"(...)Huge monsters and fire-breathing clowns trample the castle halls, events become far too epic for the Royal Castle Guard to handle. And finally the huge Armor chained to the wall in the Castle's treasure vault springs to life and saves the day thanks to a little upstart from the merchant's quarter. Cyrus the Knight does not feel good about this."
After starting up the game from the beginning, creating my avatar from any out of the four hundred templates for gay wood-elves, and playing through the forty or so hours of the first White Knight Chronicles campaign. What went through my head was fragments from something that probably would be named: “The Ballad of Ballandor”. It would look something like this.
Act 1: Knight Envy.
It is the day the Princess of Balandor will be coming of age. Which we can all see from her skimpy and festive outfit, as well as the amount of artisans, elephants and clowns with fireworks standing in queue to get into the castle grounds. Now, the Princess has not spoken since she was very young, ever since her mother was murdered before her eyes by cultists disguised as mimes. And it is only today that she speaks once again, as her father, the King, is murdered before her eyes as well in the same way. Poor Cisna. She's a fairy-tale aristocrat, however, and has a duty to solemnly deal with these things, specially on the eve of prophecies and world-changing events.
Cyrus the Knight is not an aristocrat. Even though the late King offered to let him call him both master and father, which ensures his loyalty (and the royal acceptance of his three-day stubble), he is not a noble. And now the King is gone. Huge monsters and fire-breathing clowns trample the castle halls, events become far too epic for the Royal Castle Guard to handle. And finally the huge Armor chained to the wall in the Castle's treasure vault springs to life and saves the day thanks to a little upstart from the merchant's quarter. Cyrus the Knight does not feel good about this.
As Sir Cyrus surveys the scene, bloodied and battered: his King dead, and the emissary of the nearby kingdom dead as well while in his care - he raises his arms high, and starts to sing:
Why Can't I Get A Huge Knight (as sung by Nolan North)
“What is this feeling of defeat
Why is my knighthood so slight
We won, but we are in retreat
Why can't I get a huge knight!
If my King was still in power
He would set all things right
And appoint a worthy Savior
Why can't I get a huge knight!
Love and peace for all is glum
We should prepare for a serious fight
Take the war to the Faerian scum
Oh, why can't I get a huge knight!”
The choir and the orchestra accompany us respectfully on the sidewalk, out of the worst fighting and view of the wandering camera. The other several acts of the ballad includes highlights such as “Now let us go to the place where all the answers are found! (Yes, to the Town Where it All Began!)”. And then “Now back to Ballandor, on the Ballan-double!” (this is an actual line in the game, I am not joking, I swear). As well as “Let us smite the darkness back to where it came from (but now the greatest power will rise from the pages of history, from the blackest of black, in spite of all our might to prevent it)”, etc. And not to forget: “Let her go! No, I said my demand first, you let go! Damn this villain is clever, Leonard!”.
While playing this game, I'm not sure if I am seeing a really good and well-produced Final Fantasy parody, a sometimes unintended comedy, or if I'm just laughing along with the writers, and having a good time in spite of all the unfathomable silliness.
It's unfortunate that the set pieces also have a number of directing blunders, though. Even if that, too, just like the seemingly consciously placed clichés, end up reaching epic levels. It's not simply once in a while that the cutscenes take too long breaks before the next exchange (a typical error when stringing together cutscenes - when the pause for effect (...) between a new camera is longer than it should be, and an otherwise good delivery sounds and appears completely off). Instead it's constant, and even more blatant as the epic scenes increase in frequency. It's funny - but eventually tiring.
Strangely enough this is one of the many aspects that were improved upon in the second campaign (or White Knight Chronicles 2. WKC1, or the start of the story-arc, is included on the disc). And this actually makes the rest of the shenanigans play out much better.
If you are looking for a serious story, and want to be awed by the intricacies and emotional screenplays, WKC2 is not a game you should play. On the other hand, it's good for a laugh. And the fact that the bulk of the voice-acting is delivered very professionally and seriously only make the jokes so much better.
The game's models, animation and fighting system are not jokes, though. The real-time generated models are, for lack of better descriptions, beautiful and expressive, with highly impressive amounts of detail. The armour pieces don't yet have weight that interfere with other objects and apparel you're wearing. But you are starting to wonder if that's not going to turn up eventually as well (so that a sword will push at the mesh of your cloak while you walk, for example). So far, what Level 5 has put the limit on is to let the armor pieces fall down naturally on your model's shape and legs (which obviously goes down well with the other lightly clad wood-elves you might meet).
The fighting system from an aesthetic point of view is also quite good. WKC 1 had no interference between models, in the sense that stagger-animations or blocks simply didn't appear to connect between characters. But in WKC2 (and the “remastered” WKC1 campaign), if you pull an overhead swing, then a block from another character will be at least a high block, followed by a stagger backwards from the impact, for example. And this does finally come up to a degree of the animation interference seen in the concept demonstration when the game was first announced.
For the larger creatures this might mean that hacking away at a creature's tail will cause a huge roar and a rearward counter-swipe, for example - and this is good looking in motion. Stabs and swipes are sought into and met by the avatar if the player is positioned right, or blocking. It's not as dynamic or flexible as it perhaps would need to be to truly impress as advertised, but compared to other MMO style games this is of course a huge step up.
The same goes for the fighting mechanics. Instead of being limited to a set of basic moves that have to be grinded for weeks to evolve, the game is varied enough to let you set up your own signature style from the available abilities at your level (which is automatically set fairly high once you start WKC2). You choose a weapon, and focus on a set of abilities and damage types. Or, use moves that can for example occupy or stagger the enemy while your friend prepares a more heavy combo or a spell (that otherwise could be interrupted). Or you can use a taunt, and set the enemy up for a riposte, or draw it away from your healers and mages. It is not overly complicated, though, all moves have three categories where one of them will typically cause double damage on a creature.
Then if you punch in a particularly impressive combo, a weak spot will be revealed eventually. And a hit with the correct damage type will send the creature flailing off balance. So you can for example reach it's head with a critical mid-air strike combo (that you've named and composed yourself). I'd be lying if I said this isn't incredibly fun, as well as the redeeming part of the game. And it's also arguably the core of the game, together with the online co-op play for standalone linear quests.
But did I just call it an MMO? It's not actually an MMO. Unlike for example Phantasy Star Universe (where you play the single-player campaign alone, and then can run around in a persistent world, and where some mission-areas are split depending on who you enter together with. While it's possible to bump into people randomly in other smaller battle-areas), White Knight Chronicles instead lets you play the single-player campaign, and then open up guild-missions and sidequests for online play. Which you trigger specifically as you start the quest. The way this works is that essentially you connect to your Geoscape, and then create rooms here that other players can join. It's a curious system that is more of a loosely organised quest-club, rather than an MMO. It seems like a technical solution chosen to limit the used bandwidth and server-space - to make it work with player hosts, rather than server hosts. And it makes adventuring a bit more cumbersome and dependent on outerworld trickery than other games.
But you could for example create Geoscapes (thanks to the Papitur artisans who are apparently experts in pocket-world inventory - from extra hills, to shops and weapon smiths) where all your friends can meet, and then split up in groups of 6 to take on a quest - then meet up again later. And perhaps talk with the neat in-line chat (or on the mic) about who has the gayest wood-elf avatar, whose +6 hotpants show underneath their wizard robes, how many trolls you've conquered, and so on, and so forth. And about the overinflated prices for mana-potions, and matching armor pieces. Of course, a campfire is mysteriously not present in the available Geoscape building blocks. And so is a way to drag the group along in the main quest to unlock new sub-quests, which really only leaves the grinding missions for the actual multiplayer.
The quests themselves are of course also standard jrpg style: go to point A, fulfill duty, kill monster.
There are many fairly obvious design-problems like this. In the same way there is not as much depth in the level-progression and skill-system as you might want, even if you have lots of skills to choose from when you make up your own sets, once you reach the high levels. This is the impression you're left with in the end when it comes to the quests, the level-design, and the skill-progression as well. It's not bad, and there are a lot of things to do. But it's not as interesting and wholesome as it could have been if it was a bit more ambitious, or a fully featured MMO-title.
White Knight Chronicles 2 is a good attempt at creating a backdrop for an online multiplayer game set in a fantasy universe with magic and swords. The story is ridiculous - but not quite as ridiculous (and much too calculated and violent) to simply be farce. On the other hand, the costumes for the drama (and I choose my words with care here) are insanely detailed and well-presented, to the point where you genuinely start to miss the transitions between pre-generated and real-time generated content once you get to the WKC2 campaign. But what is it used to present other than repetitive and linear quests? All the parts of the game in the same way have lacks that prevented it from becoming very impressive as a whole, even though it's undeniably a well made piece of work. And in specific cases, such as the animation and modeling, we really are talking extremely good work. In the end it's neither an MMO or a grand adventure game with a good plot. But it is still a well accomplished co-op jrpg for up to six players, thanks to the interesting fighting system and the very pleasing visual presentation.
Community review by fleinn (June 18, 2011)
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