Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood
At long last one of the most anticipated portable RPGs arrives on DS. Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood comes to us fresh from the hands of Bioware (Mass Effect, Jade Empire), and though the developers have a AAA pedigree in the world of gaming, many have wondered if this Sonic RPG was merely a last-ditch effort by SEGA to once again bring the hedgehog back to respectability. Does Sonic Chronicles successfully launch the blue blur into the world of role-play, or has Bioware hit a brick wall?
Dark Brotherhood’s story begins with Sonic returning home after a year-long hiatus “exploring the most remote corners of the world.” While Sonic has been off gallivanting, his old buddies, Tails and Knuckles, have been plugging away mapping the Mystic Ruins. When trouble stirs in Central City, Tails calls upon his faithful pal, Sonic, to come lend a hand. Though Eggman lay defeated from his last bought with Sonic and friends, a new menace has arisen, and it’s up to the team to uncover a mysterious plot that will affect the entire galaxy.
Bioware RPGs of the past are best known for their deep and winding stories, complete with rich dialogue trees that allow players to, in many ways, mold the experience to their liking. Sonic Chronicles maintains a distinct Bioware signature, but both the dialogue and ability to move various characters in complex, story driven directions is reeled in here. Understandably, the story seems geared toward a younger crowd, but it’s still a solid experience anyone can enjoy. There are many worlds to traverse, and the game has a smooth pacing that keeps the adventure from getting old before it draws to a close.
Gameplay in Sonic Chronicles is an odd amalgam of traditional, turn-based role-play and rhythm action taken straight out of Elite Beat Agents (EBA). On the whole, it works, but there are some rough edges and missed opportunities here.
Sonic and friends will venture through quite a number of worlds and areas, and when exploring, you’ll move your character using the stylus. The game is almost completely stylus-driven, and it works well. You’ll come across many obstacles during your travels, and each of the various characters in your group offer unique movement abilities that will allow your party to successfully reach each destination. It’s a mechanic that’s been used before in other games, but it’s implemented in entertaining ways here; it will also force players to mix things up in terms of who they bring along in their four-member battle party.
Of course, no RPG is complete without enemies, and Sonic Chronicles offers a host of baddies that are both cool to look at and interesting to battle. While exploring over-world areas, enemy indicators – á la any recent “Tales of…” game – will roam around the environments; run into one, and combat begins. Often, enemies will try to escape, in which case your team will chase after them. During chase sequences, you’ll have to leap over boxes (by tapping on characters in your party) in order to keep up momentum; it’s a short but fun distraction, and offers an additional way to collect rings (read on for more about their function in the game).
When actual combat begins, you’re presented with a somewhat typical battle menu where you can choose to attack, use POW moves or items, and defend or flee. POW moves are the game’s form of spells; however, many of these specials require additional team members (and their PP – the equivalent of mana) to pull off. POW moves are also where the aforementioned EBA-like action games come into play. For instance, when Tails uses his healing move, Medi Bot, you must follow a moving marker from left to right and then another from right to left; if done successfully, the targeted party member will receive healing for several rounds. Other POW moves include ones where you’re tapping markers as rings shrink to meet the marker’s outer edge (yes, exactly like EBA), as well as one where you’re merely tapping a fixed area of the screen to fill up a meter. Additionally, you’ll play through micro games in order to block enemy POW moves, so battles are never dull. It takes time to learn each of the various patterns, but the micro games really grow on you. Though they’re not an original Bioware concept, they work nicely alongside the rest of what Sonic Chronicles has to offer.
There’s obviously a lot going on in battles, and each encounter offers a good, fun challenge, yet you’re never forced to level grind. As with other Bioware-made games, you’ll gain additional experience from delivering items to NPCs (non-playable characters) or by merely talking to them. Combat is definitely quality over quantity here, though you’ll likely still want to battle often simply because it’s addictively fun.
There are some other unique elements here that set The Dark Brotherhood apart from the average RPG. Sonic and friends only gain money by way of the rings they collect whilst traversing over-world environments, though the game does a great job of balancing your team’s requirement of items and equipment. In addition to rings, you’ll also come across a wealth of Chao eggs, and when they hatch, you can bond them with characters for various boosts during combat. Some chao offer enhanced defense, others will increase item drops after successful battles. They’re a cute but relevant addition to gameplay, and “catching them all” adds a fun bit of longevity to the game.
Sonic Chronicles also sports one major puzzle per area. One aspect of the game that follows a tried-and-true formula is its level design. With each new area, you will survey a small portion of the environment, run into and speak with one of the area’s locals, and from there, make your way toward the level boss. The last step between you and a given boss is always a puzzle. Each puzzle requires multiple team members to solve, and there’s a lot of: engaging switches and matching patterns. Most of the game’s puzzles are straight-forward and enjoyable, but others are poorly implemented and require a fair bit of guesswork to get through.
On the production front, Bioware have once again done a mostly wonderful job. A lot of love and attention to detail obviously went into the making of The Dark Brotherhood. That said, the game does exhibit a few rough patches. Cutscenes are done in a beautiful, comic-book style, but they often get lopped off rather than cleanly faded out. Chapters end and begin with almost no clear division; one moment the gang might be discussing their next move, an art still will flash onscreen indicating a new chapter, and then their conversation will continue from right where they left off. These abrupt jumps in the story make the presentation feel a bit messy.
Though some of the game’s production elements may falter, the graphics are right on the money. Characters are detailed 3D models that animate wonderfully; the backgrounds are all 2D and are absolutely gorgeous – all hand-drawn artwork that captures the Sonic universe perfectly. There are occasional issues with collision detection but nothing that impedes gameplay in any way. When Sonic and friends enter combat, though, the graphics become fully three-dimensional, and here, too, the game looks and runs great.
The aural elements in Sonic Chronicles are also, for the most part, a near-perfect hit, though sound effects during combat micro games don’t quite muster the same fun factor you get from playing something like EBA. Rather than tapping to the beat of the music, you’re merely watching rings shrink around markers. So, the visceral feeling and satisfaction that comes from hitting markers in rhythm is missing here. That said, the game’s sound effects are still quite fitting, considering the Sonic universe as presented in the Dark Brotherhood, and everything comes across in fairly high fidelity through the DS’ tiny speakers. Over-world music is mostly MIDI-techno, but it’s fitting with the cartoony nature of this adventure. Battle music, however, is a mix of various heavy metal themes that seem to have become a staple of the franchise over the years.
Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood will likely run you anywhere from 25-30 hours of gameplay on your first playthrough, and there are enough sidequests and collectable Chao to warrant additional stabs at the game. It’s a bit formulaic in its design, but levels are a nice slice of gaming on the go that require almost no level grinding. The story, though perhaps geared toward younger gamers, is interesting and enjoyable. Battles are mildly addictive, though the lack of any connection between the combat micro games and music greatly reduces the level of satisfaction you get from playing them – it’s probably the game’s greatest shortcoming. Nonetheless, Bioware got a lot right with Sonic Chronicles. They offer an RPG experience that’s been trimmed of almost all the fat, and I look forward to a possible sequel.