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SEGA and Bioware team up for the first Sonic RPG title...
After too many years of woefully mediocre Sonic titles (and that's putting it mildly), the thought of Bioware handling a Sonic RPG seems just a little too good to be true. Yes they of Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect fame, surely they can bring the doddering old hedgehog out of retirement and back up to speed?
In typical Sonic fashion there's not much in terms of plot or storyline. Whilst this doesn't necessarily matter in a platformer, it is slightly more detrimental to an RPG which relies on plot twists and strong characters to push the player along. That said, Sonic purists will appreciate what there is and its many references to virtually every character that's ever enjoyed frolicking in the Green Hill Zone along with the mysterious new opponent - yes even Dr Robotnix joins Sonic's party on this one! In true Bioware tradition there's also pages of back-story to each character, which makes for a good read on the bus trip home.
Despite the developer's pedigree don't go expecting a hardcore RPG experience with Bioware's customary attention to dialogue. Sonic Chronicles is very much a lighter game that includes all of the staple elements associated with the genre, but done in a way that won't go missing by Sonic's younger fanbase. Sonic fans and young gamers will find plenty to enjoy, however Bioware fanatics groomed on Neverwinter Nights and the like would be well advised to stick away - you'll truly believe they've fallen to the dark side with the bright and breezy plot, throwaway dialogue, and simplistic gameplay.
The structure behind Sonic Chronicles follows a very similar manner to the traditional JRPG format, with gameplay split between exploration and combat. Beginning with just Sonic, progress through the game in turn unlocks a considerably wide range of characters to join the party, each bringing different attributes and skills to both elements of the game. This lends a smidgeon to the exploration gameplay, but essentially boils down to quandaries such as gaps that Tails can fly across, walls that Knuckles can climb, and super-duper-loopas that Sonic can spin through. Occasionally a puzzle that requires you to step on different switches makes an appearance, but there's very little that will truly stretch your cerebral powers.
Because there's not a lot of substance to the plot or exploration the game has to rely on its combat mechanic to provide the fun. Played out in turns using the tried-and-tested manner, little mini-games challenging you to follow a dotted line with a stylus or frantically tap away at dots to defend against the opponent's special moves, helps to brighten this up a little and attempt to detract from the minimal amount of strategy that's required to emerge victorious.
But, unfortunately the simplistic nature behind the game extends to the combat and no amount of tapping or drawing with the stylus can alleviate what quickly becomes overly repetitive. Although there's a satisfactory selection of special moves (POW Moves) to unlock and upgrade in a traditional RPG fashion, the recurring nature of enemy strategies soon means you've sussed everything out and towards the end of the game you're desperately trying to avoid confrontations on the map or fleeing whenever you get the possibility. Fighting against the same opponents using exactly the same combination of attacks against you doesn't exactly make for a compelling RPG experience, and we're a little disappointed given Bioware's pedigree in the genre. It literally gets to the point where you're hovering the stylus above the right area of the screen in preparation for the next attack that will inevitably come. Naturally Sonic is targeted at a younger audience and so it's easy to look past the lack of difficulty, but it's the repetition that really impacts the game and leaves you desperately trying to avoid what is a key component of the overall game.
Befitting of its RPG status, there's an arsenal of items, equipment and potions to collect, although we rarely found ourselves needing to resort to any of these. Beyond the occasional item to replenish some lost health, we never found the need to use any of the additional perks that the various items provide, nor did we outfit any of the characters with Speedy Sneakers or other fashionable items. Equally, despite Tail's insistence that we save at every opportune moment, we never came close to dieing throughout the game, highlighting the lack of challenge if you know your difference between a HP and an XP.
Whether you like them or loathe them, Chaos are a common Sonic element and they make a considerable appearance in Sonic Chronicles. Each stage has a range of Choa eggs to discover, which can be linked to a character to bring various benefits in combat. There's a trading element to this aspect of the game, which helps to boost the stats of each individual Chao, but this is an element that's solely targeted towards the playground and likely to pass by unnoticed for most people.
Although it's a relatively short game split between five different areas Sonic Chronicles is a game that manages to just about push you to see it through to the end. That might just be the opinion of a Sonic fan desperate for something that isn't atrocious, but despite the overly repetitive combat I did find myself strangely hooked to the game and determined to see the outcome. It's certainly not an RPG that's packed full of hours of gameplay, but there's a reasonable length (including side quests) for a handheld title.
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