Review by AirBornCoffeTab

Reviewed: 04/27/09

The spirit of Sonic is present, but weighed down by technical flaws.

It’s a rough time to be a Sonic fan. Sonic’s been down on his luck for the last two or three years with clunkers like Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2006. Besides those two obvious titles both fans and gamers have had polarized reactions to Sonic’s other recent adventures and spin-offs. Some people swear by the Rush or the Rival series; some people detest them. Some people enjoyed the Riders games while some didn’t; some people think Sonic and the Secret Rings brought redemption to Sonic while others thought it only made it worse. Fans reactions to Sonic Unleashed and Sonic and the Black Knight are just as scattered.

In this period of doubt and pessimism the developer Bioware asked if it could make a RPG centering on Sonic and his friends for the Nintendo DS – a surprising turn of events made even more surprising when considering the current state of affairs. Sonic fans didn’t know what to think. On one hand, Bioware is a developer with such titles as Jade Emperor, Baldur’s Gate, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect under it’s belt – but on the other hand, this is Sonic we’re talking about. Would Bioware be able to take the Sonic franchise and turn its luck around? Or would we witness a Soviet Russia effect and watch as Sonic turned Bioware’s luck around?

The time of questioning is over. Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood has been released upon the world, for better or for worse. I’ve played through the game once and am in the process of a second play through and I’ve got to say, I’m really surprised. This game has a laundry list of flaws – but despite all of those flaws put together I found myself deeply entertained.

In Sonic Chronicles the Soul of Sonic is Alive.

First off, one of the best features of this game is that it feels like a Sonic game. Bioware did their research on the Sonic universe but it’s obvious that the team had a deep love for Sonic Lore. They managed to connect the whimsical nature of Zones from the older 2D Sonic platformers with the bigger cities populated by humans as seen in the 3D Sonic games while establishing a sense of unity. This feels like Sonic’s world and it also feels like a world that runs on its own system of logic. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a fantastic accomplishment. One of my chief complaints with Shadow, Sonic2k6, SatSR, and even the anime Sonic X was that it divorced Sonic from his own world and put him into environments that didn’t really suit him. What’s the point of making a Sonic game if you’re not going to draw on the Sonic universe and mythology?

Not only does the world feel like Sonic but the characters themselves are depicted faithfully and in a manner that their personalities shine. If Sonic Team could regularly breathe this much life into it’s characters you wouldn’t be hearing people complaining about Sonic’s friends and requesting a Sonic-solo adventure all of the time – you’d have people celebrating Sonic’s friends! The success of the characterization is accomplished through witty dialogue. This could very well be the most quotable Sonic game ever. To put this in perspective the quality of the dialogue is probably greater than the quality of the game’s plot itself. I found about half of Dr. Eggman’s lines to be laugh out loud funny and found some of Big the Cat’s left-field comments to be hilarious. Also, when responding to conversations with characters and NPCs, you can have Sonic reply with some rude and downright mean comments that goad the rest of the cast into more amusing territory.

The story itself also feels like a true Sonic adventure. When the story begins Eggman has been out of the picture for two years and Sonic has been vacationing in the mean-time. However, a strange group of characters calling themselves the Marauders appear and kidnap Knuckles along with stealing the Chaos Emeralds. The plot itself, as it unfolds, draws on such Sonic lore as what happened to the ancient Echidnas and even draws on more obscure lore that, if you are aware of it, probably didn’t expect to see it pop up in another game. The second half of the game takes place in an area Sonic has never visited before and introduces us to some new species that are quite fascinating. The overall ending, however, is a tad disappointing.

A Pleasant Sight.

The art and art direction of the game is top notch. This game features both 2D hand drawn art and some 3D artwork. Major story scenes in the game play out like scenes from a comic book although there are a few 3D animated scenes as well – although those mostly only appear during traveling sequences. Sonic and all of the major characters are 3D when they’re walking around the map or in a battle field and have an almost Chibi-esque like charm to their models. All of the character portraits used in the menu system and in conversations are hand-drawn and seem to be inspired by Sonic X character models, if they aren’t borrowed directly from some stylistic bible.

The maps are the best visual feature of the game, however. The maps that Sonic runs around on are pieces of art. It’s difficult for me to explain the appeal of the maps without using lots of adjectives, adverbs, or hyperbole – the truth of the matter is, Bioware put something really special into the level art and design and a dull aching in my heart says that this will go unnoticed or unappreciated by gamers. When the first screens of the game were released I actually had my mom take a look at them because I thought she might appreciate them

Too bad the game is appallingly short.
Even with school and work you can easily beat this game in a week’s time. If you’re a marathon player you can beat this game in one or two days. That same marathon player could probably do a second play through in the same week. That’s how short this game is. One of the hallmarks of RPGs is that they keep you engaged longer than platformers and first person shooters and what not; even a ‘short’ RPG is usually longer than your average non-RPG before considering replay value. Sonic: Dark Chronicles isn’t a short RPG, it’s an RPG vignette. I felt a little cheated that there was so little game for the money I payed. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve stressed how much enjoyment I had with the game – but there’s barely any game here. This is the biggest flaw of the game.

The game play is quite unbalanced.
One thing about RPGs is that they have to be balanced. The equipment that you get has to be affordable enough for the player at a point in a game and powerful enough to be of use against enemies. Populations of enemies can’t be so over powered that they kill even a well-leveled player and like-wise enemies can’t be so weak that even people playing the low-level game can beat them in a breeze. If you’ve ever experimented with an RPG Maker application you’ll know how hard it can be to achieve this balance – most RPGs do it so flawlessly that you don’t even think of this as being a problem. Well, somebody slipped up here.

Rings are currency in this game and the only way to get them is to collect them around the towns and fields. They do not regenerate; this means you have to be quite smart about your purchases otherwise you’ll end up with no way to get more money short of selling your own stuff. But then even if you do have enough money to buy new equipment most of the equipment is useless in regards to how much it boosts your stats and over-priced. There’s barely any money to get; no way to get more money if you need more, and little of worth to spend it on. Weird.

The attacks and battle stats are messed up like this too. When Cream joins your party she can get a magical ability that heals the entire party – but this technique is so powerful that you’re almost invincible once you get it, provided you can master the timing. Some special attacks do so little damage they’re not worth using. Then, enemies in an area can be of radically different power levels, despite only being so many feet apart from each other.

Other Small Gripes
There are some small glitches that will annoy some people more than others. The polygons that make up Sonic and his friends will sometimes overlap or underlap things that they shouldn’t. This doesn’t bother me much but it’s rather embarrassing for Bioware as both the maps and the character models look nice. Some people have also complained about some of the music. A portion of the music in this game is simplified MIDI. I’m not certain why this is as offensive to people as it is because the MIDI forces a musician to focus on the quality of the MIDI since they can’t fluff it up with instrument/recording quality. You can have a full orchestrated yet uninspired soundtrack, after all. Make of that what you will. Personally, I found the sound effects much more of an annoyance – some of them seem like they were taken out of a free packet of Looney-Tunes esc. Sound effects and feel quite out of place.

…Which Brings us to the Final Verdict.

This game is deeply entertaining for Sonic fans, both hardcore and casual. If the technical aspects could only live up to the level of effort put into the characterization and depiction of Sonic’s world it would have been a major hit. Unfortunately, Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood is technically flawed. It’s reassuring to see the spirit of the Sonic universe so alive but it’s also disheartening to see that the same bone-headed mistakes are present and keeping that spirit pinned down.

Final score: 6
(I would like to note, however, that I got a 7’s worth of enjoyment out of the game but could not overlook some flaws for ratings purposes.)

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Product Release: Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood (US, 09/30/08)

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