Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood (DS) Review

I'm still reeling off those impressive Black Knight shots. Let's continue with Sonic the Hedgehog with a look at Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood for the DS.
A Sonic/Bioware Boon?

Sonic the Hedgehog, the blue blur, the blue streak, Miles "Tales" Prower, Knuckles the Echidna, the Green Hill Zone, Dr. Eggman, Sega, Sonic Team, Bioware-- Wait, what?! Surely I'm mistaken. Surely I jest. Surely Bioware was a slip up-- was an error on the list. Fortunately, it's actually not. When developer Bioware of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect fame announced that their premier DS project would be an RPG starring Sonic the Hedgehog, the majority of the gaming world was set ablaze. Sure, there was a minority who thought and still believe Sonic is dead, but that's another can of worms. It wasn't so much the RPG part that interested people like myself. After all, RPGs and Bioware go well together like blue hedgehogs and chili dogs, two-tailed foxes and flying, and echidnas and rap music. Well... maybe not that last pair. No, the RPG part was only escalated by the fact that it would be one starring Sega's cerulean mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. How would Sonic, a creature known for his fast speeds (as well as glitch-filled games, more truthfully), translate into a slow-paced game like an RPG? If anyone could do it, it certainly would be Bioware, right? The result of this collaboration is Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood for the Nintendo DS, and it's finally upon us. Is this RPG way past cool or way past fail?

The story begins with Sonic and friends just foiling yet another ill-fated scheme by the series' main villain, Dr. Eggman. It's time now for rest and relaxation, right? Here enters Sonic's best buddy, the twin-tailed Tails to inform him that their mutual and platonic friend, Knuckles the last of the echidna race has mysteriously and suspiciously disappeared. If that wasn't enough, some brand new force has pilfered all of the Chaos Emeralds-- loosely, the Dragon Balls of the Sonic universe, if you will. What follows is Sonic teaming up with Tails, gathering clues, solving puzzles, exploring areas, bashing bots and baddies alike, and gaining seven other party members from his psychotic admirer, Amy Rose, to a large feline who is too afraid of taking the test that determines whether he's actually mentally slow or not, Big the Cat. Okay, maybe I made up Big's background, but you know what I mean.

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Some of the story is told through these Flash-like cutscenes.
Most is via text sequences.

What is of the rather formulaic and cliche story is quite good. It's very well-written properly portraying the personalities of every past character involved with the bonus of not having to listen to any of them talk-- you just read text instead. Someone up in Bioware likes us~! If you're fresh to the Sonic universe, have no worries at all. You can jump right into the adventure without needing to know the characters' history, and if you do want to check out some history, there's a very detailed glossary of characters and events from past Sonic games under options.

It's certainly not surprising that the story aspect of Sonic Chronicles is rather sharp. After all, this IS a Bioware effort. Unfortunately, the gameplay falls just a tad short. Sonic's RPG feels more like a paint-by-numbers approach to RPG design than anything truly special. Most areas in the game are one huge area with scattered one-room areas to venture into. These are quite fun to explore, and there's a good amount of collectibles to search for. Completionists will want to search every corner and every inch a given map to collect every ring (the currency of Chronicles) as well as Chao eggs that randomly hatch into equip-able partners. More on those later. Missions are also available and come from certain NPCs. They're completely optional, awarding the player with helpful items and extra experience (XP). They range from terminating a problematic enemy to fetching something--an item or even a missing person- for an NPC. What makes exploration interesting and sets Sonic Chronicles apart from other RPGs even more is that only certain party members can get past certain obstacles. For instance, only characters similar to Sonic can use the multiple loops and fast-paced ramps that are strewn throughout the landscape, and only characters like Tails can hover across certain gaps. Each obstacle has a required level, from 1-3, in order to pass it. You'll know if you can interact with an obstacle because it will show a circular prompt-- if it's blue it means you can access it. If it's gray, that either means your character does not have the ability or your character's said ability isn't level enough. I made it sound like a home pregnancy test the way I said that, but at least it makes sense. Abilities can get annoying, however, as certain abilities or level 3 abilities can only be learned by one character such as Big the Cat who can use invulnerability to pass through toxic emissions. Again, he's not mentally competent enough to realize he should be in pain and/or dying. To further sweeten the exploration pot, there are no random encounters. Enemies navigate the expansive maps and coming in contact with them begins a battle.

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The top screen shows the parts of the map you've already explored.

But perhaps you'll want to avoid conflict after awhile... Battles are your traditional turn-based affairs where your up-to-four-member party take part in destroying the youth of our world... I mean, fighting robots and angered animals who probably were mad because they needed to get laid. Unlike its counterparts, Sonic Chronicles enables party members as well as enemies to act anywhere from 1-3 times per round. This is accounted for by a set-in-stone stat for each character. A character like Sonic acts thrice while Big the Cat only acts once per round-- probably because he can't count to two. Special attacks and abilities in Sonic Chronicles are known as POW moves. These are much stronger attacks, and each one triggers are quick and not-so-quick Elite Beat Agents-style mini-game to determine whether the attack will hit the opposition and how powerful the move will be. These range from individual and combined instances of tapping circles as they appear on the screen to tracing a moving orb with your stylus. These POW moves cost your character's PP... er..... Power Points... which can be restored via an item, an ability, or simply by defending. To defend against enemy POW moves, the same mini-games are played. You can probably imagine how tedious this gets especially when you're facing weak enemies with high HP, and you fudge one of the mini-games which totally wastes your time. Furthermore, some enemies can auto-revive themselves at the end of a round, some have extremely high defense making attacks and some POW moves useless, some have high evasion meaning your attacks are most likely to miss... like, five times in a freaking row, and some can use a round-long evading stance which makes all of your moves miss. All of these elements really do nothing more than drag on battles and make them tedious. To further the burden, if you're at a higher level than the enemy, your experience rewarded will be next to nothing. "Oh, boy. 10 XP. Only 2,000 more battles like that to go at this rate!" It makes it that if you're over-leveled the majority of your fun will be trying to avoid enemies on the overworld. If you caught in a losing or unwanted situation, you can flee which starts another mini-game where you try to outrun the enemy by leaping over crates that will slow you down and launching off of speed boosts to shake your foes. This gets a little frustrating with four party members to try to grab with the stylus...

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Everything is stylus-controlled. Tap a command, tap an enemy,
tap the correct parts of the screen during the POW moves.

It wouldn't be an RPG without items or levels, right? They're a mainstay of RPGs, and Sonic Chronicles is no different in this regard either. Items are earned after most, if not all, battles, in treasure chests, from the various shops sprinkled throughout the game, rewarded by NPCs for completed missions, and so on. Weapons and armor are available taking the form of gloves (what are we- Mario here?), footwear (Air Jordans won't work here)), accessories (status-protecting or Power Point-boosting rings and the like), and Chao. The weapons and armor are nice, extra insurance, but your stats are already padded enough just from leveling up. Likewise, accessories and Chao are helpful indeed. These Chao randomly hatch from eggs acquired in the field. The contents of each egg is random, so you could theoretically play through the duration of the game with all eggs uncovered and still not have all forty Chao. One Chao can be equipped to a character at a time. These helpful cuties mainly give the party member bonuses such as boosted attack, defense, HP, PP ( I hear you can use Enzyte for that, too), and luck. Some bonuses are just for the party member while others benefit everybody. Speaking of bonuses, after each level a party member gains, you have the option to boost by one point one stat of that character: either speed, attack, defense, or luck. There's also no need to worry about putting every character into battle as everyone gains experience regardless of whether or not they're in the party. To top it all off, once you complete Chronicles, you can opt to-- heck, they force you to-- start a new game where all of your experience, items, rings, and Chao carry over. Of course, there's really no major incentive to even play through the game again, but different strokes for different hedgehogs.

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There are some remarkable locales
and graphics for your eyes to orgasm over.

On the aesthetic side of Chronicles, there's a wealth of beautiful content to gawk at. The maps, while isometrically 3-D, are colorful and sensational to look at as are the 3-D models in and out of battle. The only problem with the maps and the sprites on them as that they're clip through one another at numerous spots. You'll see your character clipping over a column or something while he logically should be behind it. Battles are hindered by Bioware deciding (or forgetting) to provide explanations for the various items and POW moves in the game. If you want to know what an item or move does, you better research it before the battle, buddy. This resulted in using POW moves that I had no idea what they did, and they were, as you can guess, useless at that specific moment in battle. Then we have the sound... I would have rather had actual voice work in battle rather than the generic sound of a male-like person grunting compared to a female-like person grunting. And then there's the music. Oh, dear God or whoever you, the reader, believe in. Is it ever horrible. No, it's not just horrible. It's embarrassing. The battle music sounds like it was designed for the DS' hardware-- albeit generic. The map music, however, sounds like it was designed for an Apple computer from 1992. It amazes me how the map music is just remixes from past Sonic games, yet the versions are completely grating and worse by far. It's not like they had to compose new music for the maps. No, they already HAD the great melodies and the original great arrangements. It's just unbelievable, and the parties involved should be ashamed of themselves. I can't even crap on Big the Cat or blame him for this because he would have had a crappy remix of "Lazy Days" from Sonic Adventure!

While not up to Bioware standards, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is an interesting as well as entertaining foundation for a promising future of Sonic RPGs. The groundwork is here. Now let's see Bioware or whoever build upon for an even greater experience. What we have currently is certainly a competent effort, but the gradual tediousness of the battles and grotesque sound stop this game from being truly great and just "mm... not too bad". Fans of the blue blur will fall in love with Sonic Chronicles, the average gamer will get a kick out of the game for a little while, and RPG fans might just want to give this game a rental if even that. It's great for a first playthrough, but after those 10-20 hours you'll yearn for something bigger, better, and maybe less bluer.

[SuperPhillip Says]

Story: Knuckles is AWOL from his duties guarding the Master Emerald, and some renegade force has stolen the Chaos Emeralds. It's up to Sonic and company to right the wrongs yet again.

Graphics: Bioware is known for being masters of tech, and Chronicles is no exception. The only thing that looks off are the eyes of the various 3D models.

Gameplay: Everything is controlled with the stylus. Map running is relatively painless, but battles rely too much on EBA-inspired mini-games and annoying enemies which drag on battle.

Sound: Pretty poor. The sound effects are generic, and the music is absolutely dreadful.

Replay Value: Sonic Chronicles will last anywhere from 10-20 hours the first runthrough. It's up to the player whether or not the game was fun enough to go through a second time with no incentive to do so.

Overall: 7.0/10

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