Developer: Sonic Team
Release Date: March 3, 2009
Sonic and the Black Knight makes no pretensions about having a deep story. Sonic's adventure begins when a young woman named Merlina, granddaughter of the famous magician, summons him to Camelot. Like Sonic and the Secret Rings, Sonic finds himself within the pages of a storybook, in this case the legend of King Arthur. The king has gone a little batty and made a deal with the underworld, selling his soul in exchange for immortality. That's bad enough, but in this tale, Arthur hasn't yet lost the sheath of Excalibur, and that means he can't be harmed in battle. It's up to Sonic to find a way to break through Excalibur's protection and defeat the dark king. Fortunately for him, Merlina provides him with the talking magical sword Caliburn, the same sword that Arthur drew from the stone. (Contrary to popular belief, Excalibur was not the sword in the stone but merely a gift from the Lady of the Lake.) Caliburn is snarky and pompous, but he's also Sonic's only hope of becoming skilled enough to defeat the legendary king. It's a simple plot, but it works very well. It's straightforward and occasionally funny, while avoiding the overdramatic goofiness of Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 or the aggravating sidekicks like Sonic Unleashed's Chip. There is even a fairly amusing plot twist midway through the game. It won't be enough to retain an older gamer's attention, but it's great for the younger generation and avoids any pitfalls that would turn off Sonic's fan base.
The basic gameplay of Sonic and the Black Knight is very similar to Sonic and the Secret Rings. The game is an on-rails platformer, which takes quite a bit of getting used to. Sonic is always moving in a specific direction in this title, and you can stop and even leap backward, but the camera will usually remain behind Sonic. There are a few areas where the game zooms out to a pseudo-2D segment, but the gameplay sort of chokes in these areas because it isn't really designed for changing directions, and Sonic will sometimes get caught in his own movement.
Unlike Secret Rings, you don't use the Wiimote as a steering wheel. Sonic is directly controlled with the Nunchuk's analog stick, which is a bit of a mixed blessing. In some ways, the Nunchuk is more precise than the Secret Rings control scheme, but it also has less precision for quickly moving left and right, which can be a bit frustrating. Jumping is done by pressing the A button on the Wiimote, but be warned that jumping doesn't cause Sonic to jump upward so much as it makes him hurl himself forward. This takes a lot of getting used to, and most of the platforming is shoddy because of this, especially any precision platforming, since Sonic is almost impossible to control once he's in the air.
This plays into another strange element of the game. The gameplay is on rails, so Sonic will follow the path of the level, even if it means randomly turning in mid-air or makes no sense. This can be extremely strange, as it involves Sonic moving in mid-air in a way that is unnatural and hard to grasp. It's doubly bad when you encounter areas where it's only natural for a gamer to guide Sonic's jump, which in turn only makes him veer off course because the game tries to auto-guide your jumps. It's possible to learn how to work around this, but it still feels extremely unintuitive.
Unfortunately for us all, Sonic has taken up swordplay. The concept of Sonic with a sword is odd, but not inherently unworkable. The gameplay execution leaves much to be desired, though. You swing the Wiimote, or rather, simply waggle it, and Sonic swings his sword. Waggle it normally and he'll slash; waggle in the air and he'll do a spinning attack. Press forward and waggle for a lunge, and backward for a rising air slash. These are Sonic's basic combat abilities, and it quickly grows tiresome. There is absolutely no benefit for this game to be on the Wii. The waggle makes the controls tiring and painful instead of simple and natural. How and where you slash doesn't matter, thus defeating the point of using the Wiimote for the sword anyway.
There is also a noticeable input delay between when you swing and when Sonic reacts, which makes the already-awkward controls even worse. It's less noticeable for some actions than others, but it's very aggravating if it ends up being a problem. There's very little reason to not simply use a jump-and-spin attack on every single enemy you encounter, which means that the best way to swordfight with Sonic is to play him exactly like he is in other games, but with more awkward, less responsive and uncomfortable controls. This becomes most apparent in the game's Legacy stages, where Sonic forgoes his sword in favor of the traditional Homing Attack introduced in Sonic Adventure, and the gameplay becomes more enjoyable.
In addition to his regular slashes, Sonic has access to a Soul Surge ability. Like Sonic and the Secret Rings, Sonic has a Soul Gauge, a super bar that fills up as he takes actions. When the bar is over 20 percent full, Sonic can activate Soul Surge, which means that time slows down and a blinking crosshair appears over foes. If Sonic slashes during this time, he'll instantly warp to his enemies and do massive damage. This allows him to quickly take out large groups of baddies, although his Soul Gauge drains massively with each attack. The key to long combos is to master Perfect Slash. Just as the crosshairs align on an enemy, they will flash yellow and Caliburn will glow. If you slash at precisely this moment, Sonic performs a Perfect Slash, which "freezes" his Soul Gauge in place and does extra damage. The more Perfect Slashes you do, the longer your Soul Surge lasts. However, the longer your Soul Surge lasts, the harder it becomes to perform another Perfect Slash. If you use Soul Surge when enemies are not nearby, Sonic will dash forward at blazing speeds, breaking through or ignoring most obstacles in his way, while his Soul Gauge slowly drains. This is the key to getting a high ranking on many stages, as it allows you to quickly blaze through areas or discover new shortcuts.
Sonic's swordplay is enhanced by one of three fighting styles, although for the first half of the game, Sonic only has access to the knight style. These styles function like the abilities from Sonic and the Secret Rings but are less customizable. When equipped, each of the three styles has abilities that it grants to Sonic. Knight style is an all-around style; it has speed and attack abilities, but it's the master of none. Paladin style is your fighting style; it doesn't grant many speed bonuses, but improves your combat and defense abilities by giving you invincibility frames and better Soul Surge. Cavalier style is all about speed, with faster acceleration, top speed and reaction time; to balance things, it doesn't have any of the combat bonuses that Paladin and Knight do. Each style has its own unique benefits and drawbacks, and each is pretty well-balanced. There is an actual use for all three styles, and while most people will probably prefer a certain style, you'll likely use all of them at some point. It's not quite as good as the customizable skill system from Sonic and the Secret Rings, but it seems like it would be far easier for inexperienced gamers to grasp. Sonic can also equip two items at a time, which grant him additional bonuses, such as increasing the rate at which his Soul Gauge rises, or reducing the damage he takes from attacks.
Sonic and the Black Knight's absolute biggest problem is that the game does a terrible job of teaching you basic gameplay skills. It teaches you the basic mechanics of how to swing a sword and move left and right, but not how to implement them correctly. It throws you into the deep end and expects you to swim. This would be hard enough with a solid control scheme, but with Black Knight's slightly awkward controls, it becomes a tremendous exercise in frustration. It's most evident once you reach some of the boss fights, which expect you to have developed the skills that the game has neglected to teach you. Many gamers will have never bothered to experiment with these skills, either, since wildly swinging the Wiimote earns you satisfactory results against most enemies. There are various gameplay elements that are almost never touched upon, or are only hinted at during obscure videos that you have to unlock during gameplay.
Sonic and the Black Knight has over 80 missions and takes place over 12 worlds. One mission may have you running through a stage and trying to reach the end, while another encourages you to do so while collecting 100 rings, avoiding damage, or rescuing captured townspeople. The stage design is passable, although unremarkable when compared to recent Sonic titles. It's a bit dull to see the same stages over and over again, a problem shared with its predecessor Sonic and the Secret Rings and made worse by Black Knight having less interesting stages, although the actual objectives are more fun. However, even with the immense number of missions, Sonic and the Black Knight probably won't take you too long to complete. The main story will take about two to three hours, and the optional missions can be done in another three to five hours, depending on how much difficulty you have. There is "replay value," but I'll talk more about that later.
A handful of these 80-some missions are the game's boss fights, which are easily the weakest of the missions. They come in the form of "duels" against the Knights of the Round Table or King Arthur himself, and the fights are exceedingly dull. They're generally over within 15 seconds, and the enemies are brain-dead AI fools who run directly into Sonic's sword, get caught in pattern loops that continue to run them directly into Sonic's sword, and provide very little threat if you've learned the awkward mechanics. Even if you haven't, though, you can defeat most of the bosses by swinging your sword wildly. This can be a stopping point for some gamers, as the King Arthur fight expects you to have learned the awkward timing necessary to win "sword locks," which involve playing a Quick Time Event by swinging your Wiimote at the right time. The timing is a bit hard to get down, but if you have it, King Arthur dies in less than 10 seconds, possibly without even getting in a final word. Considering the sword mechanics are such a big part of the game, one would hope that the sword fighting was fun, instead of tedious and heartless.
Once you finish the first half of the game, three new characters will be unlocked: Shadow the Hedgehog, Knuckles the Echidna and Blaze the Cat (functioning as Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain and Sir Percival, respectively). Unlike Sonic, these three characters are a lot more fixed in their play styles. Shadow functions like a modified Knight style, Knuckles like a modified Paladin style and Blaze like a modified Cavalier style. Each of the trio plays very similar to Sonic, but with a few slight differences. Knuckles, for example, can glide through the air instead of double-jumping, while Blaze's Soul Surge turns her into a whirling tornado of fire instead of locking onto foes.
Unlike Sonic, these characters don't level up. Instead, to gain improved abilities, you have to Craft weapons, which is a fairly simple process. When you have the proper items, you go to the Craft menu in the Blacksmith shop and make the weapon. Each weapon has its own unique abilities, some of which are exclusive to the Knights themselves. Unfortunately, at least in my playthrough, each of the Knights paled in comparison to Sonic. Each Knight excels in one area and fails in others, and since the stages are designed to take advantage of Sonic's well-rounded abilities, this makes them a bit lackluster. In particular, none of the knights seemed to function well against airborne enemies, which severely limited their usefulness on certain stages. To make matters worse, you can only use the trio on half of the stages in the game, and the other half is Sonic only. While the effort is certainly appreciated, most gamers will probably stick with the far more versatile Sonic.
Sonic and the Black Knight has an incredibly frustrating idea of replay value. Instead of encouraging you to replay the stages for a higher ranking, the game encourages you to grind. Each level has no fewer than three distinct things you may have to grind for, which is pure tedium. The first is stars, which are also the game's ranking for how well you've done on that stage, from one to five stars. This seems simple enough, except that stars also count as experience points for Sonic's equipped style. Each style needs roughly 400 stars to max out, and you can get a maximum of five from a stage per run-through. Even if you complete every single stage your very first time through with a perfect ranking, you still won't have come close to maxing out your style.
On top of that, each level has certain items you need to grind for equipping and crafting, but it's not as simple as getting an item at the end of the stage. You get a random assortment of unidentified items at the end of each stage. These items are "blanked out" except for the class of item they belong to, such as "weapon" or "book" or "ring." To identify these items, you have to spend identification points during the stage. If you don't have enough to identify an item, it is permanently lost. This means that even if you find the right item in the stage, it's possible not to get it if you identify the wrong item. Thankfully, you can equip items to earn more identification points, but it's still aggravating to have to waste item slots on this. Finally, even after all that, there is another thing to grind up: followers. Each stage has a set number of followers you need to get, which you earn by playing the stage. The better you do, the more followers will be attracted to Sonic once the stage is over. Usually there are between 200 to 600 followers in a stage, and you can get maybe 30 to 50 on a single playthrough. Even if you've got every item you want from a stage and have already perfectly ranked it, the game still wants you to play through another five or more times. Followers increase Sonic's rank, which unlocks new skills for his styles, which are locked until you reach the appropriate rank. Even if you grind Sonic's style up to maximum, you still can't use all of his abilities until you grind some more.
Aside from the main game, Sonic and the Black Knight offers some additional game modes. Returning from Sonic and the Secret Rings is multiplayer, in this case called Battle mode. In Battle mode, players compete in a series of fighting-based mini-games built around the swords, usually by battling enemies as Sonic or one of his many friends. It's really rather boring and not very fun, and gamers would be better off playing one of the Wii's many better multiplayer games instead. Ranking mode, on the other hand, has the potential to hold a gamer's interest. Ranking mode involves players being set in one of a number of specific challenges, unlocked during gameplay, to see what the best possible score they can get is. The score is then uploaded to the online scoreboards for other players to compete against. It's actually a fairly solid idea for an online addition to a Sonic title, and while I wish there were more variation in the missions, it provides encouragement to try and master the game's controls. There is also an unlockable gallery that includes the game's soundtrack, various concept art and even video hints for stages, most of which are unlocked by earning high rankings on certain stages.
As with most of the recent Sonic titles, Sonic and the Black Knight looks great. The environments and character models are top-notch. The story is presented in an interesting-looking water color art style, which looks nice but is less charming than Secret Ring's Arabian scroll design. The enemies are fairly bland and are reminiscent of armored versions of the Dark Gaia monsters from Unleashed, but they're readily identifiable even during high-speed situations. There are plenty of nice visual touches too, such as flames going out if Sonic runs by fast enough. Perhaps my only real complaint is that the game could have used a bit more variation in its designs, particularly the levels, which all feel very similar despite taking place in varied locations.
Likewise, Black Knight sounds great. The regular Sonic voice cast seems to be getting a better handle on the characters, and all of the new characters sound great. Caliburn's pompous British charm is a tremendous step forward from the terribly annoying Chip or Omachao. The soundtrack is solid, with a lot of great and memorable tunes, including a series of cheesy but likeable songs from fan favorite Crush 40, who provide the title theme "Knight of the Wind" in addition to a few other songs, including a hidden unlockable version of "Seven Rings in Hand" from Sonic and the Secret Rings. There are even various medals you can unlock that change the background music to songs from other Sonic games. The only element I disliked was Caliburn's voice coming from the Wiimote speaker. Hearing him say "Good job" when you perform a nice trick gets kind of aggravating, especially since he may do it multiple times in a few seconds if you string together long combos.
Sonic and the Black Knight is tremendously close to being fun, but it's held back by glaring flaws. The plot is silly and cheerful, the visuals are great, and the soundtrack is amusingly cheesy. It's a little strange to see Sonic with a sword, but it's no stranger than some of his other antics, and it meshes better with the gameplay than Sonic the Werehog did. Unfortunately, the execution is so flawed that it is going to take a dedicated player to reach the "fun" hidden within. The controls are awkward and uncomfortable, and the gameplay mechanics are unintuitive. The level design is weak, and the boss fights are simply embarrassing. There is fun to be had somewhere in Sonic and the Black Knight, but you really have to dig for it, and it's fairly difficult to say that the effort comes close to matching the payoff. Those looking for a much easier pick-up-and-play experience would be better off with Sonic Unleashed, which plays better.
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