White Knight Chronicles is an unusual beast. On the surface, it’s a straightforward role-playing title, with the expected mix of daring heroes and princesses in need of rescuing. At the same time, the game plays host to an extensive multiplayer component that exists largely separated from the story, in which up to four friends can work together to tackle a number of designated quests. The two components are united by the large open game world through which you’ll wander in both single- and multiplayer excursions. The real-time, turn-based battles and extremely large areas that make up that world are reminiscent of a massively multiplayer game in scope and style. We had the opportunity to play the first several hours of the single-player game this month, and got a good feel for the game’s combat, story, and skill system.

The plot of White Knight Chronicles is a familiar setup for RPG fans. Two medieval nations have been at war for generations and have only recently come to an uneasy truce. The crystallization of the new peace is to be formalized when the kingdom of Balandor invites the leader of the opposing nation of Faria to the birthday celebration of Balandor’s Princess Cisna. A rogue army of mysterious enemies called the Magi attack the event, and the leaders of both countries are murdered, threatening that war will begin again. Simultaneously, Princess Cisna is kidnapped by the Magi, as she has mysterious powers that will help them to enact their world-conquering plans. Enter Leonard, a young man who works at Balandor’s local winemaker. When he is caught in the conflagration of the Magi attack, he tries to rescue the princess and in the process awakens an ancient and dangerous relic -- a powerful, giant suit of armor that fights at his command. With the princess in danger, Leonard and an expanding group of friends set out to save her.

Among those friends is a silent tag-along buddy, who just happens to be an avatar that players craft at the game’s opening. Unique among JRPGs, the character creator is incredibly detailed, letting you choose everything from gender to default facial expressions. This character travels as a main (but silent) companion throughout the game’s campaign, but he or she becomes your playable avatar in the extensive multiplayer missions that unlock throughout the game.

Dozens of missions are available to play online with friends. When you enter multiplayer, you’ll be able to gather with large groups of friends (up to 12 at last count), but you’ll be forced to narrow down to four players who will travel together to complete quests. If you fully embrace these multiplayer missions, we’re told that they can easily add 15-20 hours to the game’s already hefty playtime.

During our time with the game, there was ample opportunity to explore the game’s combat and exploration system, which really begins to open up after the extensive opening story sequences. Areas between towns and cities are extremely large, and offer plenty of opportunities to grind for XP and treasure against frequently repeated bad guys. Among the many smaller enemies on the field, huge multi-story foes wander the world. Your best bet for taking on these massive foes is transforming into the equally large white knight, and throwing down Voltron-style.

Combat feels like an MMO -- each of your abilities sits in a hotbar at the bottom of the screen, and there’s a wait after each attack as the character’s action gauge recharges. In addition, every attack takes up a certain number of “action chips,” so there’s a need to monitor your skill usage over time. In order to transform into one of your large knight forms, you’ll need a certain number of action chips, so it’s wise to keep them available when serious fights get started. As you play, it’s simple to switch back and forth between your three onscreen characters so you can take advantage of each of their abilities. When you’re not directly controlling an ally, you can set battle tactics beforehand that govern their actions.

While spending five or six hours with White Knight Chronicles introduced us to the basics of combat, like many games in the genre, it barely scratched the surface of the story or more complex gameplay features. Sony has detailed that the game will include the option to build your own village over the course of the game -- a site that will play host to your friends when you invite them into a multiplayer session. These homegrown towns can have their own shops, residents, and layout based on your desires. It’s a feature that should come as no surprise from Level-5, who built the Dark Cloud games around a similar concept.

Our time with White Knight Chronicles revealed an ambitiously vast game that should have a lot of appeal to players wanting a more traditional role-playing experience on the PS3. Some story and gameplay clichés are certainly in place, but we’re hopeful that as we play more, those familiar ideas will begin to be replaced by more nuanced plotting and tactical combat. We don't have to wait long to find out for sure -- White Knight Chronicles is set to release in early 2010.