IGN Review of Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood
As a franchise that's been around for 17 years, Sonic the Hedgehog has seen its ups and downs. The series kicked off nearly two decades ago with phenomenal side-scrolling platforming, adding more speed and intensity than Nintendo's own plumber, but since the era of 3D has started to dwindle a bit. Leave it to DS to try and innovate, bringing back some impressive 2D action games with the Sonic Rush series, and now a totally unique take on the brand, with a Bioware-made role-playing game in Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood. With this, Bioware's first handheld game for the newly-formed team, the makers of KOTOR teamed up with SEGA to try and give more substance to the little blue hedgehog. In the end though, we've come to the same conclusion we often do with the Sonic franchise; the guy is just better off running right, and blasting through loops.
Dark Brotherhood isn't an entirely bad game. In fact, for a first effort, it it's pretty commendable. The game takes the familiar characters and locales from the Sonic franchise, mixes them up in a story that - while starting off about as generic as possible - ramps up a bit near the halfway mark of the game, and delivers some impressive visuals despite some obvious gameplay flaws. For the hardest of hardcore Sonic fans out there that will be buying this game no matter what, they'll find some beautiful level construction (at least visually), some impressive cinematic moments, and lots of fan service. For everyone else though, it's nothing more than a lacking, extremely basic "starter RPG" package.
Sonic Chronicles is an all-touch game, so while you'll still be using the DS in the standard "top and bottom screen" position and not book form, you won't need to make use of a single button from the second you boot, to the moment you turn the game off. This makes interface section extremely easy to navigate, as touch response is strong, and the layouts are simple to click between, but it also makes for some sketchy character control, as Sonic is all about speed (something he sacrifices in this game), and will instead be following your cursor point as you slide around the screen. All in-game options are easy to get to, hiding behind a small pull-out menu in the bottom left of the screen, and any of your four party members can be switched with the tap of a button the game's top screen. Actions in the game can either be done by tapping on-screen icons, or, if you prefer, hitting either L or R shoulder buttons.
But while the layout, interface, and general look and feel of the game is strong (deceptively so, since screens and videos make this one look nothing less than excellent), the core experience just isn't there, and it's due mostly to an extremely basic core RPG design. For starters, Sonic Chronicles is almost entirely made up of fetch quest gameplay, requiring players to set a certain group of characters in their party, hop, fly, and climb across the map, and pick up object after object to further the game's simple story. One section will have you collecting Eggman tracking devices all across the first three stages (after already completing them 100%), while others - much simpler - offer side quests such as tracking down a stapler for someone, finding a lost teddy bear, or jumping on rooftops to kill a gigantic queen wasp. Eventually the game gets a bit deeper into its story, but it isn't until nearly six hours in, and by that point, players will undoubtedly be sick of running from point to point just to move the already-thin story along.
If the battle mechanic was truly entertaining, it would have been a different story, but in the case of Dark Brotherhood things are again very simple, and just too uninspired to spark any entertainment of out of the fights. To battle, players will line up their team against the opposing force, and use a combination of regular attacks and Elite Beat Agents touch-based supers and team attacks. The effects and combos themselves are pretty impressive (again, the game is visually sound), but the mini-game used to pull them off becomes repetitive after only a couple hours, and it's really just too shallow of a mechanic. You'll either tap as circles converge, slide to follow an icon as it moves across a dotted path, or tap a specific spot eight times to "defuse" an icon before a circle connects with it. If this was one of 30 different types of attacks (Naruto's latest RPG, also very simple, manages to have about a dozen types of touch-based battling, as a reference), that'd be one thing, but it's all Elite Beat Agents, the whole time.
Battles can also go on forever, due to some random elements that come into play with the enemies you're fighting. Some characters will automatically heal after every round, others will come back to life if all enemies aren't dead after the round ends (sometimes with more HP than you can deliver with a team in the following round), and status buffers can cause a whole team to miss multiple times, round after round. There's something to be said for more strategic fights, and the addition of all enemy HP on the top screen does allow you to plan out more of what you're doing each round, but it's still a bit much. One battle can take minutes to beat if under the right conditions. Pair that with slow, point to point RPG exploration, and missions can get pretty tedious extremely fast. In addition, enemies don't know to run from you if you're overpowered, and they don't scale with your level, so when you return to Green Hill Zone to collect a few quest items six hours in, they'll be scaled to level one teams, and still want to fight over and over. Oh, and the miss buffers will still work, making the battles longer than they need to be once again.
It's not all bad, but it'll take a dedicated RPG player (or rabid Sonic fan) to want to get to the good parts. The characters are a great mix of different class types, for example, so while I figured I'd just be using Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and a random other fourth character, I truly did want to make use of everyone on my team. Healer classes make it so you can get back much-needed Power Points, while other characters can steal items from baddies, and even more so, the skill upgrade system will make you choose which characters you'll want to pair together, since certain special attacks can't be used unless the other teammate is there to help out. The game also does a nice job of keeping you stocked full of items, and the game treats rings as your currency, but also as a way to try again during hard fights or get hints during puzzles. If you collect enough rings, you can get through any of the hardships that await.
Unfortunately, the characters and interactions are really the only actual Sonic-like aspects of the game. It still feels like a generic, point-to-point quest, and what little that was added (you can escape from battles with a quick race mini-game, for example) feels tacked on and thin. Even the classic Bioware expandable dialogue trees aren't effective, with various options not really impacting the game in any way. You can be a jerk to one character the whole time, for example, and never get a long-term effect from it. One such example of this occurred with Tails and his save recommendations. Since the game is more of a starter RPG, Tails is constantly reminding the player to save. One of the options is "Tails, stop telling me to save all the time," which he quickly responds by saying "Ok." to Sonic. Sure enough, a few minutes down the line and Tails will again remind you before a boss fight or main story sequence. This occurs again when Eggman joins your team, as you have the option to be mean, and basically say that you don't want him in your group, but it's inevitable. Even generic "jerk" moments available result in nothing more than one quick response from the character, and then the storyline as usual. We weren't expecting a Mass Effect level of branching dialogue or anything, but for what little characterization there is at all in the game, the moments of open-endedness should at least feel, well, open-ended.
As a few final notes on the game's interface and audio/visual offering, the 3D models, animation, effects, and environments are all very well done. On the audio side though, clips are low-quality and often cut very short, with even the constantly-used post-battle item sound cutting out after every fight. We're assuming it's because of the slickly animated item display on the top screen that's happening simultaneously, but for something that happens so often, it'd be a nice bug to get rid of. Other sounds, such as attack impacts and specials sound really out of place, using spring sound effects for huge hits, and slapstick audio when knocking players out. If this was part of making the game more kid-friendly, it could have been toned down a bit for the rest of the Sonic fan base.
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