First Level: White Knight Chronicles

Out of the pen before Final Fantasy XIII, then, Level 5’s ambitious RPG finally hits European shelves, and not a moment too soon. Let’s face it, with Square’s monster looming over its shoulder, White Knight Chronicles needed to be practically perfect just to get a foot in the door before Lightning and company dust it aside.  And that’s not even considering the fact that the massive role player launches on the same day (the 26th of February) as Sony’s big white hope for PS3: Heavy Rain.  You might have heard of it.

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Sadly, perfect it isn’t.  Granted, by the very nature of a First Level I’m not exactly knee deep in the story – things have only just started to kick off and although the plot is as traditional (read: blindingly formulaic) as you’d expect, some of the ideas are pretty smart but there’s nothing happening yet that fills me with too much confidence.  It’s got the sense that things are building up though, albeit rather slowly, and hopefully there’s something major about to happen just around the corner after the few first introductory hours are out of the way.

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The combat is currently a highlight – half real time moving around, half premeditated arrays of moves flicked between with the d-pad, WKC’s strangely compelling battles require tactical pre-loading and a huge amount of patience.  Skill isn’t a requirement, yet, but the scope for epic scraps is there for all to see.  Sure, I’ve been doing little but waging war on every giant wasp I can find fluttering around the game’s first few areas, but it’s fun and although it takes a while to fully adjust to what Level 5 actually want you to do once it clicks it’s second nature.

The visuals are reasonable, too, in a kind of high definitition PS2 kind of way that you’d concede to put up with for a game that spans sixty hours in its single player incarnation and reaches across what appears to be a rather expansive landmass.  Nothing really stands out – the lighting’s flat, the character models a bit dull and generic, the environment basic and remarkably low-poly – but it’s coated in rich colours and plenty of depth and character, so no real issues but nothing to impress, either.  More of a means to an end, at least at the moment.

White Knight’s top trump, though, apart from the eponymous giant that you’ll discover soon enough, is the impressive online functionality.  Not just limited to four player outings (there’s fifty multiplayer co-op missions) but there’s also a Dark Cloud-esque Georama mode (in which you can create your own town and invite eleven friends) which expands the more you play the game.  Whilst I’m hoping for some hardcore TSA fans to join me in troll bashing, I’m more excited by the potential to create TSA-ville and populate it with twelve types of watering holes.

WKC is going to take some beating – the game is literally massive and there’s stacks to get through – but it’s not all plain sailing.  Even without Final Fantasy XIII to contend with, Level 5’s title has its own fair share of problems and the currently rather dull exposition is just the first.  Lets hope the battle system starts to shine soon, because on the face of it (online play aside) against the lacklustre visuals, the hammy acting and a story we’ve heard before, it might well be the game’s main draw.

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