I’m back from my week-long vacation of watching two crazy dogs. Two! Whoever heard of such a thing? And man, they were so crazy. They were running around and barking at each other and all sorts of other crazy dog things. I deserve a medal.
However, while I was watching these two crazy dogs I was also near a Gamespot (a thing that I’m not near when I’m not watching two crazy dogs) and so I made good on my promise and nabbed Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood on the cheap.
I see what BioWare is trying to do here. With Dark Brotherhood they’re trying to redeem Sonic, make him cool again. What’s more, they’re not rebooting the series either. They’re incorporating all the plot and characters that the series has accumulated over the years. Retaining all this excess junk while trying to bring Sonic back to its roots isn’t easy. It’s a lofty goal.
In level II of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Chemical Plant Zone) there is a point where the path veers underwater. Water is very dangerous to Sonic. It slows him down and, if he doesn’t reach an air bubble in time, kills him. This path leads to a vertical shaft with rotating platforms. Sonic must ride these platforms up and out of the water to continue. Unfortunately, the jumping physics underwater make getting up these platforms difficult. If the player is too hasty and doesn’t time his jumps right he will fall back down the shaft. What’s more, there are no air bubbles nearby so falling down the shaft usually results in death.
It’s a choke point in the game. It requires patience to get through. Something that Sonic is not about. This section kills the momentum of the game and it’s no fun. Smart players go out of their way to avoid it (not me though. I always seem to end up on it on my playthroughs–accompanied with a sigh of exasperation each time).
If the entire Sonic franchise is Chemical Plant Zone then the first few games on the Genesis are the early fun speedy parts of the level and every game afterwards is this vertical shaft. The series is trying hard to escape from it. But try as it might it can’t escape falling to its death.
Dark Brotherhood represents the best attempt to escape yet. It doesn’t make it. I do appreciate BioWare trying to keep all of Sonic’s history. It’s noble of them to try and make all this crap good. Sculpting Michelangelo’s David out of a pile of poop doesn’t change the fact you’re working with shit. Likewise, trying to turn Amy Rose into less of a stalker stereotype and more of an actual character doesn’t change the fact that you’re using freakin Amy Rose.
BioWare’s main tactic to combat Sonic’s over bloated and over dramatic cannon is to stay light and inject a lot of irrelevance into the characters personalities. But this conflicts with the fact that they are retaining all the cannon and make references to the big plots of past Sonic games. This leaves the game feeling thin. I do want Sonic to return to the lighthearted adventures that defined the early games but I don’t think anything short of a complete reboot is going to accomplish it.
As for the gameplay… well… it just isn’t fun. As should be obvious RPG battles don’t mix well with a series about speed. BioWare tries hard to make Sonic work as an RPG. There are Elite Beat Agents type events where you must use the stylus to tape on-screen markers at the right time to strengthen or dodge special attacks. And while these events do keep the battles actiony they aren’t enough to negate the main problem with the battle system.
Basically, they’re too slow. Not only does the engine drag leading to lots of little load times (it really isn’t so bad but in a Sonic game it stands out) but it also takes forever to tell your characters to attack. There’s no auto-battle function. Just telling the team to perform basic attacks on one enemy takes eight taps. It’s far too many to just set up a round of basic combat. And if I want to throw a special attack in there that adds to how many taps it takes to start. It may not sound like much but after battle after battle it gets really annoying. A single tap auto-battle button would have solved everything.
What’s worse, the combat is based on agility rather than the strength versus defense stats that RPGs traditionally use. This means a strong enemy is going to be harder to hit instead of hit for a small amount of damage. Which in turn means that characters often miss attacks. And a missed attack is a null-value which is frustrating on its own AND means more rounds of combat which slow everything down. This system might have worked better in another game but here where I just want to go go go it’s boring and tedious.
BioWare put some of their trademark complexity into the battle system and character growth but tend to keep it too simple, this is a Sonic game after all, and again it’s too little to be interesting and ends up making the game fell thin.
BioWare tries hard to redeem Sonic with Dark Brotherhood but it’s just too much of a challenge. The series remains stuck in that vertical shaft. Sometimes it’s just better to reset and take another path. Which, sadly, isn’t something I see the Sonic franchise doing any time soon.