It's like the Sonic version of Justice League!
Poor Sonic can’t get a break. Everyone’s favorite blue hedgehog hasn’t starred in a decent console game since the excellent Sonic Adventure for Dreamcast (later ported to the GameCube). Well, along comes Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, a strong effort by BioWare, developer of such RPG heavyweights as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. True to form, Chronicles is an RPG that bizarrely hybridizes platforming, turn-based combat, and BioWare’s obsession with dialogue trees. Super Mario RPG is probably the most comparable game, but Sonic Chronicles does not rise to the lofty standard held by the SNES masterpiece. Still, while Chronicles’ failures somewhat outweigh its triumphs, the game does have its moments.
For one, the story is interesting. After the supposed final defeat of Dr. Eggman, Sonic takes a well-deserved vacation but returns home to find Knuckles kidnapped, local wildlife acting hostile, and Eggman’s old droids stirring up trouble. With Amy in tow, Sonic sets out to investigate. Without ruining anything, in the first few hours of gameplay, you find Knuckles, your party size swells to eight members, and your true enemies are revealed. And you’ve probably gotten your ass handed to you a dozen times by the frustrating combat system.
Battles are not so much challenging as ridiculously long. Minor overworld enemies provide a considerable challenge, even when you clearly out-level them. Lots of enemies, and I mean lots, regenerate health either at the start of a new round or after attacking you. This is okay when they leech health at a 1:1 ratio (or lower), but when a bad guy hits you for 29 damage and regains ALL of his health it's called overkill, and it is a rampant problem. Another problem is that your team, which eventually includes more than ten members, is not well balanced. For example, Rouge is useless, save for her one armor-piercing special attack. Once you incorporate Cream (the requisite healer) into your active party of four characters, the need for HP and MP-replenishing items is largely done away with. Meanwhile, Sonic and Knuckles provide all the muscle you’ll need, and fights are rarely won through alternate means. Tails has the ability to stun robots, but why stun an opponent when you can just attack it? Special moves tend to have elemental affinities which, in theory, are more potent against certain enemies, but it’s never obvious which element affects which enemy type, so exploiting them requires way too much trial and error.
All special attacks leverage the touch screen. Let’s say you want to use Sonic’s Blue Bomber attack. First, you have to keep your stylus in the center of a circle as it moves across the screen. Then, you have to tap a different circle with the stylus at the right moment (when it turns green). Then repeat the moving circle trick, and tap two more circles. Sometimes it takes a dog’s age to perform a single special attack. Problems that crop up with touch detection and stylus movement speed only make things worse. The game will often think you’re sliding the stylus too slowly, or you’re not tapping the circles at exactly the right moment. The worst part is that if you don’t connect the dots exactly right, your attack will be weakened or, worse, fail entirely. Many special attacks—I’d say the majority of them—rely on two or more characters being active at the same time. Sonic’s Blue Bomber attack requires both him and Tails, for example. Other attacks require more characters. Since many party configurations produce ineffective combo attacks, this really limits your options when choosing party members. All in all, the battles are frustrating, and I was never able to get into a comfortable rhythm, even during minor skirmishes. By the end of the game, players will actively avoid confrontations and dread every fight they engage in.
Map exploration is pretty fun, though. Maps are 2D and require character-swapping to solve puzzles, as certain structures can only be navigated by certain characters. For example, only Sonic can zip around a loop, and only Amy can smash boxes. Maps are designed with a Super Metroid progression in mind. Can’t get up that wall? Come back with Knuckles. Tails and Rogue can’t fly that far yet? Level them up until their movement bonus gets an upgrade. One common upgrade comes in the form of Chaos. Found lying about the maps, they can also be equipped by characters to provide combat bonuses. They are randomized, so you never know what kind of Chao you will get until you pick it up. There are forty different Chaos, and to get all of them, you will need a whole lot of luck and/or a friend to trade with. The platforming sections are the game’s great strength, but they sadly take a backseat to the combat.
Sonic Chronicles is an interesting experiment, and from the game’s cliffhanger ending, a sequel is clearly in the works. Hopefully it will fix this game's touch screen controls and other frustrating combat issues. The storyline, art direction, and world exploration are top-notch here, but the tiresome combat sucks the life out of an otherwise enjoyable adventure. The Sonic faithful will like this one, but everyone else can be safely assured that they aren’t missing much.