Instead of the grand system-selling RPG many expected back then, Level-5's PS3 debut is a fairly standard JRPG with excellent character building options and nothing incredibly special to do with those characters.
White Knight Chronicles follows Leonard, an assistant at a winery who stumbles upon a giant magical suit of armor called an "Incorruptus," which he must use to rescue a princess from an evil guy (who has his own giant armor). Along the way, he meets up with other adventurers, including a player-created character -- used as the avatar in online play -- who silently accompanies the party of "real" characters. Most of the adventure involves walking across large fields (or deserts, or caves, etc.) fighting monsters on the way to the next town and the next cutscene.
The battles use an "active time" system which merges real-time and turn-based combat. Enemies roam the fields, and you can engage them in battle when you get into range. Movement occurs in real time, but a circular timer must fill up before players can launch an attack. The player controls one member of the party and can switch characters at any time and give basic commands to the other AI-controlled team mates.
These attacks are chosen by what might be the most open skill system I've seen in a game. Each available weapon type, as well as offensive and healing magic, has its own skill tree. Every character has access to most of the weapon skill trees and all of the attacks and stat boosts therein, unlocking them with earned skill points. Those attacks and spells can then be placed in a massive, fully customizable battle menu, and even chained into combos.
Unfortunately, those endless arrays of possible attacks are used to hack away at the same kinds of enemies over and over again, across vast terrains. Sometimes, a huge enemy will attack, necessitating characters with Knight abilities to transform into their giant alter egos, but those fights are usually too easy and too brief. In most cases, building up my characters proved more intriguing than actually using them.
The story mode essentially serves as a way to build your character for online play. In online mode, there are no Knights and no transformations, and play consists of a series of quests purchased from a guild, launched from player-created towns called Georamas. Originally, when playing the single-player game, I thought the online mode would make up for the lightweight story. However, I found that removing the story context from the battle -- essentially just fighting monsters in a forest or cave for an hour with other people -- made me miss the interstitial cutscenes and random voice-acted chatter from my party.
My feelings toward White Knight Chronicles followed a curious arc. First, I was let down by the long treks across fairly uninteresting terrain and the boilerplate story. Then, as I started to learn the character customization system, and how to fight, the combination of possible character upgrades and somewhat Final Fantasy XII–like combat held enough promise to draw me in. Then I realized it wasn't really building to much of anything and I was let down again. White Knight Chronicles is, in the end, a surprisingly mediocre game from one of the world's greatest RPG developers.
Editors' note: This review is based on the retail version of the game provided by Sony. The reviewer played the game for approximately 15 hours, but not to completion.