Friday, March 22, 2013

Failure to Launch Title: White Knight Chronicles

Level 5's White Knight Chronicles is certainly a game. There is no denying that. It has all the trappings of electronic entertainment. You place a disc in a slick black machine and its data is transmitted onto a television screen by means of either lasers or magic wrought from ancient tomes unearthed years prior by the Arcaneologists under Sony's employ. I was never very clear on the details. Whatever the means of conveyance, soon this information is in your eyeballs, where you might desire it to be.

White Knight Chronicles was intended to be a launch title for the PS3, and one that caught quite a bit of attention as a reason to buy the console. It looked like nothing anybody had seen before. Rapid, intense combat in sprawling environments against giant beasts where you could transform on the fly into a giant robot of some kind. When the PS3 was first unveiled to the masses, that kind of dynamic action in an RPG wasn't something we had really ever seen before. The graphics were stunning, the combat looked intriguing, and the hook - being able to become a sleek, enormous suit of animated armor - had people scrounging the depths of the internet for more news on when to expect this sure-to-be-classic to drop.

So when the PS3 finally came out sans knights of any hue, it was an ominous sign about the future of Level 5's bouncing baby boy. In fact, it was another year after the PS3 release before we even saw a playable demo. If you are reading this from the dimension in which the Backlog normally derives its readers, you know that White Knight Chronicles did not exactly live up to its hype. For those of you viewing our blog from across the constraints of time and space, I apologize. You should still buy a PS3; eventually Level 5 makes a game with Studio Ghibli and it's awesome.

"Also, blowjobs aren't that great." - GameInformer

So this post is going to be about how playing White Knight Chronicles made me put it's sequel on the backlog almost immediately. I gave it a good try, a few solid attempts at putting time into it, but the much-hyped and now much-maligned failure-to-launch title just burned me out, and I really don't know when I'll make an attempt at going back. Let's take a look at just what makes a game that by all means should have been a Charlotte Bronte instead will be remembered as a mere Anne.

The First Strike: I Just Played This Game

White Knight Chronicles battle system is like Final Fantasy XII, only worse. The gambit system allowed an absurd level of customization as to how your heroes behaved in and out of combat, to the degree that it was possible to actually program the game to fight all the battles itself so long as you kept moving them towards monsters. The PS2 game was intelligent enough that you could have your two party members run forward and kill things for you, or defend your main character if you were attacked, or at least retaliate should a random monster begin assaulting them with fang and claw.

Instead, your party members simply refuse to act unless you have already targeted and begun attacking a monster. They've formed a union, and they're constantly on strike..

"No HP without GP! No HP without GP!"

The Gambit system in XII gave you the ability to have your allies recognize when hostile enemies were around and go run interference. If you wanted to go make a sandwich, go out with friends, get a regular job, marry and have children, and work until retirement before going back to the game, you can bet when you came back to it your party would still be there, killing monsters before they attacked you. In White Knight Chronicles, if you leave your party unattended in an area where monsters spawn, they stand there feebly, eyes raised in succor to the god that forgot them, as they wait for the commandment to defend themselves that never comes.

Finally, the weakness targeting system in White Knight Chronicles seeks to add a little depth to the game by giving everybody three basic forms of attack; striking, piercing, and blunt, as well as different elemental spells. Every monster is weak to one of those and inevitably strong to another. This could make combat a little more interesting, except that every monster after a certain point is just a previous monster reskinned in some way, and they all share the same weaknesses. So once you figure out that the very first giant bee you encounter is weak to piercing attacks, you can bet every bee from there to eternity will be weak to piercing. The targeting system on larger monsters, letting you focus in on specific parts of their bodies to try and weaken them, does give combat a little flavor, but this added layer basically just turns "spam the same weakness move over and over again" to "spam it at its left knee, specifically." When you beat the legs out of a monster badly enough, it falls over and you have a chance to knock hard-to-find items off of it, so that part is pretty cool, at least.

Also, this game repeats a weakness in games so flawed I can't believe we still have to deal with it today when it was figured out as early as Earthbound that this shouldn't be a thing. When you are a certain degree stronger than any given monster, that monster should stop trying to attack you when you run by, thereby wasting your time and its life. If it's something they figured out during the Super Nintendo era, I don't see why it can't get incorporated back into games made for today's audiences of much longer games with many more enemies on the screen at any given time.

When you finally lurch your way through the morass of White Knight Chronicles and start playing the sequel, you'd hope to see significant changes. You might also hope for Superman to gather up all our nuclear weapons and toss them into the sun, but that didn't really happen, either.

His WKCII cut is somewhere on an editing room floor.

When a company takes the time and effort to pump out a sequel, especially one of such a niche title, the expectation is that they listen to the loyal fans who propped up their not-quite-fantastic game and make it something really special the second go-round. The people who made White Knight Chronicles decided to say "if it's only a little broke, don't fix it!" and gave us the exact same game. In fact, not only is it the same game, it's a direct continuation of the first, so it's more of a way of Level 5 saying "we found a way to charge you twice for a game we didn't finish the first time."

Speaking of which . . .


Strike Two: Tis No Shakespeare, This

Man, this story should've been better.

There's a giant monster let loose in a crowded city by an evil circus impresario voiced by Master Shake. A princess sees her father cut down in front of her by a hideously evil knight in bitching black armor. A mysterious stranger with an unknown agenda appears in the castle. An unlikely hero transforms into a giant mecha-like suit of white armor with the awesome name of Incorruptus.. All this sounds really cool.

It is not.

It's not horrendous, I guess, but there just feels like there's constantly something missing. Some connection to the characters or sense of urgency, something to bring you into the story being told. The story sits like a brick in the bowels of the game, refusing the pass.

That analogy is no coincidence.

Instead, it's just kind of there, gumming up the works. It's not terrible, not wonderful, not good or great, not bad or awful, it's just a part of the game that you're occasionally reminded about. I think the primary reason for this feeling is that you are a casual observer of the events going on instead of an active participant.

At the beginning of the game, you can create a character. This avatar is used for all of your online interactions, and I'm sure that would have been really cool had this game not been released years after that was new and innovative. When we meet this being you have wrought, he or she is introduced as being an employee at the wine seller where the main character, Leonard, works. I say the main character because it's clear very early on that the designers of the game do not care what features you've lovingly crafted for this avatar, what personality and backstory you've imagined. Leonard is the hero, you're the errand boy. You don't even get to speak.

Show of hands if you create a character for a game so that you can be a passive observer in it. Really? No one? Nobody ever dreamed of playing a game where you can enjoy being a sidekick so unimportant you don't even merit acknowledgement in 90% of the game's cutscenes? Well brother, I don't know what to tell you. Maybe you should play some other game. By the time I wrapped up White Knight Chronicles I found myself thinking "You know, I don't think I ever got paid for that job with the wine delivery. I can think of no other reason why I'd be tagging along with this group of boring, whining individuals with whom I have no connection except . . . I gots ta get paid."

Finally, a motivation we all understand.

What makes it even more egregious is that the story of your created character is all right there on the disc - there's a whole quest line involving your avatar coded into the game and ready to go. They just decided that for the U.S. release, it wasn't going to be translated or made available. So the story of this digital golem goes forever untold, relegated for all time to being a mute companion inexplicably hanging around a group he had no business with or connection to. Although even with this, he somehow ends up more interesting than half of them. That's because . . .

Foul Ball: Split the Difference on the Characters

You have five real characters in this game, ignoring (as everybody does) your Avatar. Two are good, two are terrible, and one is kinda meh. So I say we call this category a wash.

Leonard is the main hero of White Knight Chronicles in a way that makes you feel like someone else was cast in the role and they missed their connecting flight on the way back from their matinee in St. Louis. He's okay, I guess, but he never quite feels big enough for the role. His character design is uninspired, his voice acting is borderline annoying, and his inspiration for being the hero is basically "I saw a girl once when I was a kid." This gets balanced out by . . .

Caesar is the complete opposite of Leonard. Leonard is a one-dimensional "aw, shucks" type jumping from castle to castle to try and find his princess. Caesar, on the other hand, has a unique character design, as complex a personality as you can find in this game, and some genuinely amusing moments to his name. Leonard works in a wine shop and finds his Incorruptus in a filthy sewer while running away from a giant monster. Caesar gets his because the mother of all dragons takes one look at him and is like "yeah, this dude is pretty cool." He's also a superhero masquerading as a billionaire playboy until he puts on his amazingly powerful suit of armor.

Image related.

Then we have Yulie. Yulie is the female version of Leonard, only she's been friendzoned by him so hard that the interactions between them are painful to watch. The two of them grew up together, and now that they're all grown up Yulie clearly wants their relationship to go somewhere. Leonard, however, is hung up on rescuing this princess he's so in love with because . . . I don't even know. Watching the princess and Leonard and Yulie is like watching that episode of How I Met Your Mother where they talk about how everyone is on somebody's hook.

Or the one where Barney deals with late-stage syphilis.

Fortunately, Yulie is balanced out by Kara. Kara's some sort of Russian exotic dancer who's also a super-assassin and sometimes a giant monster. She's also the only character in the game who can legitimately claim to be "the badass." My favorite moment in the game comes when you finish a fetch quest. In almost any other game, it would be the kind of scenario where the person you're making the delivery for reveals that you've been bamboozled and this was all a ruse to get him ultimate power of some kind. That starts to happen, and then Kara kicks him in the ribs and grinds his face under her boot until he apologizes. What was Yulie doing during this time? Who cares?

Finally, there's Eldore. Eldore's kind of cool, I guess. He's old and says cryptic things, and has some cool moments where you don't know what he's up to and then he turns around and does something awesome. All of this is okay, except that he never really blossoms into someone you're given a reason to care about. If even once he'd slapped Leonard in the face or told Yulie to go home or turned to your Avatar and asked "why the fuck are you here?" he would have a little more credibility as a main character in my eyes. As it is, he just hangs around muttering "Grrr, I'm old and mysterious" until you get around to finding out his backstory.

So he's like all old people.
This combined with strike two are made that much worse due to the fact that the backgrounds and scenic design in this game are absolutely breathtaking. The music is pretty good as well. They hit so many aesthetic touches just the right way, creating a truly beautiful visual experience. Then they took this complex world they had forged and filled it with bland characters venturing from one trope to the next. Imagine going to see your first Broadway show, filled with breathtaking sets and with a full chamber orchestra in the pit, and then they announce that today every role in The Lion King will be played by a group of Freshman theatre majors and Simba will be white.

Honestly, since Leonard gets so much screen time, this should be all rights be strike three, but I'll be generous. Especially since I want to save that honor for . . .


Strike Three: The Major Selling Point is Terrible

Back before the PS3 came out, if you had said to a group of people "Hey! How would you like to play your favorite single-player role playing games online, and invite your friends to join you in amazing quests for great rewards!" you would have been greeted with cries of "Warlock!" and kicked to death by a mob that would have been right to do it.

That's because all fans of RPGs had wanted for years was a game that looked and felt like an MMO, but that you could play offline in your own spare time, but still invite friends in to quest with when it was convenient for both of you. White Knight Chronicles looked like it was going to be the game to finally fit the bill, right up until you actually started using it.

The tutorial for online quests is $4.99.

At some point in the development of the game, they had the idea of letting people run quests together online. You could do so for point rewards, and possibly rare items. Those points went towards ranking up your Guild Level, which opened up all kinds of things for you in the game, including the ability to expand the involved and exciting town the game lets you build. The town is another great aspect of the online functionality, letting you invite other players in to see what you've built and giving you access to NPC villagers who will occasionally reward you with hard-to-find crafting items.

At some point thirty seconds after that first point, someone else said "and what if they had to pay for all of it?"

"Sir, we've run out of room in the vault. Should I just toss the extras in the furnace?

The entire online experience is about carefully crafted micro-transactions developed to make you want to buy more things so your town grows faster. That way you get the better items, can make the stronger weapons, go on the harder quests, get more guild points, make the town bigger, buy more things, repeat. Some items cut out the middle man and just offer you points for cash. Ayn and I played a few quests online and it was pretty fun, but to actually see any benefit from them we would have to grind them out about 50-100 times a week, for a few months. Or, just buy some points.

It's like the old trick where someone puts a dollar bill on a fishing line and baits people into chasing it, only this time when you round the corner somebody punches you in the face and takes your wallet. I know I personally had been dreaming of an offline MMO since my days of playing Final Fantasy XI and thinking "this would all be so much better if I didn't have to structure it around everybody else's playtime, or the random time demands of the game." White Knight Chronicles offers you that experience, and then says "Nope! We'll let you do online versions of quests you can already do by yourself, and in exchange you give us money."

Level 5 took a really good idea that a lot of people were waiting for and just turned it into an attempted cash-grab. I'm sure it was a smart business move, but from the viewpoint of a player, it would've been better if they'd just had a picture of someone flipping me off scroll across the screen every time I entered Online Mode. It could've been worse, I guess. Someone could have just straight up come into my home and beat me with a stick.

And because timing is something I've always been good with, Sony announced just a few days ago that they're shutting down the servers in June. I was playing online enough to know that there's still an active online community for this game, so I suppose Sony just ran out of ways to screw with them.

White Knight Chronicles had a lot of potential, and it somehow failed to live up to any of it. The game that was supposed to sell the PS3 ended up being a mediocre throwaway title in the middle of the console's lifespan. All the promise it had shown eagerly awaiting fans while still in development faded away in reality. Dull characters, an uninspiring story, and the complete disappointment in what should have been the game's main selling point made what could have been a runaway hit instead an inferior version of a Final Fantasy game from one console generation earlier. When I started playing White Knight Chronicles II and realized it was the exact same game, I threw my hands up and tossed it on the backlog pile. Maybe some other day, Level 5. Maybe when the wounds have healed.

Although as peace offerings go, Ni No Kuni is a good start.

Until next time, keep playing.

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