One of the first things you can do in Sonic and the Black Knight is view a slide show gallery of artwork, created by blue blur fans around the world. Almost all of them recount classic moments in the franchise’s history within Sonic CD, Sonic and Knuckles and Sonic Adventure 2 among others. It’s a bittersweet irony really, given that the new-age Sonic Team – a studio that’s opening their hearts and willing to do good like an eager puppy – are willing to embrace fan input where it’s positive, yet block out complaints about rushed developments, poor gameplay mechanics and passionless level design and counter with more of the same.
Sonic and the Black Knight is another case of missed opportunity for the Japanese team. While Sonic and the Secret Rings was by no means perfect, it provided a solid base of gameplay that was instantly accessible and focused on nothing but Sonic’s abilities (or lack thereof at the start of the game, as we sadly reminded ourselves). Rather than ‘do a Sonic 2’ and simply improve on the things that ticked players off, we have a sword-swinging mechanic that ultimately proves more troublesome than its worth. Between this, Beijing and the Werehog, it almost seems like Sonic doesn’t want to be a platforming game anymore.
Of course, t’is but a scratch spinoff, right? So surely some alternative action has to transpire, otherwise we’d just get a stale franchise. Or at least that’s what ‘they’ reckon, ignoring the train wrecks that Banjo-Kazooie and Crash Bandicoot have become – while elements such as storyline and play concepts are subject to deviation from the norm, it’s truly the implementation of such ideas that determine whether the ‘spinoff’ argument really works. Also as asinine an explanation is that this game is for ‘younger players’, as if Sonic wasn’t already for kids or something.
Be it for toddlers, adults or ducks, as far as Sonic the Hedgehog in a medieval land goes, it works quite well. Following on from Sonic and the Secret Rings’ “Storybook Series”, Black Knight sees the blue blur summoned into the land of King Arthur to stop the now-twisted monarchy from terrorising its people. At least that’s what Sonic assumes, given that the sorceress Merlina never actually explains anything until the hedgehog starts busting heads open. For all he knew, Merlina could have been guilty of not paying for that copy of Heat magazine from the corner shop.
The story is just as wacky as its predecessor, but it becomes extremely dull after finding the trusty sword, Caliburn. After beating down the Knights of the Round Table (Shadow, Knuckles and Blaze) and then kicking evil King Arthur about a bit, you are treated to an infinitely more compelling plot once the first credits reel finishes. It’s just strange that Sonic Team chose to split the game into two parts – it’s hardly Che is it?
It’s a pretty good premise and not too far fetched from the kind of campy action you’d expect Sega’s mascot to participate in these days. Plus, it’s always good to see English heritage getting some hang time. Where the hell is Eggman though!?
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Up
FAVOURITE SCENE: Sonic rallying the spirits of the Knights of the Round Table during the second chapter.
The game looks lovely though. Anyone that would criticise Sonic and the Black Knight for being too ‘grey’ clearly needs to understand the setting. We’re not going to be expecting chequered hills and purple skies in rainy old England, just as we’re unlikely to see anything but the colour yellow in Secret Rings. The graphics are top Wii fare, showing once again that Sega can really make use of Nintendo’s hardware.
Cutscenes are wonderfully done, yet again taking a leaf out of SatSR’s book but making it more like an animatic instead of a comic book. There are some good trade-offs between Sonic and Caliburn, and the characters really shine throughout the dialogue. Seeing Sonic take down Knuckles and state in a zen-like fashion “Isn’t there more to life than serving a King?” is just a great use of the hedgehog’s approach to life and situations, and the final cutscenes leading up to the last boss battle throws up some pretty cool morals too.
You’ll really enjoy the story as it picks up during the second half, it’s just a shame it’s over so quickly. The locales get far more interesting too as Camelot turns into a more flourescent, twisted version of itself. Lava caverns, dusty towns and fields rich with tall green grass all help maintain the ‘Sonic’ signature even in this foreign land.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Up
FAVOURITE BIT: The storybook style cutscenes.
For the first time in what seems like forever, the sound department in a Sonic game is truly a mixed bag. It’s difficult whether you’ll love it or hate it. With Sonic and the Secret Rings, it was easy to love Runblebee and it’s terrible (c)rap-bopping. It gave the game character. There’s nothing of the sort in Black Knight, despite top names like Jun Senoue, Richard Jacques and Tommy Tallarico filling the bill – even classic Sonic game luminary Howard Drossin. The result is what happens when you have too many musical cooks.
Crush 40’s title track, Knight of the Wind, isn’t a very compelling song to get you pumped for the game, and is borderline boring. The amount of different versions of the song will irritate you too. The continuing threat of Senoue and Gioeli’s band slowly losing their touch is thankfully halted when you hear ‘Live Life’, truly a great song and easily their best since ‘What I’m Made Of’. Sadly – or wonderfully, given it has a greater impact – the song is relegated to the second credits reel.
There are some tracks that have that awesome recognisable guitar ‘twang’ from Sonic Adventure 2. Other stage songs are pretty ‘Shadow the Hedgehog’ in quality with their overly heavy riffs from yesteryear that have aged quite badly. ‘Through The Fire’ is really nothing on ‘The Palace That Was Found’, and the moment I realised Sonic attracted Evanescence wannabes is the moment I switched off.
Now, we have always had a strict ‘who cares about the voice acting’ policy on TSS, because frankly there has never been a noticeable difference in the way Ryan Drummond and Jason Griffith do business. Unfortunately we have to bring this up today as on this occasion the voice acting is really poor. The 4Kids actors all seemed to be having an off day on this project, as Jason’s Shadow sounds more life a gruff 60 year old man, and Sonic’s cheesy lines grate much more than usual. The delivery on some cutscenes is almost House of the Dead-worthy – Merlina’s role was the only convincing one. Overall, your enjoyment of the sound production is dependant on whether you’ll enjoy the game itself or not.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Down (just)
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Molten Mine, Live Life, Deep Woods.
Enjoying Sonic and the Black Knight is a real big ask. Played with a Wii Remote and Nunchuk combo, movement is made with the Control Stick, the A Button jumps and waggling performs an attack. Whichever way you swing the Remote results in the exact same attack pattern though, essentially replacing a button press with arm cramp. You don’t know what move you’re actually going to do, which throws pre-meditated assaults out of the window. Sometimes swinging the Remote will send Sonic spinning forward, other times it will just pull him to a dead stop, whirling Calibur around like a crazed baboon.
This doesn’t help matters when attacking enemies is tiresome and cheap. One or two bad guys is fine – a swing of the wrist will fix them. It’s the legions of five or six at a time that will make you curse to the moon, particularly if you’re trying to attain a practically impossible five-star rating (based on ‘Chivalry’, attacks and total score). You can’t avoid them if you’re trying to get a good score (and you can’t move past the giant enemies anyway), so your only option is to waggle.
It’s here that you get assaulted by enemy attacks you never see coming – enemy attacks that really shouldn’t have hit you in the first place, because you’re swinging Caliburn as if its stuck to your hand at this point. You can shield with the Z Button, but that won’t deflect every onslaught, and when most grunts jump in the air – indicating an attack any second – pressing the button hardly gets your guard up in time, making the feature pointless. There’s no indicator of what could break your shield either, it all just seems like the game’s making it up as it goes along. This goes for bosses too – perhaps even more so, and beating Percival, Galahad and Lancelot is a case of pure luck as they constantly win confusing waggle QTEs and do a million combos before you even understand what’s going on.
Attacking in itself is also extremely inaccurate – besides not being able to actually hit enemies when you swing (resulting in frustrated flails that nearly tear your arm off), the game seems to be on a constant two-second lag. Playing through the tutorial stages shows it off the most – swing at a target as you near it and it takes seconds to actually launch an attack, making you miss and have it spin mockingly at your ineptitude. You either swear and carry on, or clumsily plod backwards and swing again. And miss as you spin forward rather than do a standing attack.
Because you’re not constantly moving forward, you assume you have full control of Sonic. Not the case. The control is still as clunky as Secret Rings (which was actually acceptable given the fact that it actually was on-rails), but Black Knight succeeds in providing a false sense of freedom, and moving left and right is even more annoying as a result. What is most aggravating is backtracking – it might be easier to do this time around, but what would have actually worked would have been full 360-degree control. It really breaks the flow when you have to trot backwards and forwards like a nervous cow.
Most of the levels and missions have been cut down in length severely though, and that’s a good thing as it was a pain to go through so much in SatSR’s stages. Black Knight makes for a game played in bite-sized chunks, and that’s how best this game is played. When you complete missions, you’re given a star rating and a number of ‘Followers’ based on how flawless your flailing was. Identification points allow you to discover items, which you can use to forge new weapons for additional characters via the Blacksmith (Tails). Unfortunately, playing as either Shadow, Knuckles or Blaze is no more fun than as Sonic – in fact, it’s about ten times worse (although Knuckles can glide, which is pretty cool).
For all its woes though, there are some nice things about playing through a stage in Sonic and the Black Knight. Some wonderful set-pieces take you across grassy plains, massive wooden people-carts and dragon dens. You can use Caliburn to slide down or climb walls with ease, and there’s a good deal of freedom in that maneouvre. Different styles of fighting allow you to attack with more speed or power. You also get a Soul Surge attack, which is mapped to the B trigger – activate it, and a target appears, allowing Sonic to home in on multiple enemies and slash them down, one by one. This concept is about the best way to tackle enemies in the game – a shame that it’s limited to a gauge that you have to fill up.
There are additional missions, but they’re all dull skirmishes that either sees you giving money to NPCs (forcing you to stop and take part in QTEs), completing stages by only swinging your sword ten times (which, given the horrible inaccuracies of the controls is pretty much an impossible task) and avoiding NPCs which pop up five feet in front of you. I know the Wii isn’t as powerful as its rival consoles but the ridiculous draw distance for characters that were difficult enough to avoid in the first place is like a kick in the nuts.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Down
FAVOURITE PART: Dashing through the green plains of Great Megalith.
It takes a total of two hours to fully complete the Adventure Mode. Both chapters. As mentioned before, the levels are much shorter which is great, but someone forgot to mention to Sonic Team that if you’re effectively halving the time taken to complete levels from Sonic and the Secret Rings, you should probably have double the missions to make up for that.
To be fair, there are a lot of additional missions via the online rankings mode, including time trials that won’t appear on the Adventure map. Play through these, and your score is uploaded to the leaderboards for all to see. Strangely, there’s no way of checking the rankings until you clear the mission, which is a bit of an oddity. Treasures and other items you identify can be viewed on a special screen, showing you what you’ve revealed already, and completing some of the stupidly-hard missions will unlock bonus content in the Gallery. Seeing voiceover actors introduce themselves is nice and all, but in general it hardly seems worth it.
What IS worth it though, is the unlocking of ‘Legacy Stages’, which are Black Knight levels that feature elements from past Sonic games. The result is a mixture of Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic and the Secret Rings, and this mode is about the only thing worth playing for – why the whole game couldn’t have been done like this beggars belief, but there you go. It’s a shining gem in the centre of a dull rock though, and even the most hardcore will be hard pushed to reach this far.
You’ll never want to touch the multiplayer mode either, as it’s one of the most tedious and awkward things I’ve ever played. Instead of a board game-cum-minigame party ala Secret Rings, in Black Knight you’re treated to four-on-four deathmatches and other such modes in generic square playing fields. Every character seems to have had their legs broken, and the win mechanic is pretty much ‘whoever waggles first’.
Overall, you’ll be hard pushed to come back to Black Knight once you’ve nobbled the story. And even while you’re playing it you’ll feel no sense of actually playing a Sonic game. The experience is tiring and frustrating one moment, empty and soulless the next. This is the first time I’ve played a Sonic game and not felt any kind of depth or satisfaction. Even Sonic 06 felt like a full package, as bad as that game was. Sonic and the Black Knight seems like a demo disk, devoid of any real gameplay gratification at all. Older Sonic fans are likely to feel the same way, while ‘younger kids’ – this game’s target audience – are more prone to break their controllers by throwing them at a wall.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Down
FAVOURITE TIME-WASTER: Watching the awesome fan artwork slideshows in the Gallery mode.
+ The graphics and the setpieces within the levels.
+ Using Soul Surge to beat down a metric tonne of enemies.
+ Some of the cutscenes – even if the voice acting is remarkably poor.
+ The bite-sized stages.
+ The Legacy Stages – you will actually curse Sega for cockteasing you with this.
– Flailing your arm and getting severe cramp.
– Inaccurate and unresponsive attacking/defending.
– How short the Adventure Mode is.
– Deciding whether it’s actually worth 100%-ing the game.
– The tacked-on Party Mode.