Does this make Tails the spoony bard?
It usually takes a couple of years before Sonic comes out with its Mario
rip-off reinterpretation, and Sonic usually gets the short end of the stick: Super Mario 64 Sonic Adventure, Super Mario Kart Sonic R, Mario Party Sonic Shuffle. But it’s taken more than a decade for the hedgehog to step into the unlikely genre of the turn-based JRPG, where the comparison between Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars – which surprised its jump-happy audience in 1996 on the Super Nintendo with its colorful, whimsical, isometric interpretation of the Mario world – cannot be made more obvious. Both try to reassemble the platforming antics of their titular heroes into an HP-MP, leveling-up, item-collecting romp, and with the unexpected developer BioWare of Star Wars: KOTOR and Mass Effect fame, the blue hedgehog nearly stands toe to toe with the red plumber.
[image1]Joining forces with Tails, Knuckles, and Amy, Sonic succeeds in bringing down yet another genius plan by the mad scientist Dr. Eggman and soon heads off into the sunset to enjoy a brief respite. Upon his return to the familiar Green Hill Zone, however, he finds his homeland overrun by unnaturally aggressive animals and under attack by a mysterious force that is once again attempting to steal the Chaos Emeralds and destroy the world and yadda-yadda-yadda badness. In other words, it’s another excuse for Sonic to beat up some robots, protect nature, and zip through the level like Goku on wait… crap… my bad.
Usually, when a Sonic video game doesn’t have much speed, it spells trouble. Here, Sonic and his gang actually sit and wait for you to command them on a traditional turn-based battlefield. The only time you get any sense of speed is while dashing about the isometric level map, as you direct them around rocks and monsters with the stylus. But all this slowdown is a natural part of the genre, and it’s actually more realistic in the “insert yourself in the fictional world” kind of way. Sonic probably explores the world a bit more than his action titles would have you believe, and he probably has conversations with other people and err… furries every now and then (like, say, with Tails about why he always gets left behind to die in Sonic 2).
While your character runs to and fro on the map, you will find rings which are used as currency, Chao eggs which hatch various Chao (Chaos?) that can be bonded to your teammates for minor boosts, and obstacles that only specific characters can overcome. Sonic can dash up ramps and loop-de-loops; Tails can fly short distances; Amy can smash crates with her super-sized hammer; and Knuckles can climb up steep cliffs with his badass claws. It’s a system that inspires light teamwork and lends some gameplay characterization to each party member, but since your party is limited to four characters, there are times when you just don’t have right members to move past a certain obstacle. This means you have to schlep yourself back to the area’s safehouse to switch in the appropriate member and probably back again since that member wasn’t in your party in the first place for a reason.
The battle system follows in much the same vein as that of Super Mario RPG – running into monsters on the map starts a battle, each character has special P.O.W moves that consume
MP PP, and every P.O.W. move requires you to perform some timing maneuver. Here, that means using the stylus to tap a sequence of circles Elite Beat Agents-style, rapidly tap a circle eight times, or drag a circle along a dotted path. Some minor differences are that (ala Dragon Quest) you choose all the actions for each character before the turn plays out, defending recovers a few PP points, and that whenever you or the enemy flees from battle, you go through an action-based running sequence. But by and large, the system more or less works in the safe but solid JRPG style.
[image2]Regrettably, some of BioWare’s signature design choices rub in the wrong way. Sonic can choose from a set of text dialogue choices, but since Sonic has to be the good guy at the end of the day, the choices don’t have much meaning. Side-missions and story puzzles don’t garner you enough extra experience midway through the game and most boil down to a mundane fetch quest or a test of trail and error. They’re probably interesting enough and forgiving enough for children who play this as their first JRPG experience, but the difficulty leans on the easy side. Every battle yields some sort of restorative item and every enemy special attack can be avoided by performing the same tap-circle mechanic, so losing – or just having one of your characters knocked out – is your fault.
As usual, the menu design is once again over-encumbered and too restrictive. Some trouble tapping a small triangle to scroll through a battle menu and having to go back to the side menu every time you want to open a sub-menu are small annoyances, but having to go back to the beginning of a turn every time you happen to change your mind about one character’s actions is sigh-inducingly frustrating.
Changing up your strategy is frequent enough in the turn-based genre that you should be able to undo every action one at a time. Here’s a likely scenario: You choose all the actions for Sonic (say, a Fastball P.O.W move with Amy and then a Defend move), choose all the actions for Tails (say, a healing Medibot P.O.W. move and an Item move), and then you get to Knuckles, think for a second about Tails, change your mind, and be forced to restart from the beginning. (What did I choose for Sonic again?)
The worst culprit is that some multi-character P.O.W. moves are actually plot spoilers. You can see a list of all your character’s P.O.W. moves from the very beginning, and though some of the combination attacks are grayed-out and “unavailable” since you don’t have the necessary team members, those team members are revealed. And these aren’t just your typical good-guy characters; these are “oh, wow, I didn’t think I would team up with that…” type of characters.
[image3]What ultimately happens is that the first half of the game, which is all about gathering your team, is lackluster in plot and the second half is lackluster in character development. The enemy A.I. does jump up enough by the endgame that it’s not all easy-breezy, but by the point you discover the evil behind it all, your characters will have already unlocked all their moves. If, however, you’re into otherworldly plots, then you probably won’t put down the DS, even if interstellar exploration isn’t really the main theme of the Sonic mythos.
Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood does enough to separate itself from its Mario brethren to stand on its own. Even with all the minor gripes, aside from the unfortunate plot spoiling, the JRPG elements are traditionally solid and keep the title from falling into the art of the rip-off. Despite the soundtrack which I think was made with a synthesizer and a tin can, the light-hearted, vibrant, cartoonish world casts Sonic in an unexpected light. Sonic may be known for his blistering speed, but when he slows down (with the help of a developer that mostly knows what its doing), he can be just as well-known for his character.