Level 5’s PS2 RPGs were highly-regarded and stood out quite easily due to their unique takes on the genre. Dark Cloud was an early system highlight with its blend of traditional RPG gameplay alongside city-building, while Rogue Galaxy was an excellent latter-day release for the system that stood out thanks to its partial cel-shading (much like Dark Cloud 2) and excellent voice work. WKC continues their trend of putting a unique twist on traditional RPGs by blending in some elements of MMORPGs and giving you an online avatar that can be used in the regular game, but unfortunately, White Knight Chronicles isn’t nearly as good as those efforts.
WKC’s attempts to merge traditional RPG gameplay mechanics with those of MMORPGs aren’t nearly as successful as they need to be - and can easily result in frustration. WKC uses an active time battle system and allows you to switch between characters at will and move around the battlefield as much as you‘d like. Despite that, you can still somehow get hit by enemies even if you’re far outside the logical range for the attack. For example, if you’re facing a small enemy who hits you with say, a sword strike, and you move out of the path of the move’s animation, you can still be hit by it. The battle system is also quite daunting at first since you’re bombarded with a litany of screens explaining how it works, after a few deaths and spending some time in the battle-related menus outside of combat, you’ll figure out how things work.
The MMORGP-ish real-time battle helps keep battles from getting boring, however, the real-time chat is entirely too easy to get into. X is your primary attack button, and a single Square button press is all that‘s needed to activate it, so if you happen to push it when you don‘t want to, like during a heated boss battle, you‘re left wide open to attack until you undo it. In that situation, your party members should be able to buy you some time, especially if you’ve customized their attacks well. You can set up attack macros for each character that will allow you to automate combat to some degree - something that I’ve found to be a fatigue-reducer in action RPGs as it does wear you down to constantly have to hit the attack buttons. You can create combos for any character, and customize their style - so if you want your spell caster to engage in more combat, you can do that, and also adjust how the party as a whole fights by clicking in the left analog stick. Unfortunately, like bringing up the text input screen when you don’t want to, this setup is a little TOO easy and can result in you taking needless damage or possibly dying if you press it at the wrong time. The in-battle item system is similarly broken, as you can’t pause combat to use items, forcing you to once again leave yourself open to attack in order to do something as simple as use a healing potion. The combat system’s few massive flaws greatly outweigh the fun that can be had with it.
Fortunately, some parts of the MMORPG presentation work well. You’ll see a real-time battle and status ticker take up one side of the screen, and while that may seem distracting, it isn’t, since it never takes up too much real estate at once. You can also make an online avatar that will be the sole character you use on GeoNet - the in-game network that further turns WKC from a traditional RPG into an MMOORPG, although on a much smaller scale as only four players are allowed to play in one party at a time. GeoNet’s primary purpose is to build up your avatar character and uncover rare items with fetch quests, the battles that happen during them, and earn money through an online shop you can set up. You can use your little slice of cyberspace to sell items and weapons, and earn some money in the offline game. While this all may sound good, the quests still suffer from the same problems as the offline game - namely the shoddy battle system, and battles are actually more boring because they all lack the ability to transform into the uber-knight that can make lackluster offline battles turn into exciting ones. Your avatar character is secondary in the main offline game, but actually has voice over work, which helps make him/her seem at least somewhat important even though the plot doesn‘t revolve around them.
Speaking of which, it’s a fairly uninteresting “save the princess” storyline, and just like Mario, the damsel in distress has been captured by an evildoer aboard a massive aerial battleship and uses an elaborate contrivance to gain access to her. In this case, an awe-inspiring carnival that acts as a Trojan horse to get them into the kingdom, and then their float turns into a giant volcano monster that destroys the city. As Leonard, you’re given the task of toppling this foe only after a super sentai-esque transformation into the White Knight - capable of taking forever and a day to actually transform and destroying small creatures with ease thanks to his massive sword. While you encounter a lot of characters, few of them are particularly interesting, and most seem to fall into archetypal roles and rarely rise above that point.
The overacting-filled voice work doesn’t help the bland plot out, and the shoddy lip syncing only adds to the unintentional comedy. You’ll see lines spoken before they’re shown on the character’s face, and there are even times when a line will be spoken when a character’s mouth isn’t moving. Fortunately, WKC does have a stirring orchestral soundtrack that succeeds at everything it needs to. It’ll get your blood pumping during battles, and also calm your nerves afterwards as you amble around towns gathering items and weapons while slower music plays. I wound up loving the music way more than I expected to.
WKC’s graphics are mostly excellent. The character models are meticulously detailed, especially when it comes time to fight massive monsters. This game really shines with its monster designs - there’s a fine array of awesome-looking creatures, and while some are repeated, the core designs are so good that I can forgive that. Environments also look amazing, and feature some breathtaking views that you can partake in later with the in-game screenshot-taking camera. That one winds up working far better than the character-tracking camera, which rarely goes where you want it to, getting stuck behind doors in stores, and is very difficult to move during battle.
While Level 5 certainly has some must-have games in their dossier, White Knight Chronicles isn’t one of them. Its blend of JRPG and MMORPG mechanics may be innovative, but it isn’t very fun, and its plot isn’t good enough to outweigh the many glaring problems with its gameplay. I hope the upcoming sequel, which doesn’t have a North American release yet, remedies the gameplay issues, because if those are fixed, and the plot is made less cliché, then they’d have a possible must-have game on their hands.