Sonic and the Secret Rings
Once upon a time, King Shahryar discovered that his wife was cheating on him. Though he had the queen and her lover executed, the king was traumatized; he believed that infidelity was a characteristic that all women shared. But since he couldn’t go for long without acting out his lusty urges, Shahryar remarried and took steps to ensure that no woman would betray him again. Since prenuptial agreements didn’t exist back then, the king took a more direct approach: wedding and bedding a new bride, then killing her the next morning. Enter Scheherazade, another in a long line of women being fed into the royal slaughterhouse. In order to ensure that she’d live to see the next sunrise, she decided to tell the Shahryar a bedtime story, only to stop at a pivotal moment, thus manipulating the king into letting her survive to live the next day. Accordingly, Sheherazade survived her ordeal for over a thousand days and the story of the Arabian Nights became the stuff of legend.
So what do the Thousand and One Arabian Nights have to do with Sonic the Hedgehog? Somewhere in between saving the world and kicking Dr. Robotnik’s ass, Sega’s spiky haired mascot has finally gotten enough spare time to read the classic literature. Upon Sonic opening the book, a genie named Shahra pops out and begs our hero to rescue her homeland. Apparently, some other genie/ throwaway villain called the Erazor Djinn has decided to enslave the realm within the book and will eventual spread his influence into Sonic’s world. In order to save everyone, our hero must find the seven World Rings strewn throughout the land and use their powers. Never one to miss out on heroics, Sonic ditches everyone and ventures into the Arabian Nights.
Fans of older Sonic games might look at this cliched story as poorly veiled spin on the classic plot. Fear not, veteran gamers, for these World Rings do not substitute the Chaos Emeralds from the previous titles. Instead of exploring various levels to collect rings and access different dimensions and win the prized jewels, Sonic’s latest adventure will have him running through a handful of different stories of the Arabian Nights and completing certain objectives in each stage. Some missions will require him to simply run through the entire level, while others will have him collecting the rings floating throughout a level, beating a certain area under a given time limit, or surviving a barrage of traps and enemy offenses. More counterintuitive objectives, such as avoiding rings and not attacking your foes, can make for some surprisingly difficult challenges. Since the game gives you little indication as to which missions will progress the story, you’ll have to finish more of them until you get a cutscene and hopefully unlock a new area.
That’s assuming, of course, that you can actually complete any of the objectives. Unlike previous titles, Sonic and the Secret Rings doesn’t base its gameplay around free roaming and exploration aspects. Slightly modifying the gameplay style from Sonic Heroes, the game forces our hero to run along a pre-determined path and react to whatever gets in his way. Upon selecting a given mission, Sonic will be drop into the level and start running in his signature fast-paced style. In fact, he’ll keep zooming around with little regard to any of the hazards or obstacles around him. After blazing through a small line of rings, dodging an oncoming avalanche of spiky balls, and slaying a bunch of minor genies with his patented Homing Attack, Sonic will still mindlessly bound off the edge of a cliff if you’re not fast enough to deal with the slippery controls. Though moving side to side only requires you to tilt the WiiMote accordingly, slowing down and charging Sonic’s jumps require far more effort; the hedgehog’s momentum makes precise platforming nearly impossible. Considering the sheer amount of spikes, bottomless pits, and swinging blades covering the Arabian Nights, you’ll be facing countless botched attempts before finally winning the day.
The controls are even more aggravating when you’re trying to collect pickups and navigate through various enemies and obstacles. Some areas require you to kill groups of foes in order to advance to the next room. Since Sonic is running blindly, he can miss the opportunity entirely and careen straight into the wall. You can’t proceed without slaying the generic genie underlings, so you’ll have to tilt the WiiMote backwards. Sonic won’t even bother to turn around; instead, he’ll perform what must be a hedgehog-styled Moonwalk into the battleground. The camera doesn’t adjust for such painfully awkward moments, so Sonic will usually step back into an enemy that you can’t even see, thus losing all of his rings and eventually killing himself. The game addresses such issues by implementing a leveling system. With each mission he completes, Sonic will gain experience and level up his stat points. These points can be spent by equipping certain abilities, such as the power to have tighter braking controls and jumps, smoother running capabilities, and enhanced attack strength. Other abilities, such as slowing down time or zooming to the speed of light, require you to pick up glowing pearls and charge energy. It’s unfortunate to see a Sonic game that makes gamers acquire tight controls as opposed to featuring them from the start.
But hey, at least it’ll look good. Considering the amount of lost lives and retries you’ll have to endure before getting a level right, you’ll have plenty an opportunity to memorize every last bit of beautiful scenery. Sonic will run down spiraling staircases, occasionally enveloped in the sunlight streaming through some ornately decorated windows. He’ll have to dodge a bunch of pillars that shoot up out of the sands, endure the blistering heat of a lava-filled labyrinth, and even outrun a herd of stampeding Triceratops (as if dinosaurs actually belonged in the Arabian Nights), and zoom through the vast hallways containing King Solomon’s treasures. There are few things more beautiful than watching the blazing sun drift overhead as Sonic races along the walkways of a floating city and fights his way up some tower ruins. Though the Metal-esque theme music kills much of the atmosphere, the presentation of Sonic and the Secret Rings puts previous Sonic games to shame.
The game also tries to make up for its failings by providing a slew of unlockable features. Aside from a small collection of development movies, all of the games cutscenes (most of which are drawn as opposed to the CGI of previous 3D Sonic games) are cataloged for your viewing, complete with wooden dialogue and character cameos you’ll learn to enjoy. When you get tired of slogging through the main adventure, you can give Party Mode a shot. Instead of focusing on linear levels and challenges, you and three of your friends can participate in a bunch of minigames, such as knocking your avatars off islands, canoeing away from a roaring waterfall, and hammering posts down with the WiiMote. So the multiplayer is nothing more than a clone of Mario Party. Big deal. It’ll provide you plenty of fun moments when the rest of the game seems obscenely evil.
Poor Sonic. His excursions into the current generation of consoles have been rocky at best. Sonic and the Secret Rings is far from the greatest that Sega has ever conceived, but it still has its charms. The levels (even if they do take liberties with the Arabian Nights settings) are far better designed and varied than what the last few games have offered. The story is laughable, but is a decent departure from the Robotnik-centric plots of old. The missions provide plenty of challenge with a steep learning curve and little forgiveness. Even the multiplayer provides a decent demonstration of what the WiiMote can do. The only truly awful aspects come with the horrendously crafted controls and camera; the gameplay will test the patience of the most seasoned gamers and Sonic fans alike. Let’s hope that Sonic’s next adventure improves upon what this game has offered.