I should make on thing clear as I begin this review: my expectations for this game were extremely high. Once I saw the first preview trailers, I knew that I had to purchase this game. The game seemed to combine old school RPG sensibilities with high production values, plus the massive characters and enormous bosses appealed to my inner Godzilla/Power Rangers nerd. While White Knight Chronicles is not the be-all, end-all, genre-defining game I had hoped it would be, it's still an excellent experience, and the co-op modes add some value beyond the single player story mode.
The most impressive qualities of White Knight Chronicles aren't related to the gameplay, but the story. The plot itself is hardly groundbreaking, filled with several standard fantasy cliches, but there's an epic quality, a sense of grandeur throughout, that made me overlook these shortcomings. The game's lengthy cut scenes are of particularly high quality; they are so well done that my wife and kids would often sit down to watch the story unfold. Most RPGs have only a few boss characters, while everything else is the same size as your characters, but this isn't the case in White Knight Chronicles. In just the first few hours of play, you will encounter enormous trolls and a horrifying monstrosity of a beast that crashes through an entire castle. When the protagonist, Leonard, transforms into the White Knight, it's a jaw-dropping event. This first appearance of the White Knight is a memorable gaming moment, and the giant enemies he fights add to the feeling of grand adventure that the game ably provides.
When the game begins, you are presented with a rather lengthy character creation process. I have never seen a more robust system, in any game. There are options, slider bars, and color choices for literally everything about your characters appearance. It took me about twenty minutes to finely tune my character's face, body style, and hair. But the character you create is merely a side character in the story, a sort of henchman for Leonard. This is a bit disappointing, but to be honest, I never wanted to play as my character anyway, because he didn't have the ability to turn into a thirty foot tall ancient artifact of unimaginable power. Your created character appears in the co-op portions of the game, though, which we'll get to later in the review.
White Knight Chronicles uses a skill based character progression system. Characters can select skills with several types of weapons, plus elemental or divine magic. Skills fall into two basic types, those that can be used in combat, like fireballs or sword thrusts, and stat boosting skills, like weapon mastery, increased magic points, or heightened strength. I am generally not a fan of skill based systems, since they usually make characters too similar to one another. Perhaps it's just the retro gamer in me, but it feels strange seeing my entire party wielding swords, casting elemental magic, and also being able to heal and even resurrect others. Item use isn't restricted either, so if your caster-type character meets the requirements, she can waltz around in a set of chain mail or plate armor. Perhaps this homogeneity is lessened at higher levels, but I'd still prefer a bit more variety.
Any skill that your character has can be used to fill a combat slot, and used in battle. A circular timing meter appears during a fight, and once that timer fills up, you may use a skill. Some skills are free, others take magic points, and still others take what the game calls action chips. Action chips are somewhat mystifying, and for the life of me I couldn't figure out how and when they were earned. Different in-game occurrences like hitting an opponent, taking damage, or casting a spell would sometimes, but not always, grant an action chip. Action chips can be spent to use combinations in battle, allowing you to perform multiple actions in the space of one timer cycle. Higher weapon skill levels allow for more actions per combo. For example, you might begin a combo with a strike, then an air juggle or two, and finish with an icebolt. There are literally hundreds of different combinations, which should be a min-maxer's dream, but since action points are so tough to come by, most of the time, you'll be using your basic, low level skills, which are free. I really got the feeling that I was in over my head as far as the combinations go, but in the end, I'm not sure if my lack of knowledge really hurt my characters' performance at all.
Much more could be said about the single player story mode, but we need to move on to the co-op elements. It is a real shame that the story mode isn't playable in co-op at all, since this is where the game is most impressive. The big draw of the game is Leonard, and his ability to change into the grand White Knight, but you can't use him in co-op mode. Instead, you play as the character you created at the beginning of story mode. I can understand that the transformation mechanic would horribly break the multiplayer experience, but I still felt far more attachment to Leonard than my own character, who has no lines in the story, and was really not much more than a mere heal bot. Once you get past this initial letdown, there's some reasonably good if not groundbreaking co-op to be had.
Co-op is available in White Knight Chronicles' Geonet service, which can be used from any of the various save point markers, once you reach a certain point in the story. Geonet is a bit confusing at first. It took me a bit to figure out how to join a game. After you scroll through the end user agreement (which has to be done every time!), you end up at your Home Page. Here, you can choose a town to begin adventuring in, browse message boards, or even blog about your mad skills in the Adventure Log. When you enter someone's town, you can visit all sorts of NPCs, including a quest officer, who manages all the quests for those who are in town. You can search through open quests and find one to your liking, or create one of your own. Each of these quests is separate from the Story mode, but they do sometimes recycle encounters from it. Once the quest is full, a timer begins, and the game is on.
Once in a quest, players are free to run about the map as they choose. I found that pairing off was a good strategy, since a solo player could get overwhelmed rather easily, but four was really overkill. There are all sorts of goals to the quests; one early one has you searching for a pair of items at opposite ends of the map. Once both items are turned in, the players are teleported together and the boss battle begins. Once the quest is completed, your character picks up a few items, earns some guild points (used to access tougher quests), and then everyone is kicked back out to the town. Quest time limits vary, but generally are from between 30 minutes to a full hour.
The co-op elements of White Knight Chronicles are standard, nothing more. There is a nice sense of working together, certainly. But the sameness of the characters means that everyone can fight, heal, cast spells, etc., and there's no really pressing need for cooperative tactics. A party made up of balanced characters will likely do as well as a more specialized group. True, there are some skills they are better in a group, such as the party buffs. But the co-op is just average, rather lukewarm. The real draw of the online play is customization, including crafting weapons, armor, and most especially checking out other people's towns, which can be very impressive. It's very easy to reach a save point and hop onto Geonet for a bit if a friend comes online, and items, gold, and experience all transfer easily back into the single player campaign. The online portions of White Knight Chronicles feel like a very light MMO, but with only fifty online quests on the disc, I'm not sure if the game will have the long-term appeal that MMOs thrive on.
Truth be told, White Knight Chronicles is a far better single player experience than a co-op one. I enjoy co-op as much as the next person (okay, probably more than the next person), but my time spent on Geonet wasn't nearly as fun as the single player story mode. Everything that is great about the game, the huge fights, interesting story, and sense of scale, is largely absent from the online quests. I definitely enjoy playing the story mode; though there are certainly some things I would change with the skill and combat system, it's still quite fun. In the end, the online co-op via Geonet is really just gravy, a nice bonus that is worth checking out, but not nearly as exciting as the meat and potatoes of the single player story.