Back in the early 90’s Sonic the Hedgehog was one of gaming’s most iconic characters. As SEGA battled with Nintendo for lead in the console market (oh how times have changed) it was that spikey blue blur which lead the company’s charge.
Undeniably, things are different now. It’s no secret that the Sonic franchise has gone off the boil in recent years and some installments such as Shadow the Hedgehog have been nothing short of plain awful. However, like all great characters, the speedy little fella’ still has some life left in him and at the forefront of the brand’s revival, at least on handhelds, is Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood.
Developed by BioWare (of Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic fame) the game marks a great departure from the franchise’s past and not least because it is an RPG. Even the name, with words like “Chronicles” and “Dark Brotherhood” are far more sober, sombre and restrained than anything which has preceded it. Because so much of Sonic’s recent history has been about repeatedly recycling old ideas that in themselves weren’t that brilliant in the first place the purpose of Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood is for SEGA and Team Sonic to say “Hang on! We’ve actually put some thought about this game.”
So, what do you do if you want to show gamers that you not only do care about gamers but that you want to publish titles that aren’t simply the most banal shovelware imaginable? You get one of the industry’s most talented studios to develop it. Enter BioWare.
The most striking thing about picking up and playing Sonic Chronicles for the first time is that which has already been mentioned, it’s an RPG. The experience is unique, unusual and a surprisingly tactical affair for a Sonic title. Unlike its ancestors, Sonic Chronicles doesn’t play like one long delirious acid trip. You’ll find yourself actually thinking about what each character represents within the game’s structure and how they will best fit in to meet your strategic goals. In true RPG style, though you may have many characters in your party you can only have one “out” at any given time. Because you need each character’s unique abilities to solve puzzles in the game world you’ll find yourself constantly switching between them. This is at first incredibly annoying, however it does become easier and less awkward over time and in fact works as a clever way of reminding the player of each character and what unique qualities they bring to the experience not just in game, but in battle too.
Like so many RPG’s before it, battling in Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood is a strictly turn-based affair. Planning attacks in advance; learning the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy, and picking the right character for the right job is all part of the learning curb. However, in order to perform some of the game’s more powerful moves, players are forced to do some fancy work with the stylus. This will undoubtedly be annoying for traditional RPG fans, but it does add an element of skill to the experience and stops it being a purely dry, tactical affair. And to be honest, it isn’t that hard to do anyway.
As you may have guessed, and contrary to its main character’s defining qualities, Sonic Chronicles is quite slow moving. Though the action doesn’t fly by at a rate of knots it is by no means boring and giving players time to catch their breath creates a lot of opportunity for character building. In a similar vein to Mass Effect, BioWare has introduced the ability for players to steer in-game conversations in the direction of their choosing. Though the different dialogue choices are for the most part purely cosmetic they do mean that the depth of background plot and characterisation is a matter of player choice. That said, the script is well written with strong characters and a handful of genuinely funny moments. Unfortunately for the script, the general plot it delivers is clumsy and pretty predictable. It is only when the story diverges and goes off message that the most interesting dialogue comes through.
The elephant in the room for Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood however has nothing to do with the mechanics of play or the story that it delivers. What really makes this game stand out is the art direction. Conversely, for the low graphical capabilities of the Nintendo DS, Sonic Chronicles is beautiful to look at. Each environment is beautifully detailed and quite literally a watercolour masterpiece. The visuals are vibrant and stylistically strong without being either outfacing or distracting. It’s also quite a lot of fun seeing some of Sonic’s favourite haunts, such as Green Hill Zone, recreated in this pretty new style.
Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood marks a serious change of tune for the Sonic franchise. The game is gutsy and not afraid to let go some of the old clichés we’ve come to expect from a Sonic title. As such, it manages to offer a fresh slant on this classic IP that was, as far as we knew, all but spent. All is not well though, rather than achieving mass appeal the game manages to occupy an awkward middle-ground between a Sonic game and more general RPG. There is little here for people who aren’t already fans of Sonic, though it’s slow pace and RPG mechanic could alienate players inexperienced in this classic “hardcore” genre. That said, there is real charm in this game and it has the potential for real nostalgic appeal among those who remember the good old days of Sonic and want to see it re-imagined by the talent at BioWare.