Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood - Staff Review  

Hedgehog Love Scenes Not Included
by Adriaan den Ouden

Click here for game information
Less than 20 Hours
+ Great level design.
+ Unique turn-based combat.
+ Great art style. NOT furry. Hedgehogs have spines.
- Combat tends to drag on too long.
- Poor menu implementation.
- Bad music.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Seven years ago, Square-Enix teamed up with Disney to bring us one of the most unlikely RPGs in history, Kingdom Hearts. This review has absolutely nothing to do with that game, but does have something in common with it. A year ago, another unlikely pairing was announced. BioWare, the Canadian developer responsible for such hit games as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, and last year's Mass Effect, teamed up with SEGA to produce Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood for the Nintendo DS. Sonic Chronicles is a remarkable departure from BioWare's other games, more closely resembling a JRPG than one developed in North America.

   As one would expect, Sonic Chronicles stars SEGA's spiky blue mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, along with all his pals. After their last defeat of evil genius Dr. Eggman Robotnik, Sonic has been out and about doing his own thing, until he's summoned back by his twin-tailed teammate, Tails. Knuckles, the last of the Echidnas, has gone missing and someone has stolen all the Chaos Emeralds! The story is fairly well-written, although it would be foolhardy to go in expecting anything more than typical Sonic zaniness. All the characters are represented well, with Sonic's usual hubris, Tails's mild-mannered technical jargon, and seven other featured characters from past games, including Eggman himself. One new character is introduced as well during the twenty-hour adventure that expands and elaborates the existing Sonic universe.

   Thanks to quality writing and a detailed glossary of important characters, places, and events, no previous knowledge of Sonic storylines is really necessary to enjoy the game. There are plenty of amusing dialogue sequences and silly jokes, but most of the enjoyment comes from the characters themselves, who are extremely personable and well-defined. Happily, the game ends with a major cliffhanger, although it is foreshadowed so heavily throughout the second half of the game that only an infant wouldn't see it coming. It seems that this was deliberate on the part of the writers, however, as not even Sonic and crew seemed surprised, spouting their bravado without restraint before beginning the only credit sequence anybody will ever actually read. Rather than scrolling names across the screen, Sonic Chronicles displays its credits in the form of a conversation between Sonic and Tails, a concept that is both highly original and highly entertaining.

Use movement abilities to explore. Use movement abilities to explore.

   Coming from BioWare, quality writing was not terribly surprising. However, in terms of gameplay, they are a long ways out of their element, and it shows in many places. The battle system is turn-based, with moves for each of four active characters being selected before the combat round is played out. To mix things up, each character gets a varied number of turns per round. The speedy Sonic and Shadow receive three turns each, while slower characters like Big the Cat and Omega-123 only receive one. Average-speed characters such as Knuckles and Tails take two turns each. Each character can learn six POW moves, providing them all with unique strengths and weaknesses. In addition to their solo moves, they also have the ability to learn powerful team attacks that take up a turn and POW points (PP) from each of the characters involved.

   POW moves must be learned by spending skill points accumulated with each level, and in combat are not always easy to perform. In order to keep battles flowing, POW moves must be successfully activated by tapping and drawing on the touch screen with precise timing at particular locations, a system similar to Elite Beat Agents. Enemy POW moves can be countered in this way as well, keeping the player fully involved throughout each combat round. While BioWare should be credited with creating a unique and often fun system, there is an unfortunate hang-up in that the battles simply drag on too long. Most battles last upwards of three minutes, and in difficult encounters, can even last as long as ten or fifteen. Encounters are thankfully not random and can sometimes be avoided, but in most cases the maps are too cramped to escape a conflict, which can be quite frustrating when trying to explore.

   The PP system the game uses is also fairly unusual when compared to most turn-based games, as it encourages using full-force attacks rather than PP management. Each character is only supplied with a miniscule number of POW points, but there are several ways to restore them during battle. Both Tails and Cream the Rabbit have POW skills that allow them to restore PP, and any character can defend for a round to restore it themselves. There are even pieces of equipment that restore PP at the beginning of each round. However, this also means that players will find themselves using time-consuming POW moves more than basic attacks, which contributes to the excessive length of battles.

   Being anthropomorphic animals lacking the shame and modesty of human society, Sonic and his friends are only able to equip gloves and shoes, augmenting their offensive and defensive capabilities respectively. They can also equip a single accessory as well as a Chao, cute, alien-like creatures native to Sonic's world that hatch from eggs hidden throughout each of the game's thirteen maps. There are forty different Chao to collect, in three different rarities, and they can be traded with friends in order to increase their power, although doing this is not necessary to complete the game.

Even Sonic has to wait his turn in Sonic Chronicles. Even Sonic has to wait his turn in Sonic Chronicles.

   While the lengthy combat can quickly become annoying, the level-design is superb, featuring all sorts of obstacles that must be overcome by making use of each character's special movement abilities. Sonic is able to dash, flying off ramps and through loop-de-loops, while other characters have the ability to smash objects, climb walls, pass through barriers, and several others. The maps are well-designed and often require different combinations of characters in order to properly explore. Unfortunately, this leads to another problem with the game, and that's character balance. Certain characters are very effective in combat while others are not. Status effects play a major role in the game, and effective combat parties need to be balanced around being able to heal, inflict status ailments, and deal damage, but also to get through the obstacles on the map. At certain points in the story, the party is split into two groups, which further exacerbates this problem. An ineffective combat party can lead to excessively prolonged battles, more so than usual.

   Not only are the maps fun to explore, but they look great as well. Somehow, despite being isometric 3D renders, BioWare was able to keep intact the bizarre feel of Sonic's classic platforming adventures. In addition to the geographical features one would expect in a grassy plain or a swamp, there are also the franchise's trademark loop-de-loops, jump-pads, and other features that give Sonic's world a very unique aesthetic. The character models are also quite good, but sometimes get grainy during battles. The most impressive parts of the visuals are the 2D cutscenes and artwork, which are crisp and expressive. While 2D portraits are used for all dialogue sequences, the 2D cutscenes, which play out like a living comic book, are sadly few in number.

   The audio experience is less enjoyable, however. After an oustanding opening cinematic featuring a great rock tune that fits the speedy, cocky attitude of the Sonic series to a tee, the music degenerates into dull, minimalistic tracks that are at best tolerable and at worst conflicting. The sound-effects are decent for the most part, but occasionally become tinny and unidentifiable. There is also no voice-acting, which is a shame, because the characters' personalities would have been significantly enhanced with a voice behind the art.

   As BioWare's first attempt at a handheld title, Sonic Chronicles is not a bad start, but their inexperience with turn-based battle systems definitely shows. While the game's design is terrific in theory, it could have used a bit of tweaking to improve the flow. In addition, the company's trademark inability to create a decent menu shines through once again. Sonic Chronicles is not too difficult, although just how difficult it ends up being is entirely dependent on the player's ability to successfully use and defend against POW moves. Those without a sense of rhythm may become frustrated. Despite its issues, it still manages to be an enjoyable experience. With a little elbow grease, a sequel could prove to be truly excellent, but in its current state, Sonic Chronicles is decent, and nothing more.

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