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September 20, 2007 // 2:17 pm - At TGS last year White Knight Story (Shirokishi Monogatari) stole the hearts of many RPG fans with its amazing debut video. The buzz went white hot almost immediately, with everyone wanting a chance to find out more behind the gorgeous graphics and get a taste of how it would play. In the subsequent months, though, the lack of any new information let it drift out of the spotlight with so many other high profile titles getting attention. But when it came out that the game would be playable on the floor at TGS this year, it all came rushing back. So when the doors opened, that made White Knight Story stop number one.

The demo opened into an area called the Balastor Plain. Lead character Lenard and two companions stand beside a loaded wagon that needs to be escorted up the road. Camera control for looking around the 3D world offers complete freedom, and -- at least in this area -- the boundaries seem to extend a comfortable distance beyond the road. Running around and exploring the fields to either side of the road, we found a smattering of low-level creatures goofing off. With no random battles, these made a comfortable introduction to the combat system.

RPG veterans will recognize the system as somewhat similar to that used in the last Star Ocean game. Approaching an enemy will automatically put you in combat, or you can manually choose to initiate it. Once you do, an action timer ring comes up on the screen that must fill before you can act. Once all its segments are lit, you use the attack button (the usual "O" here in Japan) to make your move.

Level 5 seems to be headed towards making this a fairly easy-to-play combat system. In this demo it appears that only one attack button is used to perform all attacks. Instead of complex gestures, doing combos comes down to timing your button presses in sync with the animation of your character on the screen. Each character has a three combo strings of up to seven moves that they have available at any time. In battle, pressing up and down on the directional pad switches between them.

Assembling your combos is where your tactics will come into play. As characters gain moves they go into a library. Each has an icon, indicating what type of attack it is. The ones we saw were a sword for a standard slashing attack, a curving arrow up for a lifting attack, a straight arrow down for a slamming attack, and a burst for a finishing move. When you select a first move, it will show you in icons which moves it chains with, and then the next move does the same, and so on. Depending on what sort of enemies you face you'll likely want to keep a selection of different attack chains ready at all times. Maybe a short but fierce attack for quickly handling easier enemies, a medium length chain for fighting with the rest of your group, and a string of your best possible moves linked together for facing tougher individual foes.

At the end of the demo, we faced our first boss fight, and got a real sense for the size and scale Level 5 wants to feature in the game. Approaching a pass as we wound up the road with the cart, a giant troll-like monster confronted us that must have been 20-30 feet tall. With a full charge, Lenard inserted his sword into his bracer and transformed into the similarly towering white knight. As cool as the transformation cutscene is, we have a feeling it will be one of those things you hope is skippable in the final version (for when you just want to play and have already seen it plenty of times). In his enlarged form, combat stayed basically the same, but took on a much more epic feel with the two heavyweights slugging it out.
From what we've seen, and now played, "epic" definitely looks to be the description Level 5 is aiming for. Visually, what we played lived up to the video. The flowers that filled the field looked like we could reach into the screen and pick them. An idyllic stream flowed through the middle of the area with light glistening off its surface. And the whole scene featured a very light soft filter effect that made it look all the more natural.

This look also reinforced the sense that this game strikes a new balance in style that can appeal to both a Japanese and Western aesthetic. The costuming, detailed with bone buttons, leather lanyards, fur collars, and the like embodies all the fine finishing touches of Japanese RPGs. But the characters inside the outfits reflect a more Western sort of proportion and have a more mature look than the so-often-seen angst-riddled teens.

While no release date has yet been given, what was here to play showed quite a lot of polish. The combat played smoothly, all the graphical touches were there, and every menu looked to be fully built. With any luck, we'll soon find out when to look for it here in Japan, and can start speculating on its English localization.

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