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It has been a rough couple of years for Sonic the Hedgehog. The one-time Sega mascot has languished through some rather mediocre titles that wound up selling poorly and were critically panned. It seemed as though the blue blur had fallen rather far from his 16-bit glory days on the Sega Genesis. Thus, when it was first announced that renowned developer BioWare, the creative force behind such epics as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, would be developing a Sonic the Hedgehog RPG for the Nintendo DS, hopes were understandably high. Unfortunately, the resulting game, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, is a major letdown and continues the recent streak of subpar Sonic games.
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One thing that BioWare has truly excelled at over the years is telling a gripping story, complete with loads of character depth and moral choices that have a tremendous impact on how the game ultimately plays out. Give their history, it makes it even all the more painful to see them struggle with such light and fluffy source material. They give it their best shot, weaving a tale that involves a mysterious organization called the Marauders, several new characters and a plot to take over the galaxy. There are some twists and turns, and some time allusions to past Sonic video games as well, but on the whole the plot is rather forgettable. Only the most hardcore Sonic fans will find themselves hooked.
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Graphics and Sound
Visually, the game is quite impressive. The cartoony visuals and the comic-book style storyboards used throughout are nicely done. This is far and away the most impressive aspect of the game. Alas, the sound quality pales in comparison. While the songs range from hard rock to elevator music, none of them are particularly memorable or impressive. Sonic fans will get a kick out of the fact that The Dark Brotherhood makes use of some of the old Genesis-era sound effects for things like jumping and running through a loop-de-loop. It may be a nice touch, but it's not enough to redeem a rather poor effort in the sound department. Together, these two categories average out to be, well, rather average.
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Now we get to the truly painful part of this game. Sonic games have historically been mostly about the thrill of high speed, which makes it simply stupefying that the Sonic RPG has wound up being one of the slowest, most drawn out games to play this reviewer has ever had the misfortune of playing. That doesn't mean the game itself is long, because odds are most players will have things wrapped up long before the 20 hour mark. Rather, it means that every aspect of the game -- running, combat, even going through menus -- is unnecessarily bogged down by extraneous detail. For example, before every battle gamers are forced to watch as the camera slowly pans across all of their foes. The attack animations and between-round breaks then add more waiting to the equation. It's infuriating, and it begs the question as to why this game didn't include an optional auto-battle feature, ala Final Fantasy IV.
The game is controlled primarily via the Nintendo DS touch screen. Gamers lead Sonic (or whichever one of his several allies leads the party) around with the stylus. Touching an icon can make the characters automatically interact with the environment in different ways, such as jumping, dashing, or flying. Even in battle, the touch screen is used to select attacks, and if a player chooses to use a special move or POW move, there are specific touch-screen commands that go with those as well. Sometimes, in the heat of battle, enemies will try to run and it is up to the party to catch them. Yet even in this speed sequence, the gamer has little to no control over things, except for occasionally tapping a character to make him or her avoid an obstacle. Would it have been asking too much to make at least some of these bits actually play like an old-school Sonic game? Apparently, the answer is yet, and the result is a game that is chalk full of missed opportunities.
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As both an RPG fan and a fan of Sonic games, I had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, while his rival Mario has successfully made the transition to the world of roleplaying games, the once-legendary blue hedgehog has not. Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood looks pretty, and it has all the trappings of an RPG (stat customization, equipment, and so on). However, it lacks two essential things -- enjoyable gameplay and the kind of epic storyline that can keep fans hooked. Due to such critical omissions, it is unfortunately impossible for me to, in good faith, recommend this debut Sonic RPG.