Updated: Dec 29, 2020
White Knight Chronicles is an ambitious Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPG) developed by Level-5, which offers exciting gameplay customisability, inspired world-building and some breathtaking visuals but is let down by technical issues and fairly repetitive dungeon design.
Now, some perspective is required. I am new to the JRPG genre and have no real base for comparison and so this review will not be able to draw on the obvious pillars such as the Final Fantasy games or the Persona series or any other franchise which has shaped the genre before this release. Additionally, my experiences are from playing the game in 2018 which is a considerable amount of time since the Geonet (in-game internet servers) have been disconnected so this was a single-player experience for me with no meet-ups or public quests completed.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to it.
Right off the bat in this game you are prompted to create an avatar. This character will be a supporting player in the story (kind of) in that they are not the driving force of the plot but can be fitted with any of the weapons skills and attributes to be used in conjunction with the rest of the characters you will slowly party up with over the story. However, the character will never speak (bizarrely) and will literally be reduced to staring vaguely at other characters when they are speaking. It would have been perhaps too much to expect full voice work and dialogue interactions but it does feel like the character is not even present as the other party members never acknowledge his/her existence.
But given that this game takes place in a world with cockney-voiced toad creatures and bunny-eared elf-people that can build flying machines tethered to massive dragons, perhaps the silent avatar isn’t too unbelievable. Granted, the story feels like it borrows from many different sources and in some ways it works and others feels discordant. For example, there is a heavy Arthurian feeling to the beginning section and character designs, but with a Japanese anime look to the characters - the localised International edition voice actors range from gravely serious to utterly ham-fisted – and the later areas introduce a fantasy steam-punk aesthetic which adds to an already weird but colourful concoction.
The central plot revolves around the capture of young mute princess Cisna by enemy forces from wars fought long ago between the two main warring factions, with the young hero (less heroically named Leonard) tasked with saving her. On his journey, he will meet a handful of adventurers and bring them along. Aside from your avatar which is simply under-written as a friend of Leonard, the other characters are all very distinguished: the young girl Yulie, secretly pining for Leonard as he looks for the Princesses’ affections; the old mysterious warrior Eldore, doling out wisdom in his comically gruff voice; the ethereal blonde beauty Kara seeking out her missing sister; and the rich, cocky lout Caesar that happens to be a skilled warrior. The character dynamics are clear and the many lengthy dialogue scenes make enjoyable viewing, even when the performances occasionally dip.
The Knights of the title are the ancient battle knights which were used by the warring factions to turn the tide of war, and were massive robot-like beings which were spiritually fused with a worthy warrior. This mixture of fantasy and technology really emphasises the great mish-mash of cultures and ideas that pervades this entire game.
As any of your party, you will travel across the different lands of the game with a main singular objective. In the main towns this could be anything from trying to find a specific character, find out about an event that has happened by talking to townsfolk or going to a specified location. Weirdly though, in the town areas you will only be able to see the character you are controlling but will still hear the rest of the party making comments like they are still there. This was likely due to technical issues to keep frame-rate up in these high-traffic environments but initially it’s a little jarring. In the town environments you can speak to NPCs to read a two-line comment which vaguely gives insight into their lives, roam shops, jewellers, armouries or crafting stations (for merging weapons and armour). But in the larger land areas between the safe towns are where enemies will appear (and thankfully three of your party will actually be visible and can be used in battle).
Once you have visited an area at least once it can then be selected on the world map as a fast travelling location, which is crucial as some of the later areas and dungeons tend to outstay their welcome. Those were some of my least enjoyed moments playing this game as although each dungeon is varied and unique, they became a maze of identical assets reused for longevity’s sake. For some I eventually resorted to a guide or YouTube video to persevere. It’s a shame as a majority of the early level geometry is fine and aesthetically pleasing. Throughout the game, you will battle in standard castle dungeons, cyrstal mines, caves, traverse beautiful countryside, exotic deserts to unusual locations like mountains which require your character to fly across them using the wind and large flowers.
The cut-scenes are mostly rendered in the in-game-engine however there are the odd cinematic moments where it switches to, admittedly, absolutely gorgeous pre-rendered visuals (a scene from a mountain-top looking down on a city being carried on the back of a gargantuan monster springs to mind). Although the switch-back-and-forth was slightly jarring as it highlighted the differences between the two styles.
Of course, the most important part is the combat. Unlike many games in the genre, WKC is not turn-based and instead combat handles in third-person and in real-time with a cool-down employed between actions. Each player character can specialise in a weapons skill (swords, longswords, axe, spear, bow, and staff or between the two different types of magic: Divine and Elemental). You will assign skill points earned from levelling up in combat to unlock new abilities or skill points within each of the main disciplines. So, for instance the sword skill tree I assigned to Leonard and when he levelled up I increased his strength, speed, dexterity and general sword mastery powers as well as unlocked different swiping hits, combo attacks and special moves. Whereas the Elemental magic power I assigned to Yulie as the specialist and she became my reliable healer of the group; she was excellent at group healing quickly as well as curing my team from paralysis or when they were knocked out. I really enjoyed the freedom and customisability of mapping out which of my characters would be my longsword holding up-close fighter to my distance preferring bowman. Of course, it did help to give them all some powers from the magic options as towards the latter half of the game when enemies were tougher it was necessary that all party members could easily heal themselves in a pinch.
Each character has three sets of slots to fill and these could be weapon attacks, combos as well as attacking or defensive magic spells. They also have an action chip meter, health meter and magic meter. The latter two are straight-forward but the action chips were less obvious. Most attacks performed would slowly build up chips which can be used to do more devastating damage. These can also be for customised combos which are fun to create and mix up as they also tend to pack a heavier punch and were typically designed for boss characters. However, doing them also depletes the action chips at your disposal so it requires a balancing act of mixing up character attacks and spells to really do the most effective damage.
Additionally, each character’s clothing can be customised by purchasing items from local shops or raiding treasure chests. There is a massive selection of armour, jackets, cloaks or even accessories like earrings or rings and as I progressed through the game I tended to find the next main village I came across had statistically better clothing items to equip. This meant I spent an awful lot of time swapping out between characters and managing inventory which was time-consuming but it was necessary if you knew you were going to be heading to a new dungeon with potentially tougher enemies.
The loot drip-feed was effective though as it was always encouraging to see there was an even larger sword to equip or bigger shield which would outclass my current gear. The economy of the game is nicely paced as the amount of gold earned would always nearly be enough to buy the best stuff for the party but never for everyone so you had to be clever about who would be getting the newest, tougher material. On top of that, you can enhance weapons and armour with better strength and durability as well as a specific elemental power. So, if you knew you were going to be facing enemies weak to fire any time soon, then a sword enhanced with flame damage would be very effective. This applied to the shields, armour and even amulets so there were many ways to buff out my party which I really appreciated.
Then there are the knights. Without going into spoilers, at least one of your party can transform into the titular White Knight during battle and this leads to the character towering over the enemies ready to do serious damage. They are a great tide changer and they don’t have a traditional health meter like the other characters but instead are governed by the magic meter which will slowly decrease with damage taken or from attacking. Over the course of the story you will learn stronger attacks which will use up more of the meter but deal serious damage that, again, a fine balancing act will be required to maximise the effectiveness of the knight.
The learning curve of WKC is pretty well judged as, although I died a fair few times in that first castle dungeon, it prompted me to mix up my strategies and essentially served as a tutorial to learn how all the different features were implemented. The game’s variety of enemies was also appreciated as the main recurring villains were human armoured knights called the Magi and they would have a mixture of weapons and armour as well as magic users. Then as you progress through the different environments you will encounter hostile creatures such as vespids, lizards, boars, elemental spirits and massive beasts that usually require a Knight to take down like trolls, Cerberus (three headed dogs), black knights and dragons. All of these different enemies are usually enhanced with some elemental power like ice, fire, wind or rock and this would encourage you to consider which character or special attacks to utilise.
This applied especially in relation to the boss battles, which were usually against much larger foes and would be introduced in anime style dramatic fashion. For the early fights the use of the White Knight was normally enough to get me through the fight but towards the end there were points where I fought numerous boss battles back-to-back which more often than not required some planning beforehand as to the method of attack as well as making sure each character was equipped with plenty of healing potions and the best available armour. It was never a truly difficult game but it certainly required me to really dig into the different systems, options and customisability of my party.
There were areas, however, that did grate in relation to performance. From a technical perspective this game has issues, especially in relation to draw distance and asset pop-in. Level 5 really struggled to have characters appear from a distance. In fact, occasionally an icon would appear further ahead indicating something was there and it wasn’t until I ventured closer to realise it was a group of enemies which literally appeared right in front of me and began attacking. This happened constantly and was a real hindrance for immersion as well as from a strategy point of view. There were moments where I would be hoping to avoid combat in some of the larger wastes that I was forced to fight gigantic beasts that materialised in front of me because the game couldn’t render them until it was too late. As well as that, it happened in the town areas where the street would appear empty until I walked further and all of a sudden a collection of NPCs would suddenly be visible, which somewhat detracted from my immersion in this otherwise well realised game world.
As mentioned at the beginning of the review this game was initially a co-operative online multi-player game and it’s probably fair to say a lot of the design of the game was with that in mind. The dungeons never incorporate any major puzzles or intricate gameplay and the objectives are completely linear. There are entire quests which can be played either as a solo player or as a group (although no longer possible as the servers are discontinued) and I didn’t feel compelled to do any of them using only my avatar character as my enjoyment of the combat derived from seeing my group working together. On top of that there was a Georama feature which allowed players to build small towns using in-game assets and pull different NPC characters from the world as characters for the town and it was even possible for other players to then visit these created villages. Again, this feature is also no longer present due to the retired internet server which is a shame as I would have liked to have tried it out.
Thankfully, the story was enough to keep my interest and I was able to beat the game after 40 plus hours of playtime. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel like I had to grind my level up too much, which I understand is usually a staple of the JRPG genre. On beating the game, I then unlocked the New Game Plus mode which allowed me to repeat the story but with my characters remaining at the same level as they were at the end and with all weapons and armour provided. Even after spending over 40 hours within the game I was eager to delve back in for this mode as it was so satisfying beating enemies with one hit, or downing a major epic boss that I previously had struggled with in one foul swoop due to my over-levelled characters. It was a fun reward which has encouraged me to play again and mix up my characters specialties and weapons configurations to keep the experience fresh and engaging.
Overall, Level 5 created an attractive JRPG which excelled from a visual stand-point, plethora of combat options and a fun, but slightly derivative story. The real-time combat actually succeeds in creating tension and the characters and world of White Knight Chronicles are mostly well depicted. However, the technical limitations and repetitive dungeon designs do hold back what is otherwise a worthwhile entry in the crowded JRPG genre.