Reviewed in October 2008.
As a child, I absolutely adored Sonic the Hedgehog. He was cool, he was fast and his games were pioneering at the time alongside his arch rival Mario (who was a plumber, so it’s not like he could be that cool anyway). The problem was as Sonic got older; he turned into an unruly teenager that went off the beaten track rebelling against what he was traditionally good at. It probably didn’t help that his faithful owner, Sega, suffered similar problems floundering in the wake of the might of Sony and Nintendo’s dogged determination to survive. Arguably the last good, and memorable, Sonic game was back on the now defunct Dreamcast, Sonic Adventure way back in 1998. Since then Sonic has tried to be a 3d platformer, an Olympian, a tennis player, a speed racer and even a beat em star, but none of it has quite managed to be any good. In fact for the most part, the only good games starring Sonic in the past 10 years have been re-releases of his classic appearances from the Megadrive. The saddest thing is there must be a whole generation of game players that have no idea just how much fun Sonic once was. And to round it off, Sonic’s archrival Mario has gone from strength to strength thanks to his successful conversion to 3D. I could go on and on about where I think it all went wrong for Sonic but instead let’s look at a small redemption for Sonic, from one of the most unlikely sources, the turn based RPG genre.
Funnily enough the other half of this unlikely RPG is another love of mine: Bioware. In case you’ve been living under a rock for most of the decade, Bioware developed the Baldur’s Gate series, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic and most recently, Mass Effect. Their RPG pedigree is one of the strongest in the industry, I’ve yet to see them not turn a concept to gold. They are truly masters at their art. However, when it was announced they would be creating a Sonic based RPG, it was a bit of a surprise. Just how well could Bioware capture the essence of this high speed hero in the relatively slow paced genre of RPGs?
It’s perhaps a little predictable that despite the grandeur of the RPG nature, the story of Sonic Chronicles is incredibly similar to every other Sonic game ever made. Essentially, Sonic isn’t up to much having beaten Dr Eggman (Robotnik was a much better name!) until Tails informs him that Knuckles has been kidnapped along with all the Chaos Emeralds (always an essential feature of any Sonic plotline). Cue Sonic and friends trying to rescue Knuckles and track down all the Chaos Emeralds before the world is destroyed. Sonic fans will love the selection of playable characters on offer. They range from Amy Rose and Tails to some I can’t remember from other games such as Cream the Rabbit (?!). There are also a few surprise additions that I won’t mention so as not to ruin the story. As the story is pretty lightweight and predictable, you certainly don’t want me ruining the minor twists! Luckily, the dialogue used is not so lightweight and uninteresting. There are plenty of options for what you want Sonic to say when engaged in conversation, and some of it is quite funny in places. A sign of the strength that Bioware has when it comes to good dialogue as demonstrated in their earlier titles although it’s a pity none of it bears a long term effect on the characters.
Perhaps the main make or break feature to any RPG is its combat system, and this one is pretty unique. Initially it goes for quite a similar system to many RPGs, such as the ability to avoid encounters by stepping around the enemy on the map screen. Once in a battle, it goes to a separate screen with a menu based system to attack or use items. All very typical RPG behaviour. However, there are a few subtle differences. For one, there are POW moves, special attacks that once activated involve the use of the DS stylus in a small mini game where you have to mimic the movements required to perform the move. The first few times, it’s quite good fun but it can get a little repetitive after a while. Enemies can also perform these moves sometimes, so to defend against them, you have to perform a similar defensive mini game. Your enemy can also attempt to run from the battle setting off another mini game where you have to chase them, it very nearly feels like Sonic again, until you realise it’s on rails and all you can do is press a button to jump over boxes. The fighting itself is far from challenging and the limited options available can make things a bit unexciting after a while. The control system outside of fighting can take a little bit of getting used to and personally I found it quite irritating. The only way to move about is with the stylus, the d-pad doesn’t work at all. It is a good use of the stylus but I did keep finding myself desperately wanting to be able to use the d-pad instead. To jump up obstacles on the map, you also need to use the stylus which detracts a bit from feeling like you’re interacting with the game. It feels too counter intuitive to be completely comfortable. There are some simple puzzle elements that require a certain character depending on the type of obstacle. For example, only Sonic can do loop the loops.
The presentation of the game is perfect for younger gamers. It offers bright, cheery looking graphics for the most part and a simple inventory system to use that is clearly laid out. Overall really, this game could only really be suitable to Sonic fans and younger gamers. Sonic fans will love a change of pace and a slight return to form for the blue spikey wonder. It also forms a fantastic introduction to the RPG world for kids, it is lightweight enough that they won’t get bogged down by statistics yet it’ll still introduce them to the basic concepts of RPGs before they move onto some of the true classics on the DS such as the Final Fantasys and the forthcoming Chrono Trigger. It’s a great first effort by Bioware and I hope they learn from their mistakes with this game and release a sequel that does Sonic justice.