Sonic, a name that has become synonymous with speed, rings and absurd boss battles. Back in the early nineties Sonic took the world by storm, not since Mario had we seen platforming so crisp, smooth and gorgeous, yet Sonic offered more with amazing level design that channelled his immense speed so fluidly that you'd constantly be on the edge of your seat to see what was coming next. The genres of platforming and RPG rarely mix, Mario RPG proved it could be done extremely well and now Bioware bring us Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood for Nintendo DS.
Personally, I've always been a fan of the blue hedgehog, ever since I was old enough to hold a controller the sonic games were always there so to me the surprise of having a full fledged Sonic RPG both excited and alarmed me. I knew Bioware were very competent at making RPG's, Mass Effect and the Knights of the Old Republic games are all masterpieces in their own right and KOTOR stays true to the content of the original source material, but sonic hasn't faired well these past few generations, with a few mediocre titles on 360 and Wii it seemed that all hope was lost for Sega's once great mascot.
The game begins with our hero being informed by Tails that Knuckles and the chaos emeralds have vanished. In a standard RPG all text is generally shown in a box at the bottom of the screen but in this case the dialogue is split across two screens, in the scenario above an image of Tails appears on the top screen and what he says appears in a box below the image on that screen, Sonic however is on the bottom screen as is his text, separating the text like this avoids any confusion as to who is speaking. The traditional style may not be much of an issue with seasoned RPG players who instinctively look at the name of the player talking in the box to know whose talking but for new players or even children it could become confusing so having it spread over two screens shows us that Bioware know the audience they are trying to cater for.
Before I go on I'd like to take a moment to talk about the conversation system a little more. In conversations you get different options when talking, much like Mass Effect. You can choose to ask questions to gain greater background knowledge of the story or you can simply choose to ignore them and continue with the game. It also offers different types of responses much like Mass Effect in that you can agree or disagree with what a character says, unlike Mass Effect it doesn't seem to effect the out come of a conversation as a character will simply dismiss what you say if it's negative.
After the quick chat you enter a small tutorial that explains basic functions of the game, how to interact with the surroundings and so forth, it also shows you with a little movie clip in case you accidentally skipped the tutorial text screen. Now you have control of Sonic with the stylus, how close the stylus is to the character determines the speed. So say you have the stylus right next to sonic he'll walk in that direction but if you put it to the edge of the screen he'll dart at a much faster pace.
Interacting with objects/scenery/anything is done by tapping little boxes that appear above the object, this controls everything from opening boxes to making sonic loop the loop which makes the control feel very distant as if you merely an observer who is only allowed to watch and not participate. Bioware have tried to spice it up by making obstacles that only certain characters can activate which helps when you don't want to reveal the entire map right away, you just make an obstacle that cannot be overcome by the current characters in the party. This method of limited interaction wouldn't be so bad but all actions are done this way and when you need to back track for missions it can be such a pain selecting the right character to get over an obstacle because only that character can fly or break boxes etc.
Sooner or later you'll run into a battle. The battle system to put it simply is a mixture of traditional RPG and Elite beat Agents style gameplay. I will now explain. When you enter a battle you select what you want to do (Attack, Items, etc) the battle plays out on the bottom screen with attack order and enemy HP on the top. The battle menu has an option called "POW Moves," POW Moves are super moves that do more damage, cause status effects and so forth but in order to activate a super move you have to tap a sequence of circles on the screen, much like Elite beat Agents, the combos are relatively easy though you may have trouble with timing if you've never played EBA. What really sets this battle system apart from others is the ability to defend enemy POW moves. If an enemy is about to do a POW move you must again do an EBA style minigame, if you succeed then the attack will do no damage, this helps in dire situations when say most of your party are incapacitated but the enemy is nearly dead, it can be the difference between victory and failure.
The combat system does have many problems however, all normal enemies you fight you do so by choice as all the monsters are shown within a level, there are no random encounters. If say you want to level grind because you feel like you're falling behind or you want to level up a few levels to fight a boss it can really become a chore, in some cases the enemy will try to run away meaning you have to play a minigame where your characters must jump over barrels to catch them, only if you catch can you actually fight them wasting time in the process. As great as the battle system looks and feels a regular battle with standard enemies that are well within your level should not take upwards of 4-5 minutes. Each of your characters get two attacks per round and at times you can almost guarantee every single hit will miss. The only real attack you are guaranteed to hit is a POW move if you punch it in correctly, this can get extremely tedious especially if you are in fact not trying to level grind and ran into an enemy accidently, but in those scenarios you can always run away.
As you play through you'll acquire Chao eggs, when these eggs hatch you'll get Chao's you can equip to characters in your party, these Chao are pretty cool as they act in the traditional RPG term as accessory items and grant special status effects such as power boosts for ground attacks and resistances to different elements. The fact that such an old concept, an accessory item has been given a facelift makes it feel new, fresh and helps to guide younger players who have never played RPG's into the traditions of the genre without seeming old and boring.
As said before exploring an area is done using different characters to reach certain areas of the map, as you explore the maps you'll soon find yourself in a puzzle where all your characters must work together to solve it, you can buy hints from people in the area but most times they're not very useful but can give you somewhere to start. Without much direction you can be scratching you head for quite a while trying to figure out what you're meant to do, the puzzles aren't that difficult once you understand what the game wants you to do though they may drive younger players to madness.
Graphically the game is played in isometric 3D for the exploration parts with the battles being played in full 3D. The graphics are sharp and detailed; all the artworks of the different emotions the characters portray are all very clean and beautifully done.
Music on the other hand can be a mixed bag; some of the tunes like the Green Hill Zone music is very catchy as well as the music in the prelude show real emotion and fit the game perfectly then others just simply sound wrong and can be very distracting. It makes me wonder why, in a game where the world is comprised of Zones, Zones from the original Sonic games, why they can't remix the old themes which would give a better sense of identity for each of the Zones, I don't know. The sound effects are catchy and stay very true to the roots of the Sonic series, right down to the sound of the jumps to the sound of the rings being collected is all the way it's supposed to be.
Portability of RPG's in the past has been poor, these games were originally designed to be played in the home where you could play for endless hours and save when you feel like it, recently the Square Enix remakes have included a Quick save feature to try and counter this which make save points seems a little unneeded, thankfully in sonic you can save anywhere as long as you aren't in a battle or a conversation meaning it's great for pretty much any trip that allows for short burst of game play.
All in all it's a pretty good game, the battle system and the controls have their problems but on the whole if you want an RPG that is something a little different this may be it. My only reservation is that it didn't need to be a Sonic game, it could have quite easily have been Mass Effect DS.