White Knight Chronicles, Level 5's PlayStation 3 exclusive tale about a kid who can transform into a Paul Bunyan-sized knight, offers something unexpected: An opportunity to examine how a massively multiplayer online game might work without the other players.
In the time I've spent with my review copy, roughly an afternoon and an evening, I'm finding it reminiscent of Square Enix's Final Fantasy XI, and note that's playing it offline (its online mode won't be available until the game ships next Tuesday). To rephrase, you could call both games MMO-like and get away with it, amending that White Knight hews massively single-player. And while the latter looks years better--FFXI was wrought in the last decade's humbler furnaces--a basic visual pedigree links the two: Both share clean-lined visuals that favor massive, somewhat generic architecture washed in mellow colors and lacking drill-down detail when pulling up close to object textures.
I wonder if the latter's an extension of the Georama town-builder angle (which I haven't had a chance to fiddle with yet) where you're eventually able to plop down lodgings, shops, and areas to harvest minerals for what amounts to vanity purposes. Games that require the player author aspects of the environment themselves (the Sims games, the Civilization series, Level 5's own Dark Cloud 2) have to architect the bits and bobs with an eye toward uniformity, to make snapping them together simple and fast.
Like FFXI, different areas--the ones I've visited anyway--come in two sizes: Gigantic and Sprawling. It takes time jogging between White Knight's plot hotspots, in other words, considerably more if you poke your nose into nooks for 'left' loot (treasure chests in the least likely places) or ping-pong between denizens for snips of conversation. Each area stands alone and connects to others at naturally occurring link points like doors, borders, or the ends of paths and roads. Instead of loading into the adjacent area when you pass the threshold, however, you're prompted to launch the world map and select your destination. I assumed that discovering new areas would let me skip back and forth between distant ones, but so far--possibly for plot reasons--I've had to trek from endpoint to endpoint, which at this point calls the world map's necessity as a function of travel point selection into question.
Both White Knight and FFXI hinge on real-time battles in massive grind areas linking cities and towns, render combat calculations as detached math instead of connective physics, and stock their considerable bestiaries with creatures that sport amusingly improbable names: Polkans (they remind me of the kodama in Princess Mononoke) and Killer Vespids (wasp-like insects a bit like the blood flies in Gothic 2) and Treants, anyone? Battles occur without screen transitions, thank goodness, and enemies are always visible, wandering MMO-like (aka 'aimlessly') in their invisible stables. Most roam away from the main roads and can be attacked individually, though higher level mobs occasionally block key paths like gatekeepers and love to call for help, forcing you to tangle with half a dozen at once.
My first pass through the wilderness outside the starter city of Balandor (a little like Final Fantasy XI's Kingdom of San d'Oria) put me in mind of Vana'diel's Sarutabaruta: Broad, branching paths laid through gently sloping swathes of unsettled frontier land, bordered by taller striated rock overhangs that carve up the scenery and lull you into buying it all as an organic whole, geologically speaking. Judiciously planted trees and distant hills and streams present themselves as wanderlust-friendly, but it's all to serve the illusion: Scenery-as-scaffolding draped over unseen boundaries your map unmasks in stark relief. There's plenty to see here, but it's corralled by the usual invisible fences, i.e. you can't climb over short fences, clamber up steep little hills, or paddle (much less swim) in streams or rivers.
The game has, I won't say the most intricate character generation engine yet made because I haven't played EA's Fight Night, and I'm told that's pretty spectacular. Still, call it at minimum a blizzard of physiology sliders and anatomy picks that let you laser in on micro-minutia. A few I've jotted down: Fatness (distinct from muscularity), iris type (as opposed to color), eyeball color (meaning the sclera, not the iris), and your avatar-in-the-game's default expression. If you've ever wanted an avatar that looks perpetually surprised or slightly sultry or permanently befuddled, White Knight Chronicles has you covered.
Draft a chart called 'design principles' with two columns labeled 'identification' and 'actualization' and White Knight's character engine falls squarely in the former. Your eye shape or skin color or waist size don't register with other characters or impact the game mechanically, but they do give you something to latch onto while playing: You're not the main character in the solo story, just a face in the group, allowing Level 5 to keep a piece of you in the game while still proxying its part of the story through a distinctive, fully-voiced lead. You'll eventually be able to snap your custom avatar off from the solo story to play online with others in something called GeoNet, Level 5's social networking service comprising friend lists, messaging tools, a personalized hometown (see the bit about Georama above), and quest boards that bring together groups of players for cooperative missions I'm hearing take about an hour each to complete.
Character building thereafter follows traditional level-like cycles. You'll start with four spendable skill points per character that apply to melee and magic categories pinned around a wheel, each harboring about 50 skills or several hundred total. At the outset it's the usual list of medieval arms, swords, staves, bows, spears, and so on, complemented by element-based offensive and buff-oriented defensive magic abilities. Each character can apparently learn these in any order, allowing you to craft their tactical roles without battling D&D-style template limitations. After making your picks, you can drop commands (combat moves or spells) into lateral lines that hold selectable action slots, positioned at the bottom of the screen during combat. Each line can slot seven commands and rotates up or down like a Rolodex (also like an MMO!) to access two additional storage sets. If that's not enough, you can save and load up to five command sets, which adds up to 105 slots total, or over 11,000 possible combinations.
Pulling these off in battle seems a little underwhelming initially. For example, the basic sword skills 'slash', 'back slash', and 'lunging slash' each take the same amount of time to recharge after execution, but deal wildly different amounts of damage (before you ask, no, battle position doesn't seem to factor here). In this case, 'lunging slash' rules. Why bother at all with the other two?
Because you have to learn them first to unlock 'lunging slash' in the command wheel, for one. But more importantly: This is where you start messing with combos. Imagine chaining individual commands, each custom-built by you beforehand, then executed a little like the melee system in CD Projekt's The Witcher. Once you've built and named a combo, you can drop it into a command slot alongside your singles. To execute, you have you tap the X button in time with rapid screen prompts (see, just like The Witcher). Miss one and you'll break the cycle and have to wait for the battle wheel to recharge. Build your combo wisely, then pull the full chain off flawlessly, and you'll do spectacular damage to an enemy. None of those bits are really new taken individually, but layered as such they feel fresh in a kind of build-your-own-RPG-battle-system capacity.
Annoyances: Each time I start the game, I'm prompted to select English, French, or Spanish. Once is plenty, with an option to change later in the menu system. Also, saves take about 15 seconds a piece, followed by five more of "auto-saving system data." Perhaps the nearly 5 MB each save files have something to do with that. (Speaking of size, not an annoyance, but my Game Data Folder reads 2,673 MB after White Knight's preliminary install process, for those of you with hard drives nearly full up.)
That's it for the first five hours, right up to the part where ol' tall, shiny, and robotic makes an entrance.
Back with thoughts on that shortly.
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