Review by Scizor CT

Reviewed: 10/03/08 | Updated: 10/07/08

It beat my fairly low expectations, but we're talking about all kinds of rough edges here.

A collective "Excuse me, I'm quite certain I didn't hear you correctly, could you repeat that?" arose from the internet when it was announced in mid-2007 that famed Canadian RPG developer BioWare was developing a Sonic RPG for the Nintendo DS. No one remembers exactly how it happened; Sega of America president Simon Jeffery knows BioWare heads Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk from back when he was president of LucasArts and BioWare was working on Knights of the Old Republic. They got to talking, one thing led to another, and suddenly here we are at one of the strangest collaborations in the industry. The end result is, perhaps as you expected, peculiar. It excels in some regards while utterly failing in others, and how much you enjoy it is going to be highly dependent on just what you want out of a Sonic RPG.

BioWare clearly did their homework, for starters. The game's plot and setting is an amalgamation of every major console title up through Shadow, as well as Sonic Battle. You'll run around environments collecting rings from the likes of Green Hill and Metropolis, as well as newer locations like Central City. There's a detailed and highly accurate in-game encyclopedia that summarizes the major characters of the series as well as some significant groups and events such as the ancient rampage of Perfect Chaos. There was clearly some serious care and effort put into making the world feel like a Sonic game rather than a game with Sonic in it. The writing, on the other hand, takes the established personalities of the characters and staunchly ignores Sonic Team's approach to characterization and dialogue, resulting in a cast with more intelligence, wit, and depth than they've ever had before. None of the characters are out-and-out unlikeable, and in standard BioWare fashion, you can have Sonic be as much of a nice guy or smartass as you want, though there's minimal effect on the game that results from it either way. The overall plot is reasonably interesting, if a bit generic. Sonic fans can probably guess which dangling plot points they pick up on and run with; it's ground that's been covered time and time again by fanfic writers and Archie alike, though pulled off better than most.

As part of their attempt to make Chronicles feel like somewhat like a Sonic game, BioWare played with the standard RPG movement and battle mechanics a bit. Running around the overworld is your standard "explore, fight (non-random) enemies, open treasure chests" fare, but with two twists. One, there are rings (the game's currency) and chao eggs scattered all over for you to collect on the fly, and two, environmental obstacles block off most of any given map. These take a number of forms, including (but not limited to) loops, sheer cliffs, auto-turrets, and poisonous gas. Getting past each one requires a certain skill innate to your characters, such as speed, flight, or stealth, and so you'll need certain party members in order to get around. A minor annoyance is that most of the obstacles also have levels from 1 through 3, and in a couple cases only one character gets the level 3 skill, so you must use him or her to get past those obstacles, rather than an otherwise preferable character who only has the level 1 or 2 skill. Exploration is pretty fun overall, and there's always a good incentive to poke around every corner of the map. There's also the odd environmental object here and there to spice things up, such as teleporters and the aforementioned turrets, but they're used less often than I would like.

Battles are standard turn-based fare, but they also have two twists. Characters can act between 1 and 3 times per round (an unchangeable stat that differs from character to character), and every single special move in the game triggers a brief Elite Beat Agents/Ouendan style minigame. Every move has a different pattern, and you'll have to pull it off perfectly to get a full power attack (though in the case of buffs, debuffs, and healing moves there's no room for error). Enemy specials trigger this as well, and the better you do, the weaker the attack will be. There's a learning curve for each move and it can get a bit repetitive, but there's a real sense of success every time you pull off a tricky attack or defense. Conversely, there's also a sense of failure when you screw up, and you'll find yourself a bit on edge against even simple foes. And there are a wide variety of foes to be encountered. While you may tire of performing your own special moves, you'll have to learn and adapt to new enemy patterns all the time. And even from the beginning, they have unique abilities and skills. Swatbots (yes, SatAM Swatbots) will auto-resurrect as long as any robotic foe remains standing at the end of a round, some can insta-KO your characters, some have astonishingly high resistance to ordinary attacks, yet others can completely heal off of a single successful attack, and the list goes on. Your tactics and team balance must adjust for each new kind and combination of enemy, or you'll quickly be staring at a game over screen (which lets you retry the last battle for a price rather than reload your save, incidentally). There's a standard elemental weakness and resistance system in place as well, but it can essentially be ignored. There's no easy way to tell what something is strong or weak to, and most attacks are non-elemental anyway.

Ordinary RPG conventions such as levels and items are present as well. Compared to most RPGs you won't actually fight many battles in any given area, so each one counts. As a result, you can end up a bit underleveled or overleveled depending on how much you prefer to fight enemies or just run around them. Powerleveling is made difficult, however, since the exp you earn dwindles down to almost nothing once your level is high enough that enemies stop being aggressive. Each level boosts your stats a bit, and you get a bonus point each time to allocate wherever you want, for a degree of customization. You also get to choose which skills to level (from 1 to 3), so you can emphasize your attacks and buffs at will. The amount of PP remains constant for each skill, so there's never a reason not to level one up short of taking another one instead. Unfortunately, this means that you end up never having enough PP at the beginning, while you can (and by necessity, will) use skills all the time by the end. As a result, battles have the odd tendency to get shorter as the game progresses. The early drain on PP is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the game throws items at you all the time; every battle earns you a healing or buff item of some sort, and they're available from shops, chests, and missions as well. By the end game you'll have a huge pile of the things, unless you've been using them all along in favor of a healing character. As long as you play intelligently, the game isn't often difficult. Equippable items are available in the form of gloves, shoes, accessories, and chao. Gloves and shoes buff your stats, while accessories generally give bonuses such as PP regeneration and elemental attacks. Chao are randomly hatched from the eggs you find scattered around, have have all sorts of effects. Most of them buff stats, give attacks an element, or put up shields, but some of the rarer ones do things like regenerate PP for the entire team or make special moves automatically succeed. On the whole though, equipment isn't very useful. You don't find much out on the field (chao aside), you don't have the money to fully gear up your entire team, and the stat boosts are fairly insignificant compared to your innate stats.

And then there's a whole host of other issues. Character models are animated well, but they all look a bit off, especially the eyes. Most bosses are hardly more of a challenge than the regular enemies. The map art is nice, but there's no depth to it; your character will frequently clip a bit over parts of the map that he should be behind, and clip behind enemy models that he's logically far above. Jumping off of objects to the north is like taking a single step, regardless of the logical height. There are a few missions scattered around each area, but they all follow the formula of "go here and do this for me" or "bring me this", and the rewards for them aren't balanced at all. Sometimes you'll get a nice wad of exp or some useful items, other times next to nothing, and never any rings. You can't get a description of your items mid-battle, which further marginalizes the buff-giving items that aren't that useful anyway. You can level up chao, but only by trading via local wireless. Sonic is required to be in your party at all times, save for two points when you split into two teams, and he's terrible at dealing with heavily armored enemies. The battle themes are ok, but the overworld music is absolutely atrocious. All of it gives me this mid-90s PC edutainment MIDI vibe, but consisting of horribly mangled versions of classic Sonic tunes. Sound effects are pretty bad as well. Once you hit the second half of the game most of the playable cast goes quiet but for the odd line here and there, meaning that the enjoyable banter and interactions between them largely vanishes as well. Information such as a character's innate power and armor is buried in the encyclopedia rather than displayed on the stats page. The ending is terribly rushed, provides no resolution whatsoever for any of the characters or unresolved plot points, and is a blatant setup for the sequel. Most of the game's major events are told through comic-book style prerendered Flash animations, and they're as awful as the music; some proper still frames from Archie would've been a much better choice. There's a New Game+ mode, but no incentive to go through it aside from collecting more chao. The minigame for chasing fleeing enemies (or fleeing yourself) is an interesting novelty the first few times, and then it just gets annoying. It's also fairly tricky when you have a full party.

And I enjoyed it, more than I actually expected to. For all of the flaws, the writing and battle system was engaging enough that I was riveted to the game until I finished it. If you don't like Sonic, his friends, or his world, a lot of the charm and appeal is going to be lost on you. If you do, you're in for a great presentation of the characters and all sorts of retro references and throwbacks. If you don't like EBA or the concept of an entirely touchscreen controlled game, you're just going to be dissatisfied the whole way through. Since it's obvious a sequel is on the way (pending good sales, obviously) I hope that BioWare can polish it up, since there's a good core game here. But this is one diamond (emerald?) that's really, really rough.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood (AU, 09/25/08)

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