Saturday, May 8, 2010

RPG Showdown - White Knight Chronicles vs. Final Fantasy XIII

For me one of the most compelling reasons to purchase a PlayStation 3 was that I really enjoyed role-playing games, and (in early 2008) I assumed that it was only a matter of time until Sony would carry on their dominance in this particular genre from the PS2 era into the foreseeable future. And while I certainly can’t complain about the PS3’s library of games (including great exclusives such as Uncharted and Metal Gear Solid 4), I waited patiently for the first great Japanese role-playing games to be released for the system. I assumed that White Knight Chronicles and Final Fantasy XIII would be the games that I had waited for.

For the most part… they were.

The main concentration of White Knight Chronicles is on the social aspect of online multiplayer, which seems to have come at the expense of the single-player experience. Just before you begin the game, you are given the opportunity to create a character, who appears to be the best friend of the central protagonist, Leonard. This character has no bearing on the story whatsoever, but he or she appears in all of the cut scenes as silent support for Leonard and the rest of the main characters. It is with this character alone that you can venture onto the GeoNet, which is a set of social networking tools (friend lists, forums, b-mail, blogs, etc.) intended to help you find and connect with other players.

Shortly after creating you avatar character, you are given a plot of land called a Georama, which can be customized and populated with shops, workers, and various material-generating landmarks. If you chose to do so, you can upload a Georama town to the GeoNet, where it will become one among scores of other persistent (meaning that it stays online when you aren’t) hub worlds where other players can meet up, group together, and jump into one of more than 50 quests.

As enjoyable as GeoNet is, the whole set-up has a few inconvenient quirks. Many of the components of multiplayer seem to have just a few more steps than necessary. For example, there is no way to jump onto GeoNet from the start screen. Another of the problematic parts of White Knight Chronicles are the ties that bind the single-player campaign to the multiplayer. In order to unlock quests that occur in any given area of the map, you must first venture to that area in the single-player campaign, but most people that I encountered on GeoNet found the single-player campaign to be rather uninteresting. For the most part, I agree with them… although the last few scenes in the game contain some reasonably satisfying answers for the plot clich├ęs that had occurred up to that point.

Aside from the inclusion of GeoNet, White Knight Chronicles is very much a by-the-books Japanese RPG, which isn’t such a bad thing. The battle system is fairly straightforward, but offers the possibility to create more advanced tactical advantages through the use of combo attacks that you define. Of similar complexity is the process leveling up, which involves assigning skill points to the area of your choice. Likewise, outfitting your characters is as simple as buying new armor or weapons, adding them to the desired character’s inventory, and equipping the preferred pieces; however, the best items are only attainable by hardcore players who go through the trouble of crafting new weapons and armor.

White Knight Chronicles is a game that wants desperately to be a synthesis of some great MMO and a single-player RPG. While this is certainly a noble goal, obtuse multiplayer implementation and inconsequential narrative prevent this game from being truly great, but that’s not to say that you should avoid it. If you can look past a few weaknesses, White Knight Chronicles has the capacity to be enjoyable for entry-level players and hardcore RPG aficionados.
Final Fantasy XIII is a game about extremes. Its presentation is extremely well-thought out. The graphics are absolutely amazing. The story and characters (although occasionally annoying) are far more believable than anything I’ve ever experienced in a Japanese RPG. However, the game is extremely linear. A large portion of the story takes place along narrow paths that will leave many RPG fans missing the exploratory sensation of the expansive vistas that can be found in games like White Knight Chronicles.

However, this isn’t really a huge departure from the standard Final Fantasy game. I’ve never played a Final Fantasy that offered more than the illusion of freedom. The focus (…get it? Focus!) of the series has nearly always been on presenting an epic story: not allowing you the opportunity to create your own adventure. And the narrative here is as strong as any in the series.

One of Final Fantasy XIII’s marquee features its unique battle system. Each character begins with 3 of the following roles: Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Saboteur, Synergist, and Medic. Players can create a set of predefined role combinations, or Paradigms, which represent tactical stances the player can switch between at any time during the course of any battle. For example, if you have a party consisting of two Ravagers and a Commando, you can perform a Paradigm Shift to a party of Sentinel, Medic, and Synergist (or any other combination that you define before battle) if you think it will give you a tactical advantage.

The other pillar of the battle system is auto-battle. Final Fantasy XIII forces you to allow your party members to operate with little or no micromanagement. Though many will feel some instinctual need to control the lead character, the speed with which the battles play out prevents you from doing so effectively, and the character AIs are more than capable of constructing their own viable battle strategies.

This unique approach to a battle system encourages you to step back from your party’s actions and consider the overall strategy of each and every battle. Many of the battles in the game are likely to play out very, very quickly: either you’ll have the Paradigm to exploit the enemy’s weakness, or you’ll be quite suddenly destroyed. At times, the battles in Final Fantasy XIII can become a series of trial and error, but there is absolutely no penalty for getting killed. If you see the game over screen, you can retry, adjust your Paradigms, and fight again.

Final Fantasy XIII is a clever deconstruction of the type of RPG that Square Enix has always built for the Final Fantasy series. They started by simplifying nearly every aspect of an RPG from the environment to the battle system to the plot structure, and yet they managed to make a game that is both challenging and (in my opinion) wildly entertaining. And though many hardcore players might take great personal offense at several of Square Enix’s design choices, this is a game for everyone.

If forced to choose between the two, I’d quickly recommend Final Fantasy XIII simply because of its impressive level of polish, but White Knight Chronicles is entertaining in a way that only an MMO can be. As it turns out, they really complement one another. Since they came out within a month of one another, I found myself switching between the two because they each seemed to provide what the other lacked. White Knight Chronicles and Final Fantasy XIII, both of which represent vastly different perspectives on a single genre, are two RPGs that are definitely worth playing.

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