To say that the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise has had its share of misses is somewhat of an understatement. Since making the transition from 2-D to 3-D, it feels like the whole franchise is a giant miss at times. Sega has tried to do too much with its little blue speedster, and often he just crashes and burns.
With that pedigree of failure behind it, there was understandable trepidation upon the announcement of Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood. I mean, on the one hand you had the venerable company Bioware, makers of Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect developing it. On the other hand, Sonic the Hedgehog games just aren’t very good anymore, and can you really make an RPG out of Sonic?
So what happened with this weird amalgam of two companies? Did Sonic Chronicles end up as just another failure, or has Bioware successfully resurrected Sonic to race another day?
Sonic Chronicles looks great because they didn’t try and do more than the DS could handle. The world you traverse is in 2-D, while the characters and enemies are in 3-D. The characters look very clear and are very well animated. Nothing looks muddy, washed-out, or confusing.
Sonic Chronicles uses both screens very well. On the upper screen, there is a map that is normally extremely helpful in navigation, except for one flaw. There are times where you are trying to beat an expeditious retreat, and are using the top screen for navigation. It will look like there’s an opening on the above map, but when you get there, it’s closed off by a bush or some other piece of scenery. It’s not awful, but it’s annoying, and it’s something I wish they could have shored up a little better.
Most of the music sounds plucked straight from the 16-bit era. A lot of the tracks sound good, but when they’re bad, woo boy, are they bad. You will occasionally have to navigate a city with an awful music track in the background, which can be very obnoxious. Still, that’s the exception rather than the norm, and I found myself bopping along to some of the peppier tunes.
The sound from Sonic’s jumps, attacks, and other moves is taken straight from the Sonic games on the Sega Genesis. This wasn’t a bad idea, especially when you consider that the 16-bit era was the kindest to Sonic. It evokes a touch of nostalgia that makes the sound that much better.
All the control is handled via the touch screen. The battle menus, the overland navigation, and conversations are all done by tapping which options you want. It’s nice not having to navigate menus with the gamepad, especially when Bioware is known for complex menus.
However, in battle, the control becomes a little more problematic. Every time you attempt a special move, you need to follow some basic on-screen prompts in order to execute the move. It turns into a minigame, like Elite Beat Agents or Ouendan. This sounds cool in theory, but in practice it can mean that a really good special move can be sabotaged by a mistimed tap. Some of the special moves will still do some damage even if you make a mistake, but some won’t. Sometimes, you swear to God you’ve entered in the move correctly, but they decided you didn’t.
The opponents can use their own special moves against you, and if you tap the screen correctly you can dodge their special moves. It’s a great idea, but you’ll find yourself waiting for your opponents to use a special move so that you can dodge it. See, there’s no such provision against normal attacks. That’s right, you can dodge the Psycho Killer Ultimate Death attacks, but when someone walks up and punches you in the face, you’re screwed. You’ll find yourself breathing a sigh of relief when someone attacks you with a special move, because you can actually dodge the thing.
Bioware is known for good stories in games, and they’ve shoehorned a surprisingly good one into Sonic Chronicles. You’ll find yourself actively interested in who is doing what to whom. This is also one of the rare cases where Sonic’s ever-expanding cast of characters has actually worked out for the betterment of a game. Sure, the major character is Sonic, and you’ll want to play as him often, but the other characters are well-utilized.
Now, unfortunately, I have to start ripping the game a new one. This game had a lot of potential, really. There is an awful lot to like about it, and I really wanted to enjoy my time with it. It seems that all the ingredients are there to make an excellent, enjoyable romp: Lively graphics, a great story, and lots of cool little nooks and crannies to explore, but I had a major problem with the battles.
I found myself avoiding battles whenever I could, especially toward the end of my time with the game. This is because you can have everything queued up to lay a beatdown on the robot/lizard thing in front of you, but once your character takes his turn, chances are your character will miss. And miss. And miss. I have had entire rounds of combat where every character missed their attacks.
To make matters worse, sometimes the enemies will use different methods to avoid attacks, like using the “Evade” or “Phase” option so that it’s even harder to hit them. Of course, they have no problem hitting you, and after a while some enemies’ normal attacks do splash damage that also can’t be dodged. It was after one particularily miss-filled battle that I turned off Sonic Chronicles for good.
When you gain a level, you can customize your characters and add points to your “Speed” stat, making it more likely that you will hit enemies. This seems fair, but it takes so long to level up that you end up fighting enemies that seem like they’re above you by at least a level.
“Well, you were avoiding combat!” you might say. “No wonder you weren’t hitting enemies!” On the surface that seems like a valid point, but at the beginning of the game, I was actually grinding on lower-level enemies for exactly this reason. I had this problem throughout the entire game, which is inexcusable. Even when I used characters that had a higher amount of speed, like Sonic, I would still miss far more than I would hit.
There’s a reason that Final Fantasy-style combat is so popular in RPGs: No one likes to miss. It’s one of the ideas in videogames that has to go, like weapon degradation or having a set number of lives. I don’t mind missing every once in a while, but when you’re crossing your fingers hoping that this time you’ll hit your enemy, someone made a mistake somewhere.
I spent a lot of time with Sonic Chronicles, and there was still more to discover. There are lots of sidequests to do, and different secrets to find, and you’ll spend a lot of time finding them all.
On every map, you can not only try and collect all the rings that are scattered throughout the map, but you can also try and find all the little eggs that house Chao. Chao can add buffs to your characters, and you can try and collect all of them. There’s also the ability to use Wi-Fi to trade Chao with other users, which makes the Chao become more powerful. It’s a neat little feature that can definitely help you out.