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Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood

Platform(s): Nintendo DS
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: BioWare


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NDS Review - 'Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 8, 2008 @ 3:01 a.m. PDT

BioWare is creating a stylish blend of strategy and speed for Sonic’s first RPG, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, mixing a rich story, hand-painted visuals, fast-paced team combat, and wireless collectible trading into a uniquely compelling adventure.

Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Sega
Developer: BioWare
Release Date: September 30, 2008

Super Mario RPG was perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the Super Nintendo era. Squaresoft was well known for its RPG prowess, and Mario was a hero to thousands of kids, but mixing the two just seemed like asking for trouble. Amazingly, Super Mario RPG meshed Mario-style gameplay and RPG action into one of the finest titles on the SNES. In the years that followed, a few other mascots have followed suit, such as Mega Man, but Mario's long-time rival, Sonic, continued to avoid the genre, despite an ever-increasing stable of support characters that seemed just right for an RPG. At long last, Sonic is finally getting his shot, and in a way that is eerily similar to the Super Mario RPG story. Instead of being designed by Sega, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood was developed under the watchful eye of RPG giant Bioware. Unfortunately, unlike Squaresoft and Nintendo, Sega and Bioware weren't a match made in heaven, and Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is far from a classic.

The plot, such as it is, is basically identical to any of the modern Sonic games, only with a slight Bioware twist. As usual, Sonic and friends have to stop a mysterious race of extradimensional beings, led by a creature called Ix, from taking over the world using the Chaos Emeralds. It may be an RPG, but you're going to be doing mostly the same stuff that you do in a regular Sonic game, just with the option of Bioware dialogue trees. Sonic Chronicles is basically any modern Bioware game, only you're forced onto the Heroic path. You can choose between sarcastic or good answers, but you're going to be a hero no matter what, and there is very little you can do to influence the plot.

There are a few miniquests and yes, as is a Bioware standard, Sonic Chronicles also includes a potential romance subplot, but other than that, your choices basically don't matter. You can be a jerk to people, tell characters you don't want to help them, or ask folks to leave you alone, and you'll be railroaded right back onto the plot. This isn't really too different from what Bioware usually does, but it feels much more forced here than it did in Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect because unlike in those games, there are very few side-quests or bonus areas to explore. To makes matters worse, the game is exceptionally short, easily finished in around 10 hours and ends on a cliffhanger … after which Sonic pops up on-screen and quite literally tells you to buy the sequel and proceeds to talk about how awesome Bioware is.

Traveling around the world in Sonic Chronicles is done completely with the stylus. You point where you want your lead character to move, and he or she moves there. You can guide characters around the terrain or move them around enemies. In certain areas, tiny icons will pop up, indicating that you can perform a special option there. Some options, like jumping, can be done with any character, while others are exclusive to certain members of your party. Tails can fly, Knuckles can climb, and so on and so forth. While interesting in theory, moving around the areas doesn't work very well. The graphics are often unclear, and it's difficult to tell exactly where you can and can't move, or where you have to stand to activate an ability icon. The stylus controls are inaccurate and awkward, and trying to dodge enemies in tight areas is an exercise in frustration.

One element of "exploration" that Sonic Chronicles could have done without is the addition of the character-exclusive movement abilities. As mentioned above, each character in the game gets a set of movement abilities based on his in-game powers. Sonic, of course, gets the Dash ability, which allows him to run through loops or through high-speed areas. Knuckles and Amy gets the Smash ability, which allows them to break barriers, and so on. It's a neat concept, but it falls apart once you realize that you have a four-person party, and it's entirely possible to end up in a situation where you don't have the right skill to proceed. Make a party without the Invincibility ability at some point, and you may be forced to trudge back to your home base and get rid of a character you like in favor of Big the Cat. More annoying still is that these skills have multiple levels that improve as the characters level up, and not all characters gain skills at the same rate. Even if you're using a character with a specific skill, there is no guarantee that it will be at the level that you need. Thankfully, most of the stuff you miss this way is optional, but there are certainly a few annoying segments where you're forced to redo an entire dungeon because you didn't have a specific ability. Unlike in other Bioware games, it certainly isn't for plot reasons, but rather some depressing attempt to lengthen the gameplay through backtracking.

Sonic Chronicles' combat is your rather basic RPG setup. with one unique feature. As in most RPGs, you take turns beating the enemy by choosing attack or magic, and trying to drain their HP before they drain yours. In Sonic Chronicles, however, most characters have multiple actions that they can take within a single turn. Those characters with multiple actions may act more than once a turn, which adds an interesting element of strategy. Choosing to attack or defend instantly uses up all of your actions, causing you to attack once per remaining action, or to recover special-move fueling POW Points (PP) in proportion to your number of remaining turns. However, any other action you take only uses a single one of your turns. You can choose to have Shadow the Hedgehog use an item and then attack twice, have him attack three times, or have him use two special moves and then defend to regenerate a bit of PP. It's an interesting idea, and while the gameplay doesn't always live up to the premise, it is a solid way to make speed important to a turn-based combat system.

In addition to regular attacks, you also have POW skills, which is what Sonic Chronicles calls a character's special attack. Each character tends to have a particular specialty to which his skills are connected. Sonic is an all-around fighter, Tails the Fox has a boatload of support skills, Amy Rose can inflict status effects and Knuckles the Echidna is pure power. Skills are purchased with Skill Points as you level up, and their overall effects can be improved with additional skill point infusions. In combat, a POW skill takes up one turn, and when that turn comes up in the combat order, you have to play a mini-game to successfully complete the skill. The mini-game is, to put it quite bluntly, an Elite Beat Agents clone. Marks appear that you either need to tap with your stylus or slide along a path, and you have to successfully complete the mini-game to perform the move. For attack moves, success improves the damage, and failure causes a weaker version of the attack to go off. For non-damaging and healing moves, however, missing even one of the icons means an instant failure with no effect.

POW abilities are neat in concept, but they end up rather lacking in execution. They're clearly an attempt to pull off a Mario RPG-style system of special moves, where each is interactive and different, but it fails for a few reasons. For one, there are only three different options as far as the moves go, and while different moves mix them up in different ways, all of them require the same basic skills — skills that you've probably honed on Elite Beat Agents, from which Sonic Chronicles borrows whole cloth. Even ignoring the repetition in the special moves, the second problem is that they take far too long to pull off. Attack animations tend to be quite long to give you time to play the Elite Beat Agents mini-game, and since you have to complete the to succeed, there is no way to speed them up or make things go by faster. The result is a long, drawn-out animation for every single special move in the game, and since special moves are your primary way to attack, you're going to see the same repetitive animation and perform the exact same mini-game enough to make you nauseous.

This ignores the fact that the skills are generally pretty awkwardly and poorly balanced. My personal favorite is Cream the Rabbit's Refresh ability, which costs 8 PP and at level 2 (accessible as soon as you get her), restores 10 PP to your entire party. Once you get her, you never have to worry about running out of PP again. Some skills are similarly overpowered and others are fairly worthless, and once you get a handle of what is good and what isn't, you'll probably default to one or two skills from each character. Considering the problem with skill repetition mentioned above, the fact that you're not going to end up using a vast majority of your possible skills makes it even worse. Thankfully, the game is easy enough that you can survive even if you've invested in bad skills, and the good skills are fairly easy to figure out.

The combat system, while interesting in concept, is fundamentally flawed in a serious way: It's slow. Combat is unbelievably slow for a game that's built on speed. A single fight, even against a weak group of enemies, will take an eternity, and considering how often you'll be fighting, this really begins to add up. It's made all the worse by the nonexistent difficulty level. Enemies tend to be durable but not particularly challenging, so most of your fights in Sonic Chronicles are the kind that you'd button-mash through in a regular RPG. Unfortunately, you can't do that in Sonic Chronicles, since you have to watch the screen to pull off POW moves and occasionally block enemy POW moves. Instead, you get to watch the same POW animations over and over and over again and pull off the same Elite Beat Agents attack patterns against the same enemies. Then the fight ends, and you do it again a minute later. The occasional boss battle helps to break things up, but they're fairly few and far between.

Enemies also don't help with speeding up the combat. Most of the enemies in Sonic Chronicles have some sort of gimmick. Some are heavily armored, others poison you with every attack, and so on. There are quite a few enemies who flat-out heal themselves in a situation that is almost unavoidable, causing combat to last another round or two for no real reason other than to make it longer. There's an annoying race of slug creatures that heal all of their HP any time they hit your party, or the robotic SWAT Bots who instantly revive themselves if any other enemy is left alive at the end of the turn. It isn't really hard to get past these tactics, but they also don't make battles harder, just longer. On top of this, enemies have POW moves too, and they love to use them constantly. Just like your own POW moves, you have to play a mini-game to lessen or nullify the enemy's effect. A single round of battle, especially when you start encountering larger groups of foes, can have four or more of the exact same button-tapping mini-game in a row, and since each area tends to have the same few batches of enemies, you'll repeat that same mini-game over and over while exploring a stage.

The final element to consider in battles are Chao. A Chao, for those not familiar with the Sonic the Hedgehog universe, are the adorable marketable mascot characters first introduced in Sonic Adventure. Tiny formless baby-like creatures, they come in all shapes and sizes. In Sonic Chronicles, you find Chao eggs throughout the stages, and if you hold onto an egg, it hatches into a Chao that can then be equipped to provide various boosts. These boosts range from the worthless, such a minor boost to defense, to the unbelievably useful, such as removing the touch-screen mini-game for performing POW attacks. There are 40 different breeds of Chao in all, ranging in rarity from common to unique. If you don't have another friend with Sonic Chronicles, this is where your Chao experience ends. If you do, however, you can also engaged in Chao trading, although only by local wireless. Each time you trade a Chao to a friend, that Chao gains a level, improving their effect. It's a neat idea and makes some of the lamer Chao more useful, if it weren't for the fact that it was available by local wireless only. Unless you happen to have two friends with Sonic Chronicles and a zest for trading, it will be impossible for you to raise your Chao to the maximum level. If there were ever a game that needed simple Wi-Fi trading, it is Sonic Chronicles.

For a Bioware game, Sonic Chronicles is quite lacking in tasks to do outside the main quest. The actual main story line will probably take you 10-12 hours of gameplay, although that comes mostly from the agonizingly slow battle system instead of any plot depth. Outside of the main story, your options are limited. You can explore the map to find rings and Chao eggs, and you'll occasionally encounter a lackluster mini-quest. These side-quests require shockingly small amounts of effort. The solution is usually only a few steps away and involves nothing more than fetching an item and bringing it back or beating a particular enemy who happens to be nearby. Complete the quests, and you'll get a nice dose of Exp and a worthless item. There are a few that involve visiting multiple areas, but they're fairly far between. With that said, there are a couple of side-quests that you can undertake to get hidden characters, but they're not hard to complete and due to the linear nature of the game, you're very unlikely to miss them.

Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is a fairly visually pleasing DS title. The environments are nicely drawn and have a charming painting-like quality to them. The character models are fairly good and well-animated, although they have a few awkward bits to them. Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that a character's eyes will never close, so it's entirely possible to have a character knocked out during combat who lies there with his eyes open. It can also be really difficult to tell if an enemy is blocking or not during battle if they don't have a very obvious blocking animation, which can lead to wasted attacks against certain foes. However, beyond that, it is a fairly good-looking game, and Bioware did a great job with art design. Perhaps my only real complaint is that it never really feels like a Sonic game, but more like a Bioware game with a few Sonic characters thrown in for flavor. Even the Green Hill Zone where you begin the game doesn't really look anything like it did in the original Genesis title.

The sound quality, on the other hand, is easily one of the game's weakest points. The music and sound effects tend to be rather crackly and distorted. The music is lackluster at best, and while there are a couple of OK song tracks, most of theme are completely bland and forgettable. Perhaps the oddest quirk of the sound effects is that Bioware chose to replace all of the attack animations with Loony Toons-style "boing-splat" sound effects, which don't mesh up well with the animations at all. They tend to make combat very strange and certainly get a bit annoying after you've heard them for the hundredth time.

Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is a complete average, if not slightly subpar, RPG. If it wasn't for the fact that it had Sonic characters in it, it wouldn't stand out at all. The combat system is interesting but flawed, the gameplay is slow and rather tedious and the plot is as cookie-cutter as they come. There is very little attempt made to make the game feel anything like a Sonic title, and if it weren't for the occasional loop, you could easily replace Sonic and friends with original characters without losing anything but name recognition. A game for Sonic fans and RPG die-hards only, with anyone else being better served by picking up any of the other and more interesting RPGs that have hit the DS in the past month.

Score: 6.5/10

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