Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is further proof, beyond Sonic Spinball and Sonic Riders, that the classic hedgehog formula can be applied to just about any old genre SEGA sees fit (not always successfully, mind). The idea for this game apparently came about during a discussion with Bioware’s managing directors and SEGA America’s President Simon Jeffery. Obviously the concept and challenge of putting Sonic the Hedgehog in untested waters was just too good an opportunity to pass up, but also came with a worrying premise for gamers. Because we’d all been there with Shadow the Hedgehog.
With the standard Sonic games not doing so hot, was a spinoff – which happen to be extremely hit and miss in the history of the franchise – really the best way to go about repairing the damaged reputation the blue blur has? Would the franchise be in good hands with Bioware, an excellent developer known for their more mature RPG projects? Read on and find out, in TSS’ definitive review.
There’s something of an interesting discussion taking place amongst many Sonic fans at the moment. Why, when games like Sonic 06 were panned for its ludicrous story premises, is there a lot of favour for Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood? To sum up, being a spinoff title in the form of an RPG, such promises of fleshing out a particular story isn’t such bad practice – Sonic Battle did a pretty good job of beefing up Gerald Robotnik’s background for example. That, and an RPG just wouldn’t be one without a story in the first place.
Of course, a good reason is also the fact that Sonic Chronicles doesn’t contain a character-questioning ludicrous story; not at least, for the type of game it’s selling itself as. Bioware are known for their intricate stories and research of particular lore as detailed in their Star Wars game Knights of the Old Republic. As you play through Sonic Chronicles, it’s clear that the RPG specialists knew what they were doing all along.
The story goes like this: after a penultimate battle with Dr ‘Eggman’ Robotnik, leaving the world to believe it was free from his evil tyranny once and for all, Sonic and friends part ways with the hedgehog taking an extended absence of leave. One day Sonic returns to the Green Hill Zone where he learns that Knuckles has been kidnapped, leading to a string of events that will see the blue blur reunite with his friends, take on a once-banished ‘alien’ race and even head off into another dimension to chase those who have walked off with the Chaos Emeralds and Master Emerald.
For the first time in what feels like forever, Bioware have constructed a Sonic the Hedgehog plot that doesn’t patronise the older player, and actually relishes in uncommon facts that you might already know. The whole ‘jumping dimensions’ thing only feels out-of-place to those who’ve not played it, as the dialogue is well threaded and supports an extension of the Sonic Adventure and Sonic Battle stories by playing on Knuckles’ past. It can get a bit predictable at times, but what Sonic game isn’t?
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Up
FAVOURITE SCENE: When you first meet Robotnik in the third chapter – his dialogue is delicious.
We really like the choice of art direction Bioware have chosen for this game; opting for a sort of animated comic book rather than cheesy CG cutscenes with awful voice acting. Speaking of which, there is no VA work in here at all, which makes the ears all the more pleased. The promotional artwork and the scenery of each map is simply gorgeous, and truly a step up from even Uekawa’s artwork we’d say. We’d pick the box art for Chronicles over Rush Adventure any day really.
It’s a shame the same can’t be said for all of the animated cutscene work, which looks like something another team worked on – the results can vary from ‘quite good’ to ‘Sonic X Season 2 – what are proportions?’ standards. And when you get a good look at the character models themselves (especially during the end of battle) they look quite shocking – what’s up with their head and eyes?
The dialogue is appropriate and doesn’t shove any of the Sonic stalwarts out of character for a second; we particularly like the odd little poses Robotnik makes every now and then, coupled with such zingers as “[Back when I was making old robots] I was young and full of beans!” Right, Eggman. Your options for discussion range from straight-to-the-point speed talking to attitude-laden snarky one-liners.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Up
FAVOURITE BIT: Being able to be a complete bastard to Amy.
The sound design is something of a mixed bag in Sonic Chronicles. In some ways, we love it and in others we’re surprisingly underwhelmed. The sound effects are pretty good at conveying classic Sonic actions – the jump, ring ‘bling’ sound and spring ‘dyoing’ is all there (man I do love how that spring sounds), but then you get into battle and every time Tails gets hit he lets out a terrible squeal. Knuckles sounds like he’s trying to swallow something whilst being punched in the stomach, and some of the enemies sound just as odd. Big the Cat (and other heavier enemies) do sound like they’re getting satisfyingly beat down though.
When it comes to the soundtrack as well, it kind of leaves us wanting more. Battle Themes and Boss music are great and pump you up as you make your next move, but they seem to be some of the only pieces that sound anywhere near complex. The many remixes found in the game sound worse than their original counterparts due to a lack of real ‘meat’ to them. Even in spite of the fact that audio legend Richard Jacques composed some original tracks (Green Hill, Zoah Colony for example), the Nintendo DS can do better than this.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Down
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Battle Theme 3, Ix Boss Battles.
The gameplay of Sonic Chronicles is made up of two parts; exploration and battling. During exploration, the touch screen is used to control your characters, and different members of your team are required to overcome certain obstacles – Big the Cat has Invulnerability for example, which can allow him to pass gas (… as in, walk through toxic gasses, not…) and Knuckles can climb certain surfaces. Thankfully you’re not treated to random battles, but running into enemies will engage in combat. It’s a bit random as to whether it wants you to ambush or be ambushed though, it doesn’t seem to take into account your approach of each enemy.
Battling is a mixture of classic RPG turn-based combat and Elite Beat Agents-style rhythm action. During each round you can assign commands for each action your character has – doing special POW moves will require you to either tap or swipe against the touchscreen in a particular fashion. It can be quite engaging when you’re faced with a challenging foe, but most of the time you’re simply trying to waste each enemy at a time, whilst attempting to ignore any others in the battle – it’s the simplest way of focusing on a victory. Makes the whole process a little cheap, but entertaining nonetheless. There’s also a new approach to fleeing battles – a short mini-game where your characters run away from their foes is a pretty cute addition, where you must tap your characters to make them jump over boxes that may slow them down in their escape.
When you’re not battling, you’re exploring to find either sub-quests, rings or Chao eggs hidden in each map. Doing these takes the eye off the main action for a few seconds, but the side missions are quite droll as you end up doing them during the main game itself. It can be slightly bothersome finding out you need a particular character’s ability who’s not on your team to finish that Ring/Chao tally. And working your way around the map can usually end up becoming an exercise in running into every single wall you can find, due to the ambiguous interactivity of most of the scenery.
Generally though, playing this game is a laugh – it won’t satisfy RPG fans in the slightest, but it will be enough for Sonic fans looking for a well-developed change of pace.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Up
FAVOURITE PART: Tapping and sliding like a pro during boss battles.
Funnily enough this is hard to gauge, because one of the most unfortunate things about Sonic Chronicles is that it doesn’t take you very long to complete at all. The most dedicated Sonic games player can crack this in a day or two. But then you take into account that all good Sonic games aren’t that difficult, are accessible and are essentially short, arcade-play games in the first place – so does this fact work in favour of Sonic Chronicles or against it?
Had the story been pitifully short, then we’d probably have to knock this game a peg or two down. The fact is, the story is really quite adequate in length, particularly by Sonic the Hedgehog’s standards. If anything, the problem perhaps lies in the lack of side quests that really distract you from the main plot – pretty much every single optional mission can be completed on the way to another map. Phantasy Star Online’s Hunter’s Guild it ain’t.
It doesn’t help that the difficulty curve isn’t great shakes for the hardened RPG player. Even fighting Ix is significantly easier than most standard battles prior – the very last battle you engage in is possibly the easiest thing in the game. When you complete the game you’re instantly taken back to the beginning with your levelled up characters, making earlier stages a doddle – this is a good feature for replay as it helps players re-engage with the story and dialogue once more, but perhaps it would have been nice to have implemented a greater difficulty with each run-through.
With the quite blatant promise of a sequel during the final cutscene, you realise you’ve completed the game and want to see what happens next. The fact that the game doesn’t continue is most likely a good thing, and that we enjoyed playing the game up until the end means Bioware have succeeded in giving us good value for our gameplay. We just hope that a sequel is actually made…
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Up (just)
FAVOURITE TIME-WASTER: Replaying the game with levelled up characters. Eat foot, Enraged Armadillo!
+ The unobstrusive job of tying up stories from past games.
+ Getting into the rhythm of those tap-swipe POW moves.
+ The comic book style of the major cutscenes.
+ That so much love has obviously gone into the characters.
+ The great fanservice provided in one accessible package.
+ The predictable but awesome final cutscene…. however….
– The odd, fourth-wall breaking anti-climax.
– Beating it and wanting more.
– The lack of real challenge, even/especially on replay.
– It if you want a lot of RPG depth.
– Knowing the lame side-quests don’t really add up to much.