As some of you may know, Bioware has been developing a DS RPG set in the Sonic universe for Sega. The game, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood was much anticipated by the fanbase, seeing how it was developed by a studio known for its expertise in developing RPGs on PCs. Well, the game is out in North America as of yesterday, so how is it?
To start on a positive note, the writing is pretty good. The writing in Sonic games tends to range from average to abysmal, so a decently written one which actually imbues the characters with personalities instead of making them out to be caricatures is a refreshing change. Much like just about every other Bioware game ever made, the game features branching dialogue trees, as well as an option to make Sonic say something snarky or dickish, which often has hilarious results.
As for the rest of the game…well, it feels rather uneven.
The music and sound production, for one, is absolutely atrocious. The music mostly consists of bad remixes of excellent tracks from other Sonic games, mostly butchered by awful arrangements and terrible samples. I normally leave my DS speakers turned down since I have other stuff playing in the background, but this is the first DS game I\’ve ever played where I turned down the sound because I couldn\’t stand listening to it. There were rumours that Richard Jacques, the composer on games like Sonic R and the Saturn version of Sonic 3D Blast, was working on the game\’s soundtrack, but I find that incredibly hard to believe given the state of the product I played.
The actual game mechanics are better, but still rather flawed. The maps are all hand-drawn 2D, upon which your 3D cel-shaded characters are free to run around, controlled by the stylus. You can switch to any of the characters in your party at any time by tapping their icon, although Sonic remains your \’point\’ character for conversations and the like. You can explore the environments to find side quests, most of which are fairly uninvolved and straightforward. In addition, access to certain parts of each area is restricted depending on who you have in your party. For instance, if you don\’t have Knuckles with you, you can\’t climb certain walls to reach high areas, and if you don\’t have Tails, you can\’t fly from one high point to another. The way in which this is done, however, feels rather forced – the game explicitly tells you which character you need to use at a particular location with a handy icon, ruining the sense of exploration and discovery you might have otherwise felt.
In terms of battle mechanics, the game feels like a throwback to Sega JRPGs of old, particularly the Phantasy Star series, with some elements taken from other JRPGs like Final Fantasy. Each of your characters falls into one of three archetypes, Power, Support and Shifter. They also have some stats, and it\’s fairly ambiguous as to what each stat affects – the game does not explain this to you. In any case, there\’s an \’Auto-Level\’ option much like in Mass Effect that can take care of this for you if you feel so inclined.
The main source of differentiation in the characters is the abilities they bring to the table. These fill the same role as special abilities in other games like Chrono Trigger, in that they have special properties, such as being associated with a particular element, or inflicting a status effect. The latter in particular is crucial to doing well in the game, since status effects can be stacked (even the same ones!).
In addition, you can pair each character with a Chao of your choice. The Chao function much in the same way that Espers do in Final Fantasy VI – they bestow some special property on the character that they wouldn\’t have otherwise. The effects range from fairly simple things like endowing the paired character with a particular element in his/her attacks to more useful effects like regenerating HP or PP between rounds. I haven\’t played long enough to make sure, but it also looks like the effects of a paired Chao get more powerful the longer it\’s paired.
So we have the makings of a fairly decent, if unoriginal combat system. However, Bioware managed to muck this up by tossing (of all things) quick timer events into the fray. When you decide to use your special moves, you need to input a series of Ouendan-style beats and sliders. If you mess up, your special move fails and you just wasted your PP. Presumably the game keeps some internal statistics that determine your attacks\’ effectiveness – why does it need to present you with this pointless reflex test? It makes sense in a game like Ouendan precisely BECAUSE the game is Ouendan – the beats are set to music, which aids you in mastering the timing for tapping the beats. In Sonic Chronicles, there is no such aid, and the sequences end up feeling tacked on as a result.
The most annoying part is that the DS, being what it is, often isn\’t able to keep up with the action on screen, and as a result the dropped framerate affects the speed at which these sequences are shown to you, messing up any sense of timing you might have gotten through muscle memory and turning what should be a fairly straightforward part of the battle system into pointless tedium. On top of this, you need to go through the same process to block enemy special moves, and it\’s subject to the same problems.
And don\’t get me started on the ridiculous minigame you need to play in order to escape from battle (or if your opponents decide to escape from battle).
I\’m still trying to figure out where I stand on this game. The few things Bioware got wrong are almost enough to push me over the edge, but I\’ll put forth a hesitant recommendation to at least those Sonic fans who have been waiting forever for a game that isn\’t terrible. This game is better than most other recent Sonic efforts, but I\’d strongly recommend preparing for some frustrating battles…and turning the sound off.