Sonic is a series that speeds through the platforming genre at record pace, creating experiences people never forget. But the Blue Blur never really ventured into the realm of role playing games unlike his friendly plumber rival. While Mario hopped through the Mushroom Kingdom and beyond in many RPG titles developed by Square Enix, AlphaDream and Intelligent Systems, Sonic never touched the genre.
That was until 2007, with SEGA announcing that famous studio Bioware was working on a Sonic the Hedgehog role playing game for the Nintendo DS. This was a huge deal at the time, as Bioware never made a Sonic game nor a portable title before. With SEGA publishing the title and EA letting the studio work on the project after purchasing them, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood released in Fall 2008.
Does this RPG title live up to past Bioware titles and honor the Sonic series in a positive way?
Sonic and his friends (Tails, Knuckles & Amy) take on Eggman at the start of the game, which ends with his Death Egg blowing up. The world is saved and Sonic decides to take a long break from being the hero. Fast forward to the future, and he is running around Green Hill having fun. He hears a message from Tails saying Knuckles is missing, so the blue blur spins into action.
What makes the story work so well, is that Sonic isn’t treated like the big hero. Instead, people are outright annoyed with Sonic for being away for so long. Even his best buddy Tails is like ‘Dude, you have been gone for a while man….’ so Sonic not being the big shot like in past games is refreshing. But what makes the story so engaging is how the entire Sonic cast gets much needed attention. Often ignored or unused characters in recent years like Big the Cat and Shadow the Hedgehog have major character moments that are really well done.
Many points in the game I got a big chuckle out of Big saying a dumb thing in a serious conversation which pushes everyone saying ‘What are you doing Big…’ or the many times people react to Sonic’s conversation choices. The main gimmick of the story is how Sonic is well, ‘your’ Sonic. He can be the grand hero like in the console games or a bit of a snarky fellow like in the older titles.
Seeing people react to a mean Sonic is interesting if a bit out of character honestly but I enjoyed seeing that side of the Blue Blur. This works great and seeing the other conversation choices push your party to react toward you is rewarding. Shame to say that the overall story is underwhelming, with the main villains not being engaging (even if it touches an aspect of Sonic series lore that many had questions on) and the game ends on a cliffhanger ending that never gets resolved. So while the story has great character moments and uses underused Sonic characters very well, the overall package is only okay.
Design & Gameplay
Chronicles has you control Sonic and company through touch controls on the DS’s lower screen across overworlds, interact with NPC’s for story progression and shops, find hidden goodies and fight various enemies roaming the landscapes. Sounds like a decent set-up but it has a few issues sadly. When you explore the world, you collect rings like in past Sonic titles and it feels great picking the golden objects up. Like you would expect, they are the currency used for purchasing items that you need for healing purposes. However there is one issue; the rings on the overworld do not replenish and you do not earn rings through battles. So how do you get more rings after you collect all the ones in an overworld?
The only option you have is to sell the items you earn in battle or find on the field and sell them to the shopkeepers to get more rings. It really is an odd system that pushes you to conserve items when you really shouldn’t need to; most RPG’s have you earning money/currency through combat encounters. The fact that isn’t present in Chronicles is strange to be honest but depending on how you enter battles, this is can be dealt with.
Battles have you using the touch screen to input command and select moves to preform. Once you select an attack Sonic and friends preform it but there is a unique system in place; depending on the character, you can preform X amount of actions in battle. So you can have Sonic continue to spin-dash into foes while Amy can wack someone with her hammer twice and Tails can finish things off by using his tinker ability to take apart a robot. It is fun getting things set up but one factor can make or break fights; the POW moves.
Using the touch screen, you drag and tap circles to preform special moves and if you fail to miss one circle or make a minor mistake, the move is messed up. Either it does little damage or the entire special move is effectively useless. This is a major issue for healing characters like Cream the Rabbit and tech characters like Eggman/Tails. It wastes resources and with the odd currency system in place, it’s difficult to stock up on more healing items.
It’s a good thing the game is quite easy overall, as while elements of the combat system are fustrating and have problems, it can be quite easy once you get used to commands and inputs. As you level up, you can even have special team POW attacks and set up your party to mirror iconic teams from games like ‘Sonic Heroes’. Want Team Dark to lay waste to a few robots? You can with little issue! Or how about having Tails slam Sonic into the ground in his ball form? You can do that too. While the method of imputing the POW attacks can be annoying, it is fun to pull off iconic moves across the Sonic series in RPG form.
Some customization is present in the game too, as you can collect Chao that follow your characters around in-combat offering buffs that can really help make fights more manageable. Looking for specific Chao is annoying due to how they are randomized and you could miss a very useful one, but the fact a system is in place for Chao’s is quite nice overall.
Overall, Sonic Chronicles on a pure gameplay and design front is disappointing due to how Bioware know show to make quality systems as shown through Mass Effect, Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic. So seeing simple issues present in Chronicles is confusing considering the studio’s pedigree. The issues don’t break the game or anything, but they are annoying when they could have been fixed by offering the ability to play the game with buttons, have a better currency system and other small fixes.
It’s hard to be positive for Chronicles here, as this is very poor even by DS standards. The console may not be the best for 3D visuals but many games in just the Sonic series itself prove the platform can offer decent 3D visuals. Graphics on display here are very poor, with horrible texturing and lack of detail being present across every character model in-game. Character Portraits in cut-scenes are nice looking and the background art that is hand-drawn is nice looking though, so not every aspect of the visual design is weak.
Music and overall sound design is horrific though. Sonic always had an unspoken rule; even if the game was very weak the soundtrack is always good. Sadly, Chronicles does not meet this rule outside of a few battle tracks sounding quite decent. Overworld music is composed of very poor remixes of iconic Sonic songs from Sonic & Knuckles and 3D Blast (Genesis & ****** versions) which is a shame considering the DS can handle quality music as shown through the Sonic Rush series.
Sound effects are also weak and sound very poor overall. Basic effects like hitting something sound really compressed and bit-crushed for example. Even the victory theme in battles is odd, with a ‘Yay!’ choirs of children speaking but it has such poor compression it sounds horrible instead of charming. It tries to sound good but keeps failing across the entire game. To put it bluntly, look at the following example; Sonic 3 & Knuckles had this great track playing for it’s final boss and it got remixed for Chronicles, it sounds so lovely in a remixed form doesn’t it?
Presentation is very weak outside of small bright spots fighting to come through.
Overall: 3 out of 5
Sonic Chronicles is a RPG that angers me for how poor the game ends up being. You have a talented studio working on Sonic and they made great work in the past. But the result here feels amateurish at best and mediocre at worst. While the story is enjoyable for the character interactions, core combat system is fun at times and some music tracks are okay….the overall package that is Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is a game I find very hard to recommend. If you enjoy RPG’s and can fight through the rough presentation, you will find a okay game burred under it’s problems.