Shadowy, gun-toting Hedgehogs, battle modes and so much more -- all twists on the classic fast and furious gameplay mechanics that helped propel SEGA's franchise to its mega-popular status around the globe. The publisher's tried it all, usually with disappointing results. Yet, the blue blur's last romp on current-generation consoles, Sonic Unleashed, came close to recapturing the intensity of the the mascot's 16-bit roots due wholly to the title's short, but sweet selection of super speedy daylight missions. And then, unfortunately, there were the Werehog levels -- slow, weird and uncalled for. I frankly dreaded the coming of nightfall and Sonic's transformation in Unleashed, but compared to the clunky, misguided mess that is Sonic & the Black Knight, howling at the moon suddenly doesn't seem so bad anymore.
Black Knight is the latest in Sonic Team's so-called storybook series, the first of which was Sonic and the Secret Rings. These are Hedgehog games based on popular bedtime tales like Arabian Nights and now, for Black Knight, King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. In this latest project, Sonic finds himself sucked through a portal into the ancient era and thrust into a battle between a sorceress named Merlina and a black gas-filled suit of armor masquerading as King Arthur. As with just about every Sonic endeavor, the storyline is brought to life via ridiculously high production values, from the wide assortment of stunningly clean and stylized pre-rendered cinemas to mid-level sequences that look like storyboards. All of the characters feature high caliber voice acting, although most of the dialog is so badly written that you'll likely find yourself wincing at the terrible one-liners.
The developer didn't stop with the story elements, though. The attention to detail is spread throughout the Wii-pointer-compatible interface, which is made to look like a medieval scroll of sorts. When you click over to the adventure mode, the guts of the game, you'll be treated to a realistic map with various points that you can select to trigger stages. It all looks great. Meanwhile, Sonic Team has also included a robust online leader board ranking system, accessed through Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, in which players can compete against each other's times and scores. There's even a treasury mode that holds upward of 100 items that can be traded online with your favorite Sonic-loving pals -- of course, you'll need to swap friend codes first. And there's also a full-blown gallery that features dozens of unlockable character bios, movies, and illustrations, both from development team members and franchise devotees. Black Knight is overrun with welcomed fan service that diehards will undoubtedly appreciate.
And at a glance -- certainly in screenshots and even in some well-produced trailers -- Black Knight appears a polished, beautiful platformer, but don't be fooled by this wicked trickery. The graphics engine is dazzling at points, easily outputting detailed, varied environments blanketed in effects. As Sonic blazes through mountainous terrain, you'll be able to see individual blades of grass swaying in the wind. As he runs across rocky, magma-filled caves, a heat distortion effect will warp the screen. When he clashes swords with King Arthur, the screen will ignite in an awesome explosion of particle sparks. It's a good looking game through and through, even if the framerate occasionally dips in high-action sequences. The biggest presentational (and mechanical, if you want to lump it into gameplay) flaw is the camera, which proves downright obtrusive at points, shooting Sonic's movements behind foreground barriers -- a huge frustration.
But unfortunately for SEGA there is the second, integral component to consider: gameplay. And it's here where Black Knight is defeated, slashed through its corrupted heart time and time again. Imagine the trademark intense speed, loop-de-loops, corkscrews, jumps and pinball mechanics that have helped define the Sonic name over the years. Good. Now throw all of that tried-and-true stuff out the window, slow down the action to a relative crawl, give the blue hedgehog a big sword, and throw enemy after enemy in his path. This is the backbone of the offensively awful design template that is a succubus, perpetually draining fun away from the experience. To make matters worse, Sonic himself is controlled clumsily with the nunchuk's analog stick -- he moves like a tank, barely able to nudge to the left and right so that he might sidestep approaching obstacles -- and he is constantly locked in stupid swordplay.
His trusty sword is controlled with the WIi remote. There's an incredible amount of unresponsive waggle -- not gestures -- in the game. You simply shake, shake and shake some more to slice enemies down as they approach. The title does not consider vertical or horizontal motion, so you can just waggle the controller mindlessly and win. It's one of the worst control choices I've had to endure for any Wii game, not only because your movements actually have noticeable lag before they are translated on-screen, but because you battle so many enemies throughout any given level that you arm is sure to be sore by the time you're done. You encounter the occasional boss in fights that are supposed to be epic, but the ensuing battles are over in seconds -- all you have to do is shake continuously and you'll lay waste to your enemies before they are done with their opening dialogs.
Black Knight also features a horrendous four-player battle mode that is so pitifully heinous -- the hedgehog can fight at molasses speeds in waggle-fests with characters like Knuckles and Amy Rose to the backdrop of static arenas -- that you should avoid at all costs.
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