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Hands-On: Sonic Chronicles: the Dark Brotherhood (Nintendo DS)

Genre: RPG Developer: BioWare Publisher: Sega Players: 1 Released: 09/30/08

Remember how big of a deal it was when Super Mario RPG released? You had the biggest franchise in video games combined with the best RPG developer in the world. It was a recipe for success, and it would be an understatement to say that the game was positively received. The game is held sacred by millions of gamers around the globe, and it’s the reason why we see the superb Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games today. So then naturally, expectations should be equally high for Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood. A pairing of Mario’s contemporary, Sonic The Hedgehog, with BioWare, arguably the best western RPG developer, the game is something of a dream project. Of course, the situations surrounding Super Mario RPG and Sonic Chronicles are completely opposite. Super Mario RPG came out at the height of the mascot’s popularity, and when RPGs were just beginning to catch fire. Sonic Chronicles isn’t as fortunate. Sonic has been in a rut for a decade.  Aside from some great portable outings, nearly every Sonic showing has been of poor quality. The character’s reputation is simply at its lowest point, and a change is direly needed. The RPG genre as a whole has also become a bit stale, with fans calling for innovation.

Another Chance for Ol’ Blue

So how did Sonic Chronicles fare?  Did it succeed in renewing interests in the character and genre? Or did it fail miserably, adding its name to a growing list of disappointing Sonic The Hedgehog titles? The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Sonic Chronicles is a good game. There, I said it. Unfortunately, based on the pedigree of its developer, along with the overall importance and opportunity of the title, the game is still a bit of a disappointment. Read on to find out why!

Upon booting Sonic Chronicles up, one thing became very obvious – a lot of care went into the production of this game. Gamers are treated to a cinematic that plays out like a mix of full-motion video and a static comic book. It looks fantastic. Even better, and quite honestly, a little surprising, is the music. Yeah, the over-the-top guitars are there, but the sound has a noticeably less “cheesy-metal” sound than all other Sonic games released in the last ten or so years. As far as first impressions go, Sonic Chronicles certainly succeeds in creating high expectations.

Friends = A Good Thing?

Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood includes an ambitious, yet somewhat generic storyline. At the start of the game, a cinematic depicting Sonic defeating Dr. Eggman plays, after which the title hero takes a much-needed vacation. Unfortunately, a nefarious group known as the Marauders has kidnapped Knuckles, the Master Emerald’s defender, and Sonic must come to his rescue. Eventually an ancient evil is unleashed upon the world and Sonic and his friends must travel between dimensions to restore peace and order. It’s the type of story that has been done a million times before, but I’d be lying if I were to say it wasn’t done well here. The writing is excellent, with an added layer of depth given to nearly all of the characters in the Sonic The Hedgehog extended universe. The greatest praise that I can give BioWare is that they’ve succeeded in persuading me to care for these characters. Quite the accomplishment seeing as I stopped caring about the ancillary characters after Knuckles was introduced way back in 1994. You wont be coming back for the story, you’ll be coming back for the humor and likeability of the characters.

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While the characters and writing may be the reason to keep playing, Sonic Chronicles also features an interesting battle system to encourage extended play. Comparable to Super Mario RPG, the battle system here encourages constant attention and precision to maximize and minimize offensive and defensive attacks. Like the rest of the game though, the concept falls a bit short in its execution. You’ll walk into an enemy, select a command from a menu, and wait for your turn to attack. The game gives each player multiple turns per round, which I at first expected to work similarly to Final Fantasy X in that your choices and stats affect your number of moves. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, and number of turns is based on a static number.

What keeps this battle system fresh is an Elite Beat Agents gameplay gimmick. Just like in Nintendo’s rhythm tap game, you must tap the screen at a precise moment and location, drag the stylus along certain paths, and spin circles in order to pull off Sonic and his friends’ special moves. This dynamic also occurs when defending against special attacks. I have a confession to make: I loved Elite Beat Agents. I mean I REALLY loved the game. If I were stuck on a deserted island with only one DS game, it would be EBA. So I was completely behind the idea of this battle mechanic, which is why I ended up being so split on this game. For the most part, the idea works wonderfully. There are occasions, though, when the frame-rate dips low, and this seems to only happen during these EBA-like moments. This leads to poor rhythm detection. And while it does work most of the time, the music plays no role whatsoever in the timing of your stylus tap. So instead of a fun rhythm-action mini-game, you have a boring tap-the-shrinking-circle mini-game. It helps mix up the flow of the game, but it’s a gigantic missed opportunity.

Similar to my opinion on the game as a whole, I have very mixed feelings regarding the visuals.  The backgrounds can be strikingly beautiful, and BioWare did a great job including favorite locales like Green Hill Zone and Metropolis, yet there’s a pitiful amount of background animation. And seeing Sonic tear through each stage just looks kind of funny. Call me crazy, but it’s still a rare event when I consider 3D character models on 2D backgrounds a good idea. It’s a shame too, because the game does a decent job of pushing polygons. In fact, the battle scenes are some of the best visuals I’ve seen on the DS. Yet it’s these scenes in which the frame rate problems rear their ugly heads. Still, I have to commend BioWare for replicating the Sonic universe in such a fresh and beautiful way. If a number of adjustments and fixes were made, Sonic Chronicles would be a showcase game for the DS.

Believe it or not, the sound in Sonic Chronicles is consistent and enjoyable. This isn’t the standard “cheesy metal” that we usually get from recent Sonic releases. The soundtrack is original instead of remixing earlier Sonic tunes, and most of the songs featured actually recall some of the previous classic music from the original Sonic The Hedgehog through Sonic & Knuckles. And the sound effects are perfectly adequate. They’re pulled straight out of the classic Sonic releases. Gathering rings sounds just as it should. It’s also worth noting that as with pretty much all other DS games, the sound is significantly better when using headphones.

Brass, not Gold Ring

Although Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is a step up in quality from other games in the Sonic mythos, it’s still impossible to overlook its glaring flaws. For example: while the visuals are superb, with beautifully painted landscapes and solid 3D character models, the inconsistent frame rate can sometimes ruin the experience. And while BioWare has breathed some fresh life into a very stale universe, the storyline is often predictable and has ultimately been done before. Because of these flaws, the game’s value resides in the hands of its player. If you’re a Sonic The Hedgehog fan, then you’ll most likely forgive its biggest flaws and find Sonic Chronicles a fantastic experience. RPG fans, on the other hand, might find the game simple, short, and unimaginative. As a compromise, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is both a solid RPG and a nice entry into the Sonic The Hedgehog series. Let’s hope that a sequel can fix its problems and elevate its status in both categories.

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