes on, it never really feels like the game gets started, and the player will keep playing simply because of that feeling that the plot is about to get incredibly exciting.
The rest of the game is a mixed bag of features. For everything that White Knight Chronicles does very well, there’s another thing that brings my feelings back to a neutral position.
Take the combat for example. The combat, much like many of the gameplay mechanics, are based on MMO style gameplay. Enemies are not fought in random battles, (which is a GREAT thing), but are all seen in plain view as players progress. Approach an enemy and the music will become more intense and everyone will draw their weapons.
Combat is done in such a way so that players must wait until their circle is filled up in order to do an action, similar to the active time battle system you’d see on older Final Fantasy games. Your party members are controlled by an unusually smart AI. This sort of “wait your turn” style of battle without being turn-based is fair and works well.
However, what hinders this is the fact that instead of having all of your learned skills and commands available at your disposal at all times, gamers only get about 18 or so spots to fill in with abilities, along with a generic bar where you can use items, throw up defense, transform into the White Knight, etc.
This also means that if an enemy begins an attack animation and you were to instinctively walk out of range from that attack, the attack will still hit anyway simply because the animation begun and you happened to be the poor sap that the enemy was targeting.
Another example is as follows. I love that the whole item looting system is as streamlined as possible. When you defeat an enemy, any won items and gold are automatically put into your inventory instead of needing to remember to loot the body and potentially forgetting to pick up something important.
However, I hate that each character in your party has their own inventory, and there isn’t one communal inventory where you can equip new stuff to different characters quickly. All items automatically go to whichever character you’re controlling.
This wouldn’t be a bad thing if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s piles and piles of menus to go through in order to accomplish what you want. If I pick up a cool new staff, it goes to Leonard. My Leonard is specializing in longswords, but Yulie is specializing in magic and staves, so I want to give it to her. To do so, I need to go into the item menu, go into Leonard’s inventory, find the staff and give it to Yulie. I then need to back out to the main pause menu and go into the combat setup menu. Within that is the equip menu, and from there I can finally equip the staff.
There’s a lot of unnecessary steps in order to do such a simple task, where as other games would just be entering a broad inventory screen and equipping the staff on a certain character.
The separate inventories becomes an especially frustrating aspect when faced with a difficult enemy, and all but one party member are knocked out. You don’t have any healing magic or items, but it turns out that one of your other party members is sitting on a stockpile of revival potions and heal potions, which is silly since I set that party member’s tactics to use exclusively magic for healing. It’s a shame then that you can’t use those healing supplies since that party member is now face-deep in the dirt.
One of the more interesting parts of the game are the multiplayer aspects. And yes, before you frantically go forth and Google the game to see all you can about the multiplayer aspect of White Knight Chronicles, there is one, and there’s probably a reason it isn’t advertised as the main draw.
Yourself and up to five other players can meet up on PlayStation Network and use each other’s strengths in order to accomplish smaller side-quests, gain some money and loot, and brag about each other’s…….towns?
It should be noted that the multiplayer quests are not story quests. They’re simple side-quests that see the players grinding through an enemy-filled dungeon or take down a massive boss. All the money and weapons you find in this mode can be brought back into the main singleplayer game, making multiplayer feel like more of an afterthought.
This all ties into the Georama feature, which is a small plot of land owned by the player in which he or she can create their own village. Players are tasked with finding resources for making buildings, and therefore recruiting NPCs from the main game to live in their own personal town. The recruited characters each have their own skills and add to the amount of resources that can be given to the player to develop their land into something much bigger and better.
The Georama doesn’t have much functionality as whole. It’s the equivalent of visiting another person’s virtual aquarium on Facebook or seeing their personal farm on FarmVille. In the single-player game your town can be accessed via the savepoints to take advantage of the shops and whatnot. This isn’t as useful when you realize you can just go to the world map and double-back to any of the previously visited towns and take advantage of their own shops.
It’s also worth noting that you can only play as your nameless, voiceless avatar in this mode, which may not be favorable to some players. Personally, the only time I ever had my avatar in my party was at the very beginning when I had no other choice. You can give him his own custom Incorruptus towards the end of the second game, but he largely seems like something thrown in to add just one more aspect of customization.
Which is to say, the number of ways that player can customize their experience is massive. There are over 400 different pieces of equipment between weapons, armor and other accessories. It’s even cooler to see that each piece of armor actually shows up on the characters you put them on. This was always common in more recent RPGs, but not JRPGs.
Although, no matter what shirt I put on Leonard, it always looks like he’s wearing a dress.
It can’t be helped that there’s an overall feeling of confusion throughout the entire game. If someone goes into the game expecting a great single-player JRPG, which is what I was expecting, they’ll probably feel overwhelmed by the number of menus to sift through, the pure amount of options available and the push to use features like the Georama even though you can technically finish the game without even opening the option.
On the flip side, gamers wanting a cool multiplayer experience will be disappointed at the lack of depth or importance to the big picture of the game.
Although I must say this, the game features one of my new personal favorite soundtracks. If you happen to get the game, do yourself a favor and just sit on the game icon on the XMB on PS3 when you first pop it in. The song that plays is one of the most amazing things I’ve heard in a video game, and it alone nearly redeemed the game for me.
So with such a mixed bag of features, does the game benefit anyone?
Well, despite everything I can find to complain about, White Knight Chronicles I and II are both solid games that fans of JRPGs should try out, if only because it’s one of the few JRPGs of this generation that totally doesn’t screw up (although I still stand by my decision that Lost Odyssey is one of the most underrated games).
White Knight Chronicles II doesn’t break new ground, it won’t win any awards and it really doesn’t do anything too drastically different than what other games do other than the whole “transforming into a giant ancient knight” thing. However, it takes the few aspects of failed games that work and combines them into a much more playable result, which is good enough for me.
This review is based on the final retail copy of the game, which was provided to us for review purposes.
This game may be a hard sell to anyone other than fans of the genre, but it's definitely worth looking into if you've got a spot in your backlog for it and an incredibly open mind.