I love me a good chronicle. A chronicle is more than a story - it's a sequence of events that someone recorded because it mattered. So, when something gets the label "chronicle" I immediately look for a sense of the epic, a golden thread stretching away into the past and off into the future. Posterity. Lessons. You know what I'm saying.
White Knight Chronicles should be even more than this again: chronicles, plural. But for a game that talks a good game, there's a surprising lack of game in a number of its core elements. The story is just one. Not wholly boring, or very badly told... just vanilla. Just J-RPG to the core. Peasant boys, princesses, short swords and codpieces. And big enemies. Really, really big enemies.
The game is set as Princess Cisna is preparing for her coming of age banquet - a party that's gonna light up the city of Balandor. Mute since a Farian assassin iced her mother in front of her a decade before, Cisna appears early in the story bathed in every convention this type of game can bestow. Again, not bad - just low on intrigue. She winds up kidnapped by visiting geezers, who arrive in town under the guise of circus performers there to eat fire and tumble in her honour. Fortunately, a local kid called Leonard manages to get his hands on a magic suit of armour that has the power to transform him into a huge knight - the White Knight - and fight back against his dark equivalent. Evil attacks good. Off you go, now.
Maybe I've missed something in recent years, but this game has the most customisable avatars at the front end that I have ever seen. Ear angle? What? Mole type? Eh? What happened to hair colour, eye colour, bulge in the old jodhpurs and a pair of tassled boots? It started out kind of fun - you can mess with basically any part of the face or body of your character you want - but it got tiresome way too soon. Then, after a long set of opening cinematics, you find your character isn't even the story's main protagonist. I felt a very real pang of regret as my ginger-mulleted five-footer pumped his little legs to keep up with the suavely rat-tailed Leonard.
Battle, leading to character development, leading to virtual personal growth, leading to you feeling better about the fact you spent an entire Saturday inside guzzling L&P and eating Twisties, is the cornerstone of any good RPG. White Knight Chronicles doesn't exactly disappoint in this area, with complex systems and, again, highly customisable characters, sets of magical attacks and weaponry. The game comes to life under the ability to toy with your characters' battle-readiness in the Battle Preparation menu. Each character can have seven commands equipped, ready to use, at any one time. The way these are linked together and played off against each other - as well as those of your other party members - will decide how effective you are against the game's enemies out in the world.
Battle itself isn't all that easy, at least not in terms of co-ordination. Organising your party and then striking in something approximating real time can be a bit of a feat of administration. For example, many of the smaller, lower level enemies come in pairs, so while you're working away on one, the other members of your party are doing their AI thing behind you. Switching between characters to ensure you're able to best the creatures with minimum loss of HP, while figuring out how you're approaching each situation can be quite difficult. Once you're hacking, slashing and spell-casting your way forward, the enemies themselves don't put up much of a fight. Except for a propensity to be able to hit you at some strange distances and with no apparent connection of weapon-to-body, one or two decent whacks with your sword ought to put them down.
Naturally, the larger enemies are harder to best, and some of these guys are immense. That's part of White Knight's draw - and the reason that Leonard needs that set of armour to transform. A lot of work seems to have been put into these enemies (actually - the lower level ones are pretty cool-looking too) and the way they act is logical at the very least. Each time you put another down, you'll be rewarded with loot, much of which is standard RPG-fare, and some which is unique to the world. Applications for each of these will see fans of the genre who have a bit of the treasure-hunter in them having a lot of fun.
The environments, buildings and varying other-world-much-like-our-own-but-with-things-that-will-kill-you-if-you-even-look-at-them-sideways elements all look pretty good. Level-5 have really stuck with the tried and true, but when you say J-RPG it's always the same group that start shelling out cash, so this is hardly a bad thing. There aren't really any parts of the game where an obvious lack of care prevails, so anyone ought to be able to get behind the graphics in White Knight Chronicles. Amazing? Nah. But pretty good all the same, with some strong cutscenes once you move past a few areas of dodgy framerate. The world is adequately populated with human folks and monsters walking among civilised society, giving the social spaces in White Knight a feeling of depth and malleable boundaries, which is always nice.
Although it's easy to lose track of what's happening aurally in any game with an action element, the music in White Knight is consistently brilliant. The voice acting is inconsistant, though, with some being absolutely woeful ("mysterious stranger") and some perfectly suited ("Italian-esque restaurateur"). Overall, the soundtrack lifts the game up a few notches; it's so important in any game relying on conveying a sense of time that the music is there to help it out.
I'm not going to pretend I played online. I didn't. But White Knight Chronicles does come with this option, so even if it sucks (and I'm not saying it does because I didn't play it - would you get off my case?) it's at least going to extend the game's life. This... well, it may not be a problem anyway. Whether it's 100 hours like the studio says might just depend on how you play and where you want to spend your time, but facts is facts: White Knight is a LONG game.
A sequel is underway already. Despite this game having just released in America, the EU and down at the bottom arc of the Ring of Fire, it's been out in Japan since late 2008. White Knight Chronicles is already going to be a worthy purchase for any J-RPG fans, a large cross section of those who just like a satisfying LEVEL UP moment, and maybe a few on the fringes too. With a part deux in the pipeline, we can only hope that a few of those kinks have been ironed out.