I can recall the moment I decided to buy a PlayStation 3 pretty clearly: it was immediately after watching the first trailer for Level 5′s White Knight Chronicles. Everything about the gameplay depicted – that visceral combo system, the cliched but vibrant character designs, the apparent presence of such exciting new features as enemy morale, or WWF-style team moves – set my thumbs a-twitching.
All this, of course, was back in what now increasingly seems the Japanese role-playing game’s prosperous mature period, with diamond after diamond hitting the PlayStation 2: the divisive but incredibly ambitious Final Fantasy XII, Persona 3 and 4, Valkyrie Profile Silmeria, Vanillaware’s compromised but beautiful Odin Sphere and Level 5′s own, gleefully nostalgic Dragon Quest VIII: Journey for the Cursed King.
BioWare and Bethesda were still PC developers, for the most part, with the Knights of the Old Republic and Elder Scrolls games merely hinting at the success the two North American developers would eventually find on high definition boxes, and the console-based role-playing market was accordingly the province of Square Enix and its imitators.
To my lately out-of-university, card-carrying anorak self, White Knight Chronicles was the herald of a still-greater epoch – a golden phase in the evolution of explicitly statistical combat, soaring storylines and richly inlaid worlds.
How time and target footage makes fools of us all. The industry has shifted and expanded over the past decade, the DS, Wii and lately the iPhone bringing about the dominance of a new, detached, impatient, more feminine, more extroverted and less jargon-tolerant breed of consumer. Development costs have gone up, and margins have shrunk under the weight of a global recession.
Major JRPG releases – The Last Remnant, Infinite Undiscovery, Blue Dragon – have floundered. Competition from North American and European role-playing houses has skyrocketed. And White Knight Chronicles, finally shipped to Europe after almost half a decade in the incubator, isn’t the game I bought a PS3 for.
Its flaws are those of a lot of JRPGs, but all the worse for the lateness of the hour. Trite, adolescent characterisations. A stagnant save-the-princess plot. Battles which run heavy on attrition and FX but light on actual challenge and tactical thought. Repetitive, redundant town-quest-dungeon progression.
I could go on. I will. There’s the same old tiresome high fantasy aesthetic. Decrepit A-to-B mission structure. An excess of uninteresting “stuff” – weapons with marginally higher attack values, a gazillion different kinds of potion – coupled with shockingly regressive fixed character inventories.