Level 5 had a great run of RPGs on the Playstation 2 that kicked off with Dark Cloud and ended with Rogue Galaxy. When the Playstation 3 was announced a lot was made of the additional graphical and processing power it contained, and in the game dropped just two years after the launch of the console it was the first title to really take advantage of it.
White Knight Chronicles is a flawed masterpiece on behalf of the studio that would later get involved with Dragon Quest and bring us Ni No Kuni. Level 5 got a lot right, but the game tries a little too hard to appeal to everybody. Online component for the MMO crowd? Check. Straddling the border between Japanese and Western RPGs through use of different/competing systems and themes? Check. If it had stuck in closely to its original goals then possibly this could have cornered the market, but sadly a better edition of this title was included for free in the sequel’s packaging which fixes a lot of bugs and re-masters the already impressive graphics, turning it into the only version of the game you’d ever want to buy.
Graphically White Knight Chronicles is already a pretty title, characters are nicely designed in a light anime style and the game knows when to impress in terms of direction and the staging of scenes. The fantasy setting is slightly more eastern than it is western, adding to the overly-complicated but not so practical armour design prevalent in manga. Environments are varied and expansive, with some feeling simply massive and requiring some distance of travel before hitting a loading screen. Forests are lush, caves feel cramped and damp and castles have an inhabited feel. A city based on the back of a giant monster the party visits is a highlight, as are of course the ‘knights’ of the title themselves which tower over regular characters in scale. The game offers a detailed character creation system at the outset and although it’s fairly easy to create a monstrosity of a character a careful player can customise to their liking from a broad selection. The games UI is very pretty, uncluttered and easy to read, loading quickly and keeping in theme with the designs seen in the world around the characters. Level 5 are taking full advantage of the Playstation 3 where graphics are concerned. A few cutscenes rendered in CGI also appear as the game progresses and look suitably pretty.
Audio is slightly less of a highlight. Sound effects are pretty pedestrian for the most part and the dialogue spoken by characters is capable but slightly monotone overall. Musically the game uses an opening theme that recurs throughout when ‘moments of awesome’ occur that is extremely J-Pop in tone and adds to the games interactive anime feel. Background music is likable but ultimately none of the tracks are going to stick with you past playing.
The story is actually very straight forward at the outset of White Knight Chronicles. Set in the kingdom of Balondor, where the princess is having a ceremony to celebrate her 18th birthday. She hasn’t spoken for 10 years, since her mother died by the hand of a mysterious black knight and her father hopes to raise her spirits by pulling out all the stops for the party. The game’s protagonist, Leonard, and your player created character are tasked with delivering wine to the ceremony, joined by Leonard’s childhood friend Yulie, who harbors a major crush on him. Sneaking in to the party after the delivery, the group witness an attack upon the party by a group called the Magi who kill both the king and several foreign dignitaries. Leonard escapes with the princess into the cellars, where the pair of them encounter the ancient war machine ‘The White Knight’ which forms a pact with Leonard and enables him to defend the castle. With the princess taken and the kingdom in disarray, Leonard, Yulie and yourself set out to rescue her. It’s fairly straightforward fairytale storytelling, complete with the ‘save the princess’ trope, but whilst Leonard himself doesn’t get a great deal of character development later additions perk up the plot with genuinely interesting backgrounds and secrets of their own. The game places the character you create as a silent member of the party who is there to support them but is very much an observer in their story. This is a mixed blessing because it allows you total freedom to develop this avatar in any manner you choose, freed from the expectations of a particular role in the group, but it also means you’re a background player in a bigger story told about others. It’s not a bad story by any means and it has some moments of greatness, but ultimately it’s an introductionary installment for a story that wouldn’t be concluded until White Knight Chronicles II and ends on a cliffhanger with more questions than answers.
Gameplay is massively varied. Exploration and character interaction is fairly standard for a JRPG, but the game adds a combat system that feels very close to the king of combat seen in Dragon Age, with characters closing on a monster automatically and building up points that allow the player to trigger bigger more impressive moves or to cast magic which uses MP. Combat is seamlessly split into two halves however, with the same points able to be used to summon a Knight to your aid, transforming a character into a hulking colossus of power. This means that some monsters are huge and a struggle to combat without a summoning, but there are moments where a giant can be knocked down and takes massive damage, usually accomplished by targeting a weak spot of the legs for enough damage. This huge to small scale is effortlessly managed and keeps the otherwise dull battle system massively entertaining. Characters level and gain additional ranks in certain weapon types and elements of your choosing for magical attacks and passive skills. Your Avatar is completely free to learn whatever he or she wants, but be aware that some characters are asked to stick with a more limited selection of weapons in keeping with their personalities. You can level in excess of level 99 and restart the game on a higher difficulty post play to continue to level again and gain better gear ready for the sequel. The game also has an entirely optional online mode, which asks you to create a town of your own making using the Georama system last seen in Dark Chronicle and populate it with NPCs. This acts as a lobby for other players to visit and from which you can take on optional missions with real players that your Avatar can engage in. Completion adds new items to the shops in your town in a ranked system, but don’t worry if you can’t do these quests now that the servers have been taken down (although you can try them solo!) because as the plot progresses you will encounter shops with items throughout the world in regular JRPG style. These missions vary but can be quite hard alone and bulk out the title with easily a second hundred hours ontop of its already long play time.
Overall there’s not a great deal of reason to ever track down the original title on its own since a more impressive edition of the game and its conclusion are included in White Knight Chronicles II. That’s not to say it’s not worth you spending some time with, the game itself is actually pretty good. Some DLC was developed that never made its way across to the western audience sadly, and was aimed as fleshing out the Avatar’s background. If you see a copy of this title going cheap don’t hesitate to pick it up, but if you’re actively looking for it to experience it for yourself then grab White Knight Chronicles II.