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RELEASE DATE (NA): September 30, 2008 GENRE: RPG
// review by SoyBomb

Sonic Boom!, wait, Sonic Tap?

I don't know exactly how many Sonic the Hedgehog games there are out there, but I do know one thing: they're all known for Sonic travelling at break-neck speed through loops and down hills (and into cleverly-placed spikes), picking up rings, and bopping the heck out of Dr. Robotnik's zany mechanical creations. (And yes, he's frequently called Dr. Eggman, including within this game, but that name stinks and I refuse to accept it just yet.) So when you buy a Sonic game, you have a certain level of expectations. You anticipate speed and massive gushes of adrenaline coursing through your veins. Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood isn't going to give you that rush. Instead, this game is so lacking in speed that perhaps it shouldn't even possess the Sonic branding.

Sonic Chronicles was whipped together by BioWare, the team behind massively popular releases such as the Baldur's Gate series, Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect, Neverwinter Nights, and that one Star Wars game everybody liked... Knights of the Old Republic, was it? Yeah. BioWare really doesn't have a background in Sonic lore; they had never made a Sonic game prior and thus were unfamiliar with what it takes to produce an epic game such as those platformers featured on the Sega Genesis way back when. BioWare makes RPGs. That's their thing. That's what they do. That's...pretty much all they do. So it goes without saying that if the company gets its hands on a franchise license, they're going to whip up an RPG around it. And thus begins the tale of Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood. It's an RPG featuring Sonic the Hedgehog. Wrap your head around it.

Sonic's tales (or Tails?) are told mostly through dialogue (where multiple reply options are available to hear more details about the backstory, if you so desire to hear it), though the occasional "cut-scene" featuring many non-descript comic strip panels will help leads from one plot point to another. We begin our story with solely Sonic the Hedgehog, the beloved blue ...uh... hedgehog. While enjoying a seemingly leisurely vacation, Sonic receives word that Knuckles (the Echidna, of course) has been kidnapped by a group known as the Marauders. As if having to save that cocky little redhead wasn't enough, those nasty Marauders have stolen all the Chaos Emeralds as well! Damn it. Initially, Sonic believes that Dr. Eggman (better known as Dr. Robotnik, a much cooler name) is behind all of this madness, as he typically wants those Chaos Emeralds for himself. However, Sonic and his merry party soon discover that this goes far beyond the scheming 300-IQ mind of Dr. Eggman! Their quest will take them all over the land... and even to another dimension... to get everything back in order. Over the course of the game, you'll end up with a party of up to 10 characters to choose from (two being optional tag-alongs, one of which I did find to be worth the slightly extra effort to recruit), so you have plenty of freedom for developing your party, and considering that many of their more powerful attacks are a result of tag-teaming, mixing and matching to best suit your brawling desires is a must! (As well, thankfully, nobody will fall behind in experience points, no matter who is on the front line: everyone gets those XP!)

The battle system in this game can best be described as that of The Legend of Dragoon on some serious medication. As soon as you engage in battle with an enemy (seen directly on your screen -- no random battles here), your party of up to four characters will get a close-up glimpse of each enemy individually before the brawling begins. Although it's nice to focus on vanity, I'd rather just get into the thick of things. You also get to see each enemy's remaining HP, making strategic destruction a little more enjoyable. Based on a seemingly randomized system, you may have the opportunity to attack first (when "AMBUSH" appears on screen) or the opposition may give out the first wollops ("AMBUSHED"). But when you first get control, you can make a multitude of choices, as is the way in RPGs. There's the natural option, a general attack -- perhaps the most frequently used option, at least for me. Next, you can pull off a POW Move. Using PP (the game's equivalent of magic points), you can pull off a character's special attack. For example, Sonic may use his Axe Kick, while Cream may use Heal for bring back health and zest to her teammates. Sadly, no particular character gets enough PP, even after many level-ups, so much of your time will be used in refreshing your party. You can also choose to Defend yourself, use an Item, or attempt to Flee the battle. Then it becomes a back-and-forth escapade until one party remains standing.

...Didn't I mention something about The Legend of Dragoon? Oh yeah... well, just as LoD required you to hit the X button just at the right time in order to make successful attacks, Sonic Chronicles goes one step further, thanks to the power of the Nintendo DS touch screen. In order to make successful POW moves or to dodge attacks, you'll have to follow a pre-meditated set of taps and line-following on specific spots on screen (indicated usually by circles of varied sorts). Get them right and you'll complete your POW move or the enemy will miss you. Fail, and you can guess what happens. Considering you need to do this during pretty much EVERY battle and considering that, for example, you'll need to be EXACT when you want to use a Heal spell or else you fail but still lose your PP, it can be a mixture of fun and frustration all in one. Unique? Yes. Irritating that you have to be VERY precise, and that even the slightest little slip of the stylus can result in a failed action or some severe damage (and possibly death) to your character? Yes +1.

Now here's something new: sometimes the entire enemy party will try to flee the scene. That's when the sudden switch to a more side-scrolling scene takes place where you must try and chase the enemy down! However, someone mysteriously planted boxes in the paths of each of your party characters, so you'll have to tap them to get them to jump over the crates. There are also booster strips to get 'em to run faster. If you take too long (by smacking into too many crates), then they'll escape, making your previous battle efforts ones of futility. What an ordeal! Ultimately, while the battle system serves its purpose, this is the only area where "speed" really comes into play. (Does the Nintendo DS not possess this magical "blast processing"?) Everybody takes their turn fairly quickly (with a few exceptions where the timing between one enemy's attack and another is achingly slow by comparison to the rest of the game), and to make matters a bit more timely, many characters (and foes alike) can move multiple times within a single round (Sonic was known to do so up to three times per round!) Still, it often takes a great deal of effort to fell an opponent; many will put up a shield, rendering all hits to that character useless. Likewise, some enemies can also restore HP after each round, or even revive themselves with some HP if there are still enemies remaining at the end of a round, thus making battles much longer than necessary, sometimes several minutes in length, far beyond a typical non-boss battle for any RPG.

Look out! There's trouble afoot in the land of the rising Sonic!

Although much of your precious battery life will be lost on battles, your travels outside of the arena are equally relevant to your quest. Sonic gets a pretty straightforward adventure, going from one point in a region to other, spewing some plotline, and then heading to the next area (not unlike the Sonic games of olde, sans any notable plotline). Amidst all the plateaus and fields to wander through are rings, used as currency at varied shops and other venues, as well as Chao eggs. A short while after collecting a Chao egg, it will hatch into a ...Chao! (Quelle surprise.) You can then equip Chao to your characters to give them special abilities, such as HP restoration after each turn or increased luck when attacking. There are up to 40 different possible Chaos out there, but every egg does not always equal a new Chao. You might hatch some repeats! Hopefully you get a full garden to choose from.

One of my biggest qualms is the control scheme in this game. I appreciate a moderate amount of touch-screen compatibility, but Sonic Chronicles makes this game pretty much ALL touch-screen. Of all the buttons on the DS, only the Start button works, and even then, only on rare occasions. You actually have to keep the stylus on screen in order for Sonic & Co. to move around the map, you use it for action buttons that come up so each character can do their "thang", and you use it to go through all battles. Nothing is off-limits for your precious plastic stylus. (I wonder how touch screens don't wear out after a game or two of constant tapping and sliding.) This means you're going to be holding onto the DS with one hand and constantly tapping and dragging with the stylus. I may have weak, ropey arms, but even for a fairly buff fellow, this can get tiring and/or uncomfortable after a half-hour.

There's something to be said about the Nintendo DS and 3D graphics. I have numerous DS games that involve using 3D characters over 2D sprites -- including Sonic Chronicles -- and I always feel like there's something not quite right with them. They look pixelated and clunky, though they ARE functional and don't cause the DS to chug along. All the characters are in 3D in Sonic Chronicles, and they don't actually look half bad. However, I appreciate that these 3D elements are blended smoothly with hand-drawn backgrounds. Without that 2D artwork, I'd say this game would be burn a player's retinas. The game's soundtrack is an interesting blend of mostly chipper tunes when walking around in the various areas... until you get into battle, where you're treated to some more pumpin' electronic rock beats while you pummel your enemies. That's sweet. The introductory sequence before the title screen also has a rock tune in it, but I'm concerned that the lowly DS speakers can't handle that much raw power. Had they employed some SERIOUS hard rockers (Metallica, perhaps?), every set of speakers would explode with the first note. Be careful when prepping that soundtrack, BioWare! Sound effects are also adequate... I have nothing else to say about that, sadly.

For me, I actually don't know if I truly loved Sonic Chronicles or not. It was a bit more difficult to retain my interest on this one, though I made it to the very end EVENTUALLY. Don't get me wrong: the game is fine and perfectly acceptable, but nothing popped out to truly impress me. The game is far easier than most RPGs out there battle-wise, but there are too many times where the real difficulty comes in figuring out where to go next, as your next logical move isn't always clearly stated. And the game definitely fails to provide the complexities and depth offered by the Final Fantasies of the world. Maybe it was the fact that leveling up felt like even more of a chore this time around (because, as you get stronger, battles deliver fewer and fewer experience points, thus forcing you to trek on, rather than giving you the option to strengthen your team). Whatever it was, I will reiterate that I am not dissatisfied by this game, but rather, I'd have enjoyed it more with some tweaks to the system. The ending not only hints to a sequel: it pretty much slaps you in the face with the possibility. So perhaps Sonic Chronicles 2 (if it ever really comes to fruition) will rectify many of my qualms and blossom into the phenomenal RPG it should have been.

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