It's been nearly a decade since Level-5 released its first RPG, the critically acclaimed Dark Cloud for the PlayStation 2. In the time since, it has grown from a small independent developer to a well-known and well-established developer/publisher. Although its most popular game to date is arguably Professor Layton and the Curious Village, the company has always kept its focus on the RPG genre. Some of its past titles include Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, Rogue Galaxy, Jeanne d'Arc and the famously canceled Xbox Live MMO, True Fantasy Live Online. In December 2008, Japanese gamers got a look at the company's first PlayStation 3 title, White Knight Chronicles. Mixing elements of traditional RPG gaming with online play, the game attempts to blur the line between single-player gaming and a lightweight MMO experience. Curious to see how things played out, we recently sat down with Sony and played through one of the online quests.
For roughly the first hour or so of gameplay, White Knight Chronicles is solely a single-player affair as the basic story line is introduced and players get to grips with the gameplay system. Once you finish the first chapter, however, the GeoNet feature is unlocked, and the online component opens up. Linked to your PSN account (if you haven't yet created one, you will need to do so before playing the game), GeoNet is your portal to the online quests in White Knight Chronicles. It is here that you'll customize your character, chat with other players and build your Georama village. You can even publish your own blog, if you choose.
The Sony representatives made a big deal about the Georama feature, which is an evolved version of the city-building gameplay first seen in Dark Cloud. As you progress through the game, you will be able to create a custom village from scratch. Where the buildings go is your call, and which merchants you invite to set up shop is up to you. In doing so, the game promises to create a personalized base that is naturally tailored to your specific playing style. It's a lofty ideal to be sure, and quite frankly, we are a bit skeptical about its chances of success, but if Level-5 can pull it off, it'll be an impressive feat.
Since the event was focused on multiplayer, we didn't get a chance to check out any of the story. Instead, we partied up and took a jaunt through one of the online missions.
Partying up is done through the GeoNet interface, which consists of a number of virtual rooms where you can interact with other players Home style before picking a quest and heading out. Chatting with others can be done via text message — the game supports pre-defined quick messages, the chatpad and USB keyboards — or via voice chat, if you have a Bluetooth headset handy. Note that the keyboard is only for chatting; there is no option to control your character with a traditional PC MMO-style keyboard and mouse setup.
Starting the quest, we arrived at the home of two adventurers. One of the two men had been injured in an attack by giant trolls, and the other pleaded for your help to save his housemate. Although it wasn't explicit, the text gave the impression that the two NPCs were a couple. Props to Sony and Level-5 for including both gay and straight characters within White Knight Chronicles.
Unfortunately, chatting with the NPC also revealed one of the game's annoyances. Inexplicably, when one member of your party is talking to an NPC, that NPC is unavailable to chat with anyone else in the party. The net result was that while my partner was getting the quest details, I had to sit and wait until she was finished. Any attempt to talk to the NPC resulted in an "unavailable" message. Once my partner finished, she then had to wait for me to read through all the same information as I chatted with the NPC.
Getting out into the world was straightforward enough, with a combat system that automatically engages when you come within range of an enemy. To fight, you have to wait for a circular attack meter to fill up and then press the attack button when in range. Specific attack types can be toggled with the d-pad, making it possible to get creative if need be.
Movement around the world was responsive, with little in the way of noticeable lag so long as we weren't in the midst of combat. Issues of lag became a bit more apparent whenever we tried to leave combat without killing an opponent. On more than one occasion, we were visibly out of range and unable to hit the targeted enemy, but said enemy will still able to land a melee hit on our character. In the early mission we played, this was little more than an annoyance, but we can envision it causing some consternation in later missions when the stakes are higher.
Aside from the lag, our biggest concern with White Knight Chronicles is the setup of the map interface. Quite simply, the default map system is both unintuitive and outdated. At least in the demo mission there was no obvious way to set a waypoint and no corresponding GPS style arrow to follow as has become common in open world games. The natural remedy would normally be the use of the world map. Unfortunately, doing do here is cumbersome and unwieldy. While you can move while the world map is displayed, you cannot fight. Because the world map is fairly opaque, you also cannot see most environmental detail while following it. A much more elegant solution would have been a transparent world map that simply overlaid on the screen, without disabling other components of the UI.
Mapping complaints aside, we managed to finish our quest and move on to the boss fight. As the two giant trolls attacked, the first thing we noticed was their impressive size. The second thing we noticed was the hit to the game's frame rate. As soon as the two boss beasties hit the screen, there was a noticeable drop in visual quality. Considering we were playing on a near-final version of White Knight Chronicles, the hiccup was unexpected.
The fight itself played out as a fairly standard boss battle, with each of the two monsters attacking independently. We quickly realized that taking them out one at a time (the pair had independent life meters) was the more expeditious route; once one was down, the other quickly followed. With the mission objectives completed, the obligatory rewards were doled out and we returned to the lobby area.
Playing through the online component of White Knight Chronicles is not necessary to complete the single-player game, but we're told that it is a major component of the gameplay experience. It's not quite an MMO (the four-player limit and instanced dungeons is reminiscent of Blizzard's PC classic, Diablo II), but the sheer amount of online content means that this isn't a game that's likely to appeal if your PlayStation 3 isn't hooked up to the Internet.
White Knight Chronicles holds a lot of promise, and at first blush, it also feels like a throwback to earlier gaming times. Gamers who are used to seamless online play are likely going to feel put out by the lobby system and limited party size. After all, if the PlayStation 2 could handle Final Fantasy Online, why is one of the PlayStation 3's high-profile multiplayer RPGs launching with online support that feels more like the Dreamcast's Phantasy Star Online? On the other hand, the Georama feature promises to present a customized game experience like no other. Be sure to check back next month for the final verdict.
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