Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood review
Sonic Chronicles; A poor man's Super Mario RPG.


Twelve years ago, Nintendo plucked their platforming mascot from the comfort of his enemy-bouncing lifestyle and shoe-horned him into a turn-based world, where enemies graciously allowed him to attack them as he pleased under the strict assumption he'd allow them the same courtesies later. In spite of all logic, Super Mario RPG was a marvelous game that showed the Mario franchise was more flexible than many people gave it credit for. Warp forward to 2008, and the only surprise is that it's taken SEGA this long to try outright aping Nintendo's greatest RPG success. Sonic Chronicles is Bioware's attempt to resurrect the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise in RPG form, and while not nearly as flawed as we've come to expect from this series, it never exactly pushes the envelope and tends to plateau before it has even left the ground.

The game begins with Sonic and Tails searching for their lost friend, Knuckles, who has been kidnapped by a bunch of plonkers who don't seem to have considered that alerting the Earth's special forces of an incoming invasion might not be the smartest way to conduct their business. In order to find Knuckles and overcome this mysterious new threat, Sonic sets out to beat up on some wildlife and perform menial tasks for lazy townspeople. One such task required me to retrieve a shop-owner's prized stapler after he mistakenly traded it for what he thought was a coffee-maker, but was in fact some sort of tracking device. Instead of questioning how one could make such a mistake, my self-righteous teammates instead demanded I hunt down this cunning deceiver and force him into trade-backsies. While that is about as ridiculous as the sidequests ever got, you can understand my contempt for a game that seeks to lengthen itself via entirely arbitrary means.

Not that the game doesn't need lengthening, because like a teenager's first sexual experience it is embarrassingly short. The game consists of ten chapters which take a competent player no more than an hour to complete. While I may bemoan this shortcoming, it may in fact be a blessing in disguise as I spent much of my time just wishing the game would end. It's not that the game is particularly bad, just that it is so mind-numbingly repetitive that I found myself tuning out for considerable amounts of time yet never suffering because of it. The game's combat is most charitably described as "heavily inspired by Elite Beat Agents" and least charitably described as "this is *bleep*ing Elite Beat Agents", yet the game hardly attempts to maximize the symbol-tapping potential of the DS. There are literally only three inputs you'll use throughout combat - tap a circle eight times, drag a circle along a line, and tap lots of circles - and while many attacks require you to complete unique combinations of these tasks, your reflexes are never tested any more intensely than they would be if you were playing tennis with a quad-amputee. Sure, some attacks look pretty and the game does have the usual satisfaction that comes with unleashing hell on unsuspecting opponents, but that quickly wears off.

Not to mention the criminal way in which your PP is restricted. You need PP to use the Elite Beat Agents-style moves, and usually you'll have to spend three to five PP each time you attack. The game flips you the proverbial middle finger by giving characters roughly 10 PP max for the entire game, meaning unless you force-feed Sonic copious amounts of +PP medicines you'll generally only get to execute the "interesting" attacks once or twice per battle. Your only other alternative is to use the standard attack option, which requires no more input from you after the attack has been selected and from the second chapter onwards does so little damage to enemies you may as well be pelting them with damp paper.

One thing the game does do correctly are the environments, which are all hand-drawn and look absolutely stunning. Yet, as is the case with much of the game, any good work is quickly undone by something else; In this instance, the hideous character models. I don't know about anyone else, but if you're going to go to the trouble of making the environments so perfect, why cock it up by modeling each character in jaggy 3D? The 2D backgrounds don't work all that well when your character occupies 3D space, and thus has a sense of height which the hand-drawn backgrounds simply can't accommodate. Figuring out your character's position with relation to background objects is often difficult, and this makes things frustrating when you're simply trying to move from point A to point B and aren't sure which surfaces are actually traversable.

While the game hardly has me jumping for joy as it is, the sound effects may as well fill my shoes with lead as far as that's concerned. Many of the game's sound effects are as pleasing to the ear as a cat being dragged face-first across an out-of-tune cello, only far more compressed and distorted. Saying the sound effects are "low quality" doesn't quite do them justice as far as I'm concerned, as they're easily the worst I've ever heard from the DS. The game attempts to redeem itself by including some classic sound effects from Sonic's glory days, but attaches them to such nonsensical things I'm simply left scratching my head; Why does Amy thwacking her enemy with a hammer sound like Sonic breathing an air bubble while underwater? Why does Shadow pounding his boot through an enemy's skull make the pin-prick sound of falling onto some spikes? At this point I'm almost grateful that picking up rings actually sounds like picking up rings, as I get the distinct feeling that the process of allocating sound effects was done via dartboard.

The music is mercifully inoffensive compared to the sound effects, but makes the mistake of going to the opposite extreme and is simply forgettable throughout. I'm trying my hardest, yet I can't think of a single tune in the game aside from the music of the final chapter, which is just a pretty poor remix of an old-school Sonic track. I could dwell on this some more, but it should be obvious that if I remember horrible sound effects more so than any actual music, then the game's audio overall isn't exactly top-notch.

Like the "fast-paced" battles Bioware promised but only half-way delivered, the "branching conversation paths" are equally as underdone. While it is true that you can pick from an array of responses to any given question (usually ranging from a polite "Please continue" to a more abrasive "I'm saving the world piss off"), none of it really matters in the slightest as regardless of what you choose to say, the end result of the conversation will always be the same. Not only that, but even if you continuously antagonize a particular character throughout the entire campaign, they'll still be your best friend by the end of it. A great example of this is the ever-annoying Amy Rose, who bullshits on about her imaginary boyfriend for much of the game while I, thanks to my ever-compassionate personality, continually told her to sod off because of it. Somewhere near the end of the game, Amy comes right out and asks Sonic if he cares for her "that way". My gut feeling was to go with a blunt "Not at all, really", but I decided to respond in the positive and see where that went. While she was excited at the time, I don't think Sonic ever actually spoke directly to her for the rest of the adventure and nobody else seemed to mention it either. The closest the game ever comes to actually providing real consequences for your responses is when you confront one of Eggman's robots that has forgotten its purpose, yet your only two options are "Tell him he was programmed to kill you" or "Tell him to go away", the former leading to a battle and the latter leading to him, well, take a guess. If I wanted to define "superficial", this would be a pretty good place to start. This is all such a shame, because the conversations themselves are usually well written and, dare I say it, actually interesting.

As I mentioned earlier, despite my lack of enthusiasm for this game, it isn't actually "bad", it's just totally unimpressive. There is some entertainment to be squeezed out of Sonic Chronicles, but nothing that makes up for the crap you have to put up with to get to it. Like a girlfriend who always delays her putting out to the next date, Sonic Chronicles seems to be constantly building to something but never actually delivers. As you may have guessed by the title (pro tip: look up "Chronicles" in the dictionary), this game is only the first of what will presumably be a series of games, and so the ending is a cliff-hanger that leads into the as-of-yet unannounced sequel. And you know what? The last ten seconds of the game's final cutscene are easily more intriguing than everything that came before it. It was at this moment I realized that the entire *bleep*ing game was merely a prelude to the next one, like the opening chapter of a book that merely sets the stage for what is to come. Only, imagine the book is being sold chapter-by-chapter for the same price as a full book, and the next chapter probably isn't coming out for another six months. I didn't really expect any better from Sega, who have a habit of milking this franchise to the point where it no longer holds any bodily fluids at all, but now Bioware are pulling stunts like this as well? Good lord.

My recommendation is that you do not buy Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood. I'd also recommend you don't buy the inevitable next game, either. In fact, don't buy any of these games until the story is complete, and Sega no doubt release "Sonic Chronicles: Uncut", which will take the meaning of "Uncut" to a whole new level by releasing the entire "Chronicles" series as one full, non-butchered game that actually includes a proper beginning, middle and end. Forgive me for crystal-balling here, but does anyone out there actually think they won't do that? Pennies are pennies to SEGA, and it doesn't matter if you earn them by making good games or by bludgeoning baby seals. On the off-chance that the gameplay isn't tightened up at some point during the franchise's run (this is still Bioware, so I do expect many flaws to be corrected in later installments) and they don't release a compilation pack, you'd be best avoiding the entire Chronicles line altogether. Upon completing this game, I was left feeling like I'd have been better off reading a plot summary on Wikipedia and saving myself the hassle, so unless you enjoy feeling empty inside I'd advise you save your money for the plethora of other good RPGs already available for the system.

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