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White Knight Chronicles: Origins is a role-playing game that firmly adheres to a "substance over style" maxim. Jumping none-too-subtly on the Monster Hunter bandwagon that has propelled the PSP through a remarkably fruitful autumn to its lifecycle in Japan, Origins wastes little on visual pomp and splendour but offers good gaming mileage for those looking to kill some spare time.
Having designed an avatar in whichever image you so choose, he or she begins the game by joining the Mobile Corps, a band of mercenaries who travel via a train, which acts as the hub of operations. Set during the "Dogma Wars", this slice of WKC focuses on how the group is reluctantly pulled into a conflict against the Yshrenian Empire who harness the power of the fearsome Knights and are busy giving world domination a good old go. Though the story fails to distinguish itself from standard J-RPG fare, there's just enough to keep things ticking over, with quirky but mostly-acceptable secondary characters helping to bed the player in during the early phases. The primary focus of the game however lies in its bounty hunter missions.
These take place in a variety of settings that include lush fields, desolate canyons, caves and villages. While the scenery changes, they are built in much the same way; a series of square-shaped areas that branch in as many as four different directions, forming a map as layouts develop a little like jigsaws. Objectives include slaying a certain number of foes; breaking seals and beating a designated boss; collecting a number of specific items or charting all of the maps segments, with various treasures and materials waiting to be scavenged along the way.
In truth, they're all pretty similar. You'll duel with a few enemies, heal, check for loot, and move on. Rinse and repeat. The battle system unfolds in real-time but with traditional RPG command menu leanings. It's strikingly simple in its design and execution, requiring little in the way of dexterity or timing, but actually comes to feel quite intuitive with use and becomes one of Origins' most positive facets. Using what's called a "Function Palette", the player assigns five abilities to a command bar navigated via the D-Pad. You get three sets of five, and there's surprising depth to tweaking your options so that they're just right; standard attacks, healing and big specials can take precedence on the first palette for example, then the second may see support spells and status-restoring magic, and the final one offensive magic. The range of possibilities is bewildering as there are hundreds upon hundreds of moves to unlock.
The game is certainly at its most assured when you look for the little things that offer tangible evidence of character growth beyond the commendably speedy level-up rate. Completing a mission usually sees your gaining a new party member, but even if they aren't strong enough to join you in the field, many are still useful if you send them off scouting (they'll return with new items) or by doing missions personal to them, as the reward for doing so is learning one of their abilities. "Binding" is another good example of Origins applying a simple idea effectively; new weapons and armour can be created by mixing different compounds and items, a feature that is particularly worthwhile as these creations fairly quickly outstrip what the merchants have to offer. You can then add attributes to your kit to give them additional perks. On the whole the system works, because while it isn't essential you go menu trawling, you get back what you put in, as sometimes seeking out a rare item will result in you getting your hands on a great piece of kit.
Whilst groups of gamers playing WiFi multiplayer has proven a big hit in the game's native Japan, Matrix Software have, to their credit, recognised that this element of the PSP has never really taken hold elsewhere. As compensation, they've tried to lure out we nocturnal westerners with some nice online functions. Forming groups is now possible over the internet, though communication is severely limited through a mixture of clumsy menu design and the PSP's inability to effectively double as a keyboard. It's a nice option but in truth, there isn't really any more camaraderie than playing alongside the computer. However, a rather better feature is uploading your character onto the network for others to use, whilst you in turn can download other peoples, essentially allowing the community to help each other to move forward. There's even some cross-functionality with PS3 White Knight Chronicles II, for the minute number of people who happen to own both.
Considering it's a first-party exclusive, Origins doesn't set the PSP alight visually. The battle environments are rather plain, whilst the characters prove serviceable enough during cut-scenes but a touch rough in the field of play. The menus are ugly, the quality of enemy design is a mixed bag and the music apt but overly repetitive. Partly down to the presentation, it isn't as accessible as would have been ideal and the design layout of the train leaves a lot to be desired, with many of the carriages only housing one character to interact with, when they really could have condensed three carriages worth of merchants into just the one. The dozen or so carriages you'll eventually amass makes for an excessive amount of leg-work.
If it tickles your fancy though, there's no questioning the longevity of the package. Missions in the main story cater to Level 40 at which point you can complete the game with a raft of different endings depending on which ally you choose to take from the Mobile Corps to help you finish the last battle. You're already looking at 20 hours plus at this stage, but missions continue up to Level 100 by which point you'll be fighting White Knights and apocalyptically powerful dragons, and with the cavernous selection of weapon, armour and item upgrades to fiddle around with, it's a perfectly-calculated time sink.
From a technical standpoint it doesn't do an awful lot wrong, yet White Knight Chronicles faces an uphill struggle to become a premier role-playing series in its current guise. It remains to be seen whether the series can progress without more concrete, original features, a standout visual package or a more memorable storyline. What it does, it does well, but with little flair or aplomb and merely delivering a good imitation of Monster Hunter seems unlikely to sustain it, in the west at least.
So whilst the gameplay itself is no great shakes, smartly judged character development means it's very moreish, and the simple but effective combat means it's an uncomplicated way of passing an hour or two - a good trait in a portable RPG. It's unlikely to live long in the memory but so long as you don't expect any major bells 'n' whistles, you might just find Origins stealing a few of your afternoons away.