Review: Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood (Nintendo DS)

Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood
Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Turn Based RPG
Release Date: 10/1/2008


So here’s the thing: I love Sonic, but there is no denying that he hasn’t had a super quality game in a long time. He’s gone from the standard-bearer of 16 bit goodness to the standard-bearer for a guaranteed crap game. How sad is it that the best game he’s been in for several years was Super Smash Bros. Brawl, a game not even made by Sega? Well, thanks to BioWare, history has a chance to repeat itself.

So here’s the other thing: I generally love BioWare. Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate, and even though I dislike Star Wars, I can’t deny the KOTOR games were better than anything I’ve played for that franchise since the old Empire Strikes Back game for the Atari 2600. However, one thing sticks in my craw, and it’s the knowledge that Bioware bullies reviewers into high scores. I remember when I gave Jade Empire a 7/10 and pointed out what is now common knowledge – that the game was far too easy, the plot was threadbare, and it lacked the depth and quality of their previous games. So what happened? I received harassing phone calls both in the office AND AT HOME from Bioware demanding someone else review the game so that it gets a 9 or 10 score. They called Bebito, Pankonin and Widro as well, all with the same menacing tone that we better do a second review and give the game “what it deserves.” So we reviewed it two more times. Matt Yaeger gave it a 7.5 and Chuck Platt gave it a 4.5. Instead of responding, BioWare simply blacklisted us for not “playing ball” and we haven’t heard a peep from them in years. Makes you wonder how many review sites they did manage to bully, eh? In the end Jade Empire came and went and the last we heard of it both we and our readers voted it the “Most Overhyped Game of 2005.”

However, being the quality unbiased journalists that we are, we didn’t hold BioWare’s attitude against them. Just last year, six of us put Mass Effect in our personal top ten for 2007 and it won “360 GOTY” and “Best Story” in our 2007 awards. See, even if the company has some jerks in it, we can still respect a quality product.

So why am I relating this little story? Because much like Jade Empire, I found Sonic Chronicles to be an underwhelming title and that the reviews for the game are grossly inflated. To be honest, I found it to be one of the most boring RPG’s I have ever played, and Cthulhu knows I have played hundreds. So with that in mind, allow me to expound upon why Sonic Chronicles is headed for the recycle bin and to let BioWare know my cell phone hasn’t changed since that Jade Empire review. Just try to call after 8am EST this time.

Let’s Review

Story

Sonic and pals team up to fight robots and occasionally other monsters that get in their way! Wow, that’s totally original and unheard of. Sonic fights robots as often as Mega Man, but for once, these are not robots from Dr Robotnik. Yes, they actually refer to his as Robotnik at times in this game. Thank god. The change to Dr. Eggman remains one of the stupidest renames in gaming history, even if it is his name in Japan. Alas, the two do get flip-flopped so I can imagine this is confusing to younger gamers or people new to Sonic. On the plus side, Robotnik does join your team at one point, but even this isn’t unheard of in Sonic games at this point.

Here’s the thing: if you are familiar with Sonic characters at all thanks to the cartoon, Archie comic, and the plethora of games, then you will be okay with the utter lack of depth, characterization, and plot in this game. Why? Because you already know Sonic. It seems like BioWare was scared to do anything but maintain the status quo of the characters. Every bit of dialogue is almost thrown in so that the game has some sort of story. Every character is two-dimensional, transparent, and insipid. Now I’ve played RPG’s geared for younger gamers ranging from Rhapsody to Pokemon, but at least those games have plot development, character progression and better dialogue. When a game boils down to “The government tells you to go save Knuckles and the Emeralds from robots,” it’s pretty sad and insipid.

This is easily the worst story I have encountered in an RPG. But then, BioWare’s never been good with plots, only with engines, so I shouldn’t be surprised. I was just disappointed by how utterly shallow this game was in every regard. Even the hideous Shadow the Hedgehog had a better story than this thing. Again, this game’s plot is only going to appeal to longtime Sonic fans, and that’s because they can fill in the massive plot and personality gaps in the game thanks to the long history of the characters. Anyone else should be deeply insulted by the absolute lack of content plotwise in this cart.

Story Rating: Worthless

2. Graphics

Sonic Chronicles is not what I would call a pretty game. The cut scenes are jaggy and you get the same exact ones going from one location to another. Considering Adventure games get crap for this all the time, Sonic Chronicles should too. At least the rate of motion and pixilation is superior in those point and click titles. These just look sloppy and rushed.

Character designs are adorable and well done as always, but this appears to be because BioWare was going off Sega’s designs. All the new enemies (and allies) in the game are shabby, poorly rendered and very generic. There’s no originality to them at all. It’s also annoying to see the same 2-3 enemies in a “zone” and nothing else. It would have been nice to have had a little more variety. Remember the old 8 bit RPG’s where a lot of monsters were just palette swaps? Well even if you got rid of those, there would still be more of a variety of monsters than there are in this game.

Level designs are pretty bad as well. Colours are dull and muted and the game looks like it is an early GBA title rather than a title in the midlife of the DS. It’s funny because at one point the Sonic franchise was known for its bright, colourful and vibrant graphics. Sonic Chronicles, however, doesn’t even test the waters of the DS’ graphical capabilities. I hesitate to call it an ugly half assed piece of work, but it’s pretty close to that benchmark.

This is the ugliest and dingiest Sonic title I have ever seen on a hand held, and that include both the Game Gear and the Atari Lynx versions. I’m sitting here wondering how someone could have okayed everything from the bloblike humans to the badly designed villains you face. Huge disappointment.

Graphics Rating: Bad

3. Sound

I love that there are some classic Sonic sound effects in here, such as the revving dash noise and the bouncing off the red star bumpers. This was a wonderful little retro throwback that made me happy each time I heard them. Sadly, this was about all there was to like about the auditory capacity of this game.

There is no voice acting. This isn’t a big deal to me personally, but I know it will bother some RPG fans who have come to expect it. What does bother me is the really lackluster music. It’s at best dull, and at worst annoying. I found I enjoyed the game better with the sound off or something else taking its place as background noise.

Battle effects are hit or miss depending on the character. There is such a limited variety of sound in the game that everything will start to grate on you. I far preferred the noises of your characters special attacks, called POW moves, to your enemies, which again, are at times an assault on your eardrums.

The music was not my cup of tea, and the sound effects ranged from nostalgia induced fun to “Where’s my Ipod?” Thumbs down here.

Sound Rating: Poor

4. Control and Gameplay

I have a lot of severe issues with the gameplay of Sonic Chronicles. While I think the gameplay style is a great idea in theory, in practice, it’s pretty awful. My chief complaint is that the game is nearly impossible to play as a portable title. Sitting at home on your sofa? Sure, the controls work fine. On a bus, on the tube, or in any place where portable game systems are meant to be played? The game is sucktastic.

The control issues stem from the fact you have to use the stylus for everything. Now there are some games where this is fine, like Brain Age, but when your characters live or die based on the POW moves going on and you have to monkey with the stylus frequently, it can be a real pain to do this in public. Factor in the fact that there are a few stylus detection issues with the game, and that makes it all the worse. I tried the game on three different DS’s and found the problem to be universal. If you hold your DS at certain angles, even if you are tracing action lines or hitting circles exactly as you are supposed to, the game won’t register them. This is what we call unacceptable. Again, playing Sonic Chronicles in your back yard or lying on your bed will reduce these problems, but the fact you can’t play a portable game in locations or manners that the entire concept of portable gaming was founded on make me say, “You should have made this for the Wii.”

Controlling Sonic and friends outside of battle is mind-boggingly slow. There is something nigh unholy about Sonic moving slower than a morbidly obese woodchuck, but it is in fact so. You can not use the D pad at all to move your characters around the zone map. Instead you have to use the stylus and have it guide your characters around maps with constantly respawning enemies. Again, this can be quite tricky to do in a public setting, especially when you are trying to dodge the same monster that appeared 5-6 times before. Of course, I could bitch here about the fact that the monsters you encounter will always be the same grouping in the same location without any real change, but that’s akin to peeing on a burning man in an attempt to douse the inferno.

Battles are exceptionally boring and again, in a bit of a middle finger to everything Sonic stands for, are slow and monotonous. In combat your team (ranging from 1-4 characters) squares off in typical turn based fashion. Characters and enemies go in the order of speed, and depending on how fast you are, characters might even get two or three hits in per round. In combat you have two choices of attacks. The first is your standard normal physical attack which tends to do very little damage and is often useless in the majority of battles. Your other option is to use one of your many POW attacks. These tend to do a lot more damage, but only if you follow the move guidelines with your stylus exactly. Mess up and you’ve wasted POW points (which are absurdly low for all your characters throughout the first half of the game and insanely high for the latter half) and your characters move while the computer controlled opponents go on to rape you.

These POW move guides range from following a moving line with your stylus at the same exact speed the computer is going at (which again is molasses speed making me wonder why this isn’t called the Anti-Sonic Chronicles), touching the screen in a certain area a specific number of times before time runs out, or hitting the screen when a larger circle overlaps with a small one. Again, great in theory, awful if you are on a 30 minute subway ride. Even worse, the move commands are exactly the same each time and in the same order/speed/etc. Thus if you are playing ONLY at home (which defeats the point of a portable gaming system), you can do these moves in your sleep. There really is no reason to not get perfect combos after the third or fourth time you do a specific POW move.

Bottom line – this is a slow paced game, which is ironic because it’s a Sonic the Hedgehog title, that sports some awful controls and a poorly though out movement system on the world map. The game is either too easy or nigh unplayable, depending on your location and the angle of your DS, and it frankly appalls me how poorly done this is. Ick.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Bad

5. Replayability

Here we have the saving grace of Sonic Chronicles. With a decent cast of playable characters that you can mix and match to form your perfect team, you can easily replay this game multiple times with a different feel on each playthrough. Each character has their own set of skills you can purchase and advance in any order you prefer, meaning you can drastically change how you play say, Tails, each time. Make him a defensive powerhouse that heals all the time one game, and then an offensive juggernaut the next. I will warn you that about half the POW moves each character learns are pretty useless, so although you have the option to really change things around, you’ll find yourself repeating many of your decisions from one game to the next.

There are a lot of sub-quests in Sonic Chronicles and even a hidden character or two. Even with a short completion time of about 15-20 hours, I was pretty impressed by all the quests you could discover and even more impressed with how long some could take to complete.

If you can overlook the graphics, auditory, and gameplay issues with this title due to a strong love affair with Sonic, you can probably get a lot of mileage out of this game.

Replayability Rating: Good

6. Balance

A big issue I have with this game is how lopsided the game is. For the first half of the game you have too little POW points and your normal attacks are pretty weak so you’re healing a lot. By the end of the game though, you probably have too many points and are doing insane amounts of damage. This is because the power of your moves go up, but the point cost does not. See how horribly planned out this is? Who makes these kinds of mistakes?

The other issue, of course, is how easy it is to consistently score perfects on your POW moves, as long as you hold the DS at the right angle.

Another asinine comes with how you or enemies run from battles. If you choose this option, you and the enemies must then run a race. If you run, you have to run the obstacle course without the enemies catching up to you. If the enemies flee, you have to run the course and catch up with them. You also have no choice in running after them. So if the enemy is stronger than you and you are happy the computer did its strange and random running away option, you have to run the course anyway. The computer also makes you auto run, and all you do is jump over obstacles or collect rings. Again – poorly thought out here, and I can’t imagine how anyone could enjoy this utterly unbalanced title.

Balance Rating: Bad

7. Originality

Once again Sonic manages to do something years after Mario first tried it, and does it so poorly, it’s embarrassing. Mario did tennis, and it was fun. Sonic did tennis in Sega Superstars Tennis and it was awful. Mario has half a dozen RPG’s at this point and although I’m not a Mario fan, they are considered quite good. Sonic Chronicles is, by comparison, utterly laughable. Still, this is the first foray for our little hedgehog friend and there is something to be said about breaking new ground for a franchise many consider to have seen its best days two console generations ago.

The plot is hackneyed, the characters have no development at all and the game relies on your knowledge of their previous exploits rather than trying to flesh them out in the slightest, and even the POW moves appear to be lifted from better titles like Elite Beat Agents or The World Ends With You.

The only thing truly original here besides punting Sonic in to a new genre is that they’ve managed to make the poor guy suck in an entirely new genre.

Originality Rating: Bad

8. Addictiveness

This is without a doubt the most boring RPG I have ever had this misfortune to play. Nightmare of Druaga? Better. CIMA: The Enemy? More original. Shining Force Neo? Okay, well that was about as much a kick to the groin for that franchise as Sonic Chronicles. In both casees, neither dev team respected what came before it or had any inkling of what made the respective fanbases love these games.

This game sucked the life and joy out of me, it was that boring to me. All I wanted was a little depth, a moment without an obvious cliche, or a piece of dialogue that wasn’t trite, but Sonic Chronicles failed at every stop along the route to my destination of never picking up a Sonic title again. Good job there BioWare, you effectively put the final nail in the coffin for a franchise I’ve enjoyed for well over a decade. Clap clap clap.

Addictiveness Rating: Worthless

9. Appeal Factor

Here’s the thing: BioWare has some rabid fanboys who love everything they put out… at least for a few months, before the hype dies down and people realize aside from some amazing D&D titles, Bioware puts out pretty mediocre stuff. The same can be said about Sonic fans. Even though Shadow the Hedgehog was universally reviled, lots of people bought it. Heck, we can do this example repeatedly over the last five years showing how Sonic games have been utter crap and yet people KEPT BUYING THEM. This is what we call sheep mentality, and I have no doubt that Bioware + Sonic is going to equal people who will defend this game to the death, even though it’s a heavily flawed title. And you know what? There is nothing wrong with that. Every game is someone’s favorite, and even the most popular game has its naysayers. Even though I hated this game, I am aware there are thousands out there that will love it for what it is, or perhaps in SPITE of what it is, and send me angry letters or posts to this blog full of profanity because god forbid I have a difference of opinion with them. How sad is that?

Sonic Chronicles will sell. It will get good ratings because we’re all aware of what BioWare is willing to do to get good ratings. So there is an audience for this game. It’s just not me.

Appeal Factor: Mediocre

10. Miscellaneous

What more can be said? This was not a good game. It’s one of the most vapid Sonic games I have ever played, the controls are sluggish and slow which is a direct slap in the face to the characters and their speedy nature, and the game’s ultimate flaw is that it is a portable title on a portable system that is not portable friendly.

The game has some nice options and some ideas would have been great on the Wii instead of the DS, but instead, the end result is a title I hope to never lay eyes on again. It’s not quite an awful game, but Sonic Chronicles is certainly deserves to be called a BAD one. Maybe it’s just my preference for RPG’s like Shining Force, Persona, Valkyrie Profile or Lunar: SSSC, but this game was a pretty sad lackluster RPG.

Miscellaneous Rating: Poor

The Scores
Story: WORTHLESS
Graphics: BAD
Sound: POOR
Control and Gameplay: BAD
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: BAD
Originality: BAD
Addictiveness: WORTHLESS
Appeal Factor: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: BAD
FINAL SCORE: Pretty Poor Game

Short Attention Span Summary

When a Sonic game is slow, plodding and monotonous, you know something is wrong. Throw in a badly done battle engine and gameplay that is rather hard to do in the stereotypical places one plays portable games, and you have a recipe for failure. There was absolutely nothing that appealed to me about this game, and as I love both Sonic and RPG’s, this was a huge disappointment. Unless you are a BioWare zombie or a hardcore Sonic zealot, my best advice is to stay away. FAR away.

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