Release Date: Q4 2008
When Mario first stepped into the RPG genre, it by all rights should have been a terrible idea. Taking a character like Mario, who is known for his jumping and platforming skills, and placing him in a turn-based combat system? Why? Nintendo proved us wrong by giving the creation of the game over to Square-Enix (then just Squaresoft), who provided us with Mario RPG, not only one of the most enjoyable RPGs on the Super Nintendo, but a flat-out fantastic Mario game. History has a way of repeating itself, and Mario's long-time rival, Sonic the Hedgehog, looks to be following in the plumber's footsteps. Like Mario, Sonic is taking a step into the world of RPGs, and like Mario, Sega is trusting the creation of the game to another developer. In this case, Bioware, creators of Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, is helming the newest title in the Sonic franchise, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood. The best news is that like Squaresoft, Bioware appears to be building up to a game that is not only a good RPG, but a good Sonic the Hedgehog game as well.
You explore the Sonic Chronicles worlds in a top-down isometric worldview. You control Sonic or one of his fellow characters by using the touch-screen to move them around the world. It may not sound very Sonic-like, and in some ways, it isn't, but the addition of context-sensitive action elements makes it feel a bit more like a platformer title.
Each character in the game has a series of special abilities. Sonic, of course, has the Dash ability, which allows him to move fast and run through loops. Shadow the Hedgehog can teleport across gaps, Tails and Cream can fly, Knuckles can smash rocks and climb walls, and so on. Whoever is leading your party can use his specific move to access new areas by finding the right spot and activating a touch-screen button. In addition, these context-sensitive moves can level up. Sonic can get faster, Shadow can teleport farther, and Knuckles can crush tougher objects, which will allow you to travel back to old levels and access areas you haven't seen before. While exploring these areas, you'll have to watch out for enemies who wander the map. If you run into an enemy, you'll launch into Sonic Chronicles' turn-based combat.
The combat system in Sonic Chronicles is an interesting combination of Sonic the Hedgehog-style speed and turn-based combat, which takes a bit of getting used to. The basic concept is fairly simple: Sonic and his pals have Health Points (HP) and Technique Points (TP) and take turns beating down enemies. The major twist is that characters in Sonic Chronicles have multiple actions in a single round, depending on their speed. In the E3 demo, for example, my team was made up of Sonic, his rival Shadow, Knuckles the Echidna and Cream the Rabbit. Sonic, being Sonic, was blazingly fast and got three turns in a single round. Shadow and Knuckles, which are not quite as fast as Sonic, were capable of multiple regular attacks. Cream, however, was so slow that she only got a single attack. Once you choose to attack, your characters use up multiple attacks in a single round, and the same goes for defending. Obviously, defending lowers the damage you take from attacks, and it also regenerates some TP.
POW attacks are the Sonic Chronicles equivalent of magic, and they're not of the fire-and-forget variety. Once you activate the move, you're forced to play a very Elite Beat Agents-style minigame; you have to tap, slide and rotate in rhythm to the buttons that appear on the screen. Successfully complete these minigames and you'll earn a power boost, but if you fail, your move will be weak, or in the case of some support spells, they flat-out won't work.
Furthermore, each POW attack takes up a certain amount of Technique Points, and if you screw up, you've just blown a major amount of points. POW attacks have a ton of benefits to make up for the skill required to pull them off. For one, each POW attack has an element or attribute. Shadow's Chaos Spear pierces armor, Knuckle's Earthquake attack is Earth elemental, and Sonic's Whirlwind attack can hit all enemies. Since enemies tend to have special defenses or attributes that make it difficult to pound through them with regular attacks, learning to master these skills is crucial. Furthermore, POW attacks only take a single action to use, so you can launch a Chaos Spear attack at one enemy and then have Shadow spend the rest of his turns on regular attacks on another enemy. Likewise, you can have an injured character use a special move and then quickly dive into a defensive stance. It adds an interesting element of strategy to the proceedings and makes speed your most important stat, as it should be in a Sonic title.
In combat, the final thing to keep an eye on is your Chao, who have been the tiny adorable mascots of the Sonic franchise since the days of Sonic Adventure. Prior to Sonic Chronicles, though, they never added anything to combat outside of serving as a weapon for Cream the Rabbit. In Chronicles, they're powerful allies in combat, even though they don't fight. Each character can "equip" a Chao, each of which has different benefits. A Chao can do everything from improve attack power to increase the rate at which enemies drop items, but they're not static equipment, so they can be raised and powered up by the players. As a Chao fights alongside a character, it forms a bond, which improves their effects and may even change what kind of Chao they are. Alternately, they can be traded with friends through the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, which can also improve their effects or change their type. The exact method of how this works is still unclear, but it's pretty obvious that Sonic Chronicles players who seek to max out their powers will be doing a lot of Chao breeding.
One thing that must be said about Sonic Chronicles' combat was that, at least in the demo, it was shockingly fun. The basic concept is fairly simplistic, but the action is fast and furious, and it helps keep battles moving at a swift pace. POW attacks are also a boatload of fun. While it's impossible to avoid direct comparisons to Elite Beat Agents, since they are basically identical, being compared to one of the most addictive and enjoyable NDS titles ever is certainly not a slam against Chronicles. The multi-turn combat system is interesting and certainly a great way to ensure that Sonic's trademark speed is actually an incredibly important stat. If the game can continue to remain fresh and interesting throughout the entire story line, it would easily be the most enjoyable Sonic game in years.
Beyond fighting, Sonic Chronicles boasts a new Bioware-designed plot that ages the characters by a few years and promises to appeal to new players and Sonic fans alike. While one of the major complaints about the recent Sonic titles has been the ever-increasing character glut, Bioware seems to have a fairly good handle on what made Sonic fun and combined it with the usual Bioware touches. Like Mass Effect, you'll be able to select not only the choices Sonic makes in conversations, but also the moods. However, as opposed to Paragon and Renegade, you can be straightforward or snarky, with different responses depending on the situation. While it isn't exactly clear what effect, if any, these Bioware-style conversation trees will have on the plot, it's fairly safe to assume that certain sub-quests or events can only be unlocked by certain conversation attitudes.
The graphics in the demo seemed fairly solid. The combat graphics were quite good, with smooth animations and easy-to-identify models and animations. The visual effects from some of the POW attacks were a bit lacking, but that is something that will likely be improved before Sonic Chronicles hits retail. Moving around the world map took a bit of getting used to due to the isometric view, but the actual levels were bright and colorful, and they did a good job of retaining a Sonic the Hedgehog feel, despite not being a platformer. Unfortunately, the build I played didn't have sound, so I can't say anything about the audio aspect of the title.
All in all, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is shaping up to be not only a good Sonic game, but a good Bioware game in general. The combat is quick, intuitive and fun, and this is actually a title where the ever-increasing bloat of Sonic the Hedgehog allies actually works to your benefit, instead of simply providing more segments where you fish or climb rocks instead of running fast. While the slower pace may take a bit of adjustment for those fond of the fast-paced Sonic Rush series, RPG aficionados and die-hard Sonic fans will probably be quite pleased with Bioware's latest when it hits shelves later this year.
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