Sonic’s first ever RPG experience is released in Europe tomorrow, September the 26th, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few hours hands-on time with the game already. Can Sonic’s speed rejuvenate the often dull RPG genre?
To Sonic Chronicles‘ credit, it dismisses the often-lengthy introductions seen in RPGs, and you’re guiding Sonic around the Green Hill Zone within seconds, just as things should be. The whole game is stylus-controlled, with characters following your pen to run, fly, climb and smash their way around the map, but the real control innovations are found in the game’s battle scenes.
Each character has access to several Power Moves, each of which has a different method of activation – some require you to drag your stylus along paths, others are more timing-based and have you tapping targets in rhythm. The added interaction makes the battle system much more interesting, particularly as you can also counter enemy Power Moves in a similar fashion, keeping your attention at all times. There are similarities to classic Sega RPGs as well – veterans of the Phantasy Star series as well as Skies of Arcadia and Shining the Holy Ark fans will feel right at home with the turns-based, squad-of-four fights.
The story so far hasn’t kicked into high gear yet, but it references various stories, mainly focusing on those since Sonic Adventure, as well as more obscure plots such as the Emerl situation from Sonic Battle. Pleasingly there’s an in-depth Codex that explains any characters or events that may be unfamiliar, but there are also unexpected cameo appearances from characters along the way to fill in any blanks. I’m reserving judgment on the story until I’ve got past Chapter Two, but so far it’s done its job and kept me playing past the introductory levels.
As you progress through the game, you encounter Chao, which you can “bond” (equip) to your character, giving you bonuses such as a free revival or elemental attacks. Each enemy has different elemental resistances, so it’s important to change Chao to water if you spot a robot enemy on the world map, for example. These Chao can be traded with friends to increase their power – initially this was advertised as a Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection feature, but it is only available via local multiplayer, sadly. It’s not a huge loss as Chao aren’t that important, but considering the best way to discover and maximise all Chao is to trade with completely different people you might struggle unless you have a large circle of DS-owning, Sonic RPG-craving friends.
Graphically the game is very well-presented, with beautifully drawn environments and characters, which take their cues from the Sonic Adventure and Sonic X versions of the characters, which is fine by me. Some textures are rough and occasionally items and character portraits have a blocky white line around them, which lets the overall polished feel of the game down, although this could just be me not being used to the DS (having been a PSP owner for the past eight months). The sound quality is good, with new themes sitting alongside remixes of classic Sonic tunes very nicely, as you’d expect from any game blessed by the touch of the one and only Richard Jacques.
I’ve got a few gripes with the game though, the main one being its sometimes confusing terminology and statistics system – characters have both Defence and Armour attributes, yet the differences aren’t fully explained. In fact, characters with low Armour often have increased Defence, making you wonder quite what the point is. There’s also a huge range of status problems, including Weakened, Empowered, Sluggish, Fortified and Vulnerable, most of which are caused by Power Moves. Although the in-game help explains these effects, it isn’t available mid-battle, often leaving you unsure of the effects of your Power Moves.
As I said earlier, I’ve only spent a few hours on the game, which is an achievement in itself as it’s not officially released in Europe until tomorrow, and next Tuesday in the US! I won’t give it a score yet, but I will say that it’s a very enjoyable mixture of extremely fast-paced battles and Sonic Adventure-style exploration and skills-based gameplay. The real joy for me will come when the rare weapons and items begin to show up, and each character begins to play a more important role in battle – early RPG battles are almost always simply a case of everyone attacking at once!
Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is definitely worth buying if you’re a Sonic fan, or even just a DS owner after a good-looking and substantially different RPG that eschews the usual dungeon plod in favour of a good helping of action.