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What could be stranger than a Sonic RPG? A Sonic RPG developed by Bioware, a Western company. Nevertheless, it's here, and if the majority of the public can be believed, it's Sonic's last chance to show promise before he ends up in the dumpster. But in reality, things are never so black and white, and Sonic's success is no different. More a Japanese RPG than a Western one, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood manages to do a few things right, a few things wrong, and more than a few in between.
Sonic's latest tale begins after what appears to be the final defeat of Eggman (Dr. Robotnik). Sonic took a leave of absence, but he's back, and it's a good thing, because Knuckles is missing. As the last of the echidnas and guardian of the Master Emerald, a source of great power, Knuckles must be found and rescued from the clutches of an evil organization bent on using the stolen Master Emerald and seven Chaos Emeralds to rule the world. Sonic and friends immediately embark upon a journey to do just that.
When the simplicity and immaturity of the Sonic franchise is injected with the complexity and maturity of Bioware, a predictable, but well told story results, with light-hearted, fun characters, and well-written dialogue. The story is slow to amount to much of anything, and the plot quests the characters embark upon aren't particularly original or thrilling. Even its climax is disappointingly simple, as the archetypical, undeniably evil villain appears to take over the world. After that, players can expect an extended fetch quest to reclaim the stolen Emeralds, which are the random source of ultimate power in this particular game. Although the plot is mundane, Bioware didn't take it seriously or draw it out like JRPGs often do. In between the action are characters who are well defined, if not deeply developed, who manage to raise the player's spirits on occasion. There's more dialogue than expected in such a shallow adventure, the majority of which is fresh and entertaining. Overall, the story is a juvenile one, backed up by decent and likeable characters and cut off in the end by an intriguing set up for a sequel.
Not only is the cast of characters fun, but it's quite large, with ten for the player to choose from, not including Sonic. Each character has strengths and weaknesses in battle, and the player can only modify their stats on a very basic level. Some characters will always deal more damage than others, for example, while some posses fewer special attacks than the rest. The innate differences between characters help define them, and a system like this contrasts well with the more common one in which characters end up being identical due to overcustomization. Some players may be disappointed, however, by the imbalance of power among the party members; once the player discovers a few of the better characters, he's likely to use the others only when forced.
Each of Sonic Chronicles' environments boasts a mix of NPC interaction, combat, and exploration. NPCs commonly give out optional quests or storyline information, enemies are visible and represent a single combat encounter, and gold rings and treasure litter each zone for the explorer types to gather. Combat is carried out in turns like any other JRPG, with special moves requiring rhythm-based stylus tricks for execution. Depending upon the player's accuracy and skill, the attack or defensive maneuver is more or less successful. Finding all of the items and rings (the game's currency) in an environment can be less than straightforward, as they're kept in distant corners of the maps. By using characters' field abilities (similar to those in Wild ARMs), players gain access to secret sections of the maps that hold numerous collectable items.
Using the field abilities to collect every ring and item on a map is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Sonic Chronicles. Exploration is at its finest here, at least for handheld RPGs. Combat, however, varies in enjoyment, and typically offers little to none. When enemies fall quickly, the combat can be fun, but most enemies take far too many strikes to die. While the special attacks ensure your attention to the action (fail too often, and you'll have to load a saved game), battles are simply too long and repetitive to be enjoyable. Additional combat vexations include the occasional unresponsive rhythm attack and unbalanced experience, items, and damage. Finally, there are often too many enemies on each map with short respawn periods. Players will flee more times than they can count, and although it's great fun to explore each area, you'll just want to get out for fear of running into another ten-minute battle, or perhaps to stop your ears from bleeding.
Every time a monster spots Sonic on the field, it will growl, screech, or make some other, less appropriate sound depending upon its nature. As if insane repetition weren't enough, they're also about as abrasive as marbles in a blender. The combat sound effects aren't quite as offensive, but they're loud and obnoxious nonetheless, and the music doesn't help cover up these aural abominations.
Sonic Chronicles possesses a unique soundtrack, but it's one of the simplest to be heard in recent RPG history. Most tracks aren't as offensive as the sound effects, but some of them attempt to form a melody from a string of beeps and blips, to no positive effect. They're jarring to hear, and will give players will find yet another reason to flee any area where they play. There are one or two interesting, nostalgic electronic tracks, or rather, pieces of tracks, but they are otherwise forgettable and sometimes terribly uninspired, using the cheap synth effects found on any random keyboard. Battles are punctuated by crunchy guitars and other such sounds, and thankfully these are at worst a dull backdrop for the action, and may represent the best the soundtrack has to offer.
Perhaps the only truly effective use of sound in Sonic Chronicles is... silence, or at least near silence. The music stops when Sonic enters some buildings and caves, and an ambient track of electrical whirrs and clicks or dripping water plays instead. These atmospheric touches are great additions, and not just because they stop the music.
Graphically, Sonic Chronicles is impressive and beautiful, employing a mix of pre-rendered environments and fully 3D character models. The game is vibrant, somewhat clean for a DS game, and visually inspiring. The environments are among the most optically entertaining sights on the DS. They vary greatly, and the colors used are fantastic. The character models are also above average. Each character is differentiated not only by design and detail, but by splendid color use. Monsters and NPCs look nice as well, with some unique designs clearly not rehashed from other RPGs. Advancing through environments quickly becomes well worth every one of the lengthy battles, just to see what kinds of graphical details await.
Apart from graphical details, Sonic Chronicles possesses some appreciable gameplay details familiar to the Bioware formula. The expansive codex and the sidequests, which award substantial amounts of experience early on, help flesh out the world and add a few hours onto a short game. Puzzles are present as well - one in almost every one of the twelve or so different zones. They're not terribly difficult, but are often original and clever enough to meet expectations. Bioware may not have the overall JRPG experience perfected, but they know when and how to effectively insert their trademark details.
An odd and unique fusion of Eastern and Western RPG conventions, Sonic Chronicles is a difficult game to qualify. On one hand, it's weak when compared to other Bioware titles, and even some other RPGS, such as the easily comparable Mario RPG. On the other hand, though, it must be evaluated based upon what it really is: a handheld Sonic RPG. In regard to that, it's nothing less than what one might expect: a decent, juvenile adventure with fun characters, great level design, and a few first-time mistakes. Sonic Chronicles may be a lesser effort by Bioware and only an average RPG, but its not time for Sonic's funeral just yet.