Thanks a bunch to my friend Jolt, who handily kept and sent the conversation I had with him that became this rant, and to my friend Racewing, who, for reasons utterly unfathomable to me, is a Sonic the Hedgehog fan, and allowed me to double-check some of my perspectives against his knowledge. Kudos, sirs.
Hey, guys. Remember when I had good things to say about Bioware games? I miss those days.
Alright, so. It started kinda slow with Super Mario RPG for the SNES, but there’s been an increase over the last five years or so of RPGs being made about video game characters or series who are associated with other game genres. Mario keeps churning them out, Mega Man got in on it lately with the Mega Man Star Force series (if, that is, you really want to call that whiny pile of sad who stars in the game “Mega Man”), and apparently, someone at Bioware thought it’d be a neat idea to get Sonic the Hedgehog into the genre. I could have quite happily gone my entire life without Sonic invading my adopted genre, but this was back in 2008, when Bioware was still known for good quality and treating their work with some respect, so you’d think it’d be pretty okay, right?
I’m sure France had every reason to think the Maginot Line was impregnable, too.
So what’s wrong with Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood? Well, I could just say “everything,” and call it a day, but we all know I love hearing the sound of my own voice too much for that.* So let’s delve into detail, as is my wont.
We’ll start off with the light stuff: battle mechanics. Now, you know gameplay isn’t my concern, but for those that consider it important, SCTDB has some major issues, at least for me. I can’t speak for others--apparently several reviewers found the game very simple and easy, so maybe I just suck. But for me, the frustration level was high because the effectiveness of battle powers and characters was imbalanced quite often--and that’s when I could actually get those characters and powers to work right, since the game employs a somewhat poorly-executed timed-hit system. Like, there would be many times when some characters would be so unable to keep up that it reminded me of how badly skewed Sailor Moon: Another Story was, except that with the Sailor Moon RPG, once you hit a certain level, you’d go from just barely grazing a boss to utterly obliterating them with ease--there was no middle ground, but you could at least taste both extremes. With this Sonic game, some characters just never seem to be able to get out of extreme ineffectualness.
Additionally, I have no damn clue what anyone would do in the game if they didn’t recruit Cream, the secret character. Again, could just be me sucking, so take this with a grain of salt, but her healing powers only barely managed to sustain the party most of the time, and no one else in the game seems to have anything to speak of when it comes to healing. I think Tails has like one underpowered single-target healing skill, and that’s it. I think that it’s a mistake to make any one character in your cast indispensable, and if you’re gonna make that mistake, that character should NOT be the one whose recruitment can be missed!
One other thing about the gameplay factor is that the game didn’t seem to control all that well. I mean, it wasn’t unplayable or anything even close to that, but all the same it felt quite unpolished, even clunky. It’s not a big thing, obviously, but it’s still not a point in the game’s favor (particularly, I would think, from the perspective of an actual Sonic fan, since the rest of the Sonic series is pretty gameplay-dependant, to the best of my knowledge).
But anyway, enough about the unimportant gameplay bunk. Let’s talk about what matters: the characters and story. First of all, if you are not already a fairly knowledgeable fan of the Sonic the Hedgehog series, you are going to get left behind, and often. Now, I know the game is meant for Sonic fans, meant for the people who WILL know all these characters and be familiar with past events vaguely referenced and pre-established plot devices. But I still think it’s reasonable to say this is a strike against this game, because when you have a major shift in genre for your product, it means your audience changes, too. Sure, many of the fans of the Sonic series will and no doubt did follow this genre-switch from action platformers and the like to an RPG, but the change introduces an entire new potential demographic to win over, too--players who regularly and partially, or even entirely exclusively, play RPGs, for whom this game will be a first experience with Sonic’s franchise. The Knights of the Old Republic games required little knowledge of the Star Wars movies to understand and enjoy, for example. A good genre-changer should also be an adequate introduction to the series, and not just seem to assume that everyone is going to have a familiarity with a series that’s been adding to itself for almost 20 years now. Mind you, it’s a minor flaw in the long run, but still worth mentioning, I think. I’m fortunate enough to have picked up some minor familiarity with the basic characters of the Sonic universe, so I was familiar enough with Sonic, Tails, Amy, Rouge, Cream, Eggman, and Shadow that the lack of proper background given to them didn’t trip me up, although I had no idea who Big the Cat or Omega, that random red robot thing, were. But overall, I at least was not left completely clueless about what was going on, as could easily have been the case.
Whether you're a knowledgeable fan or a newbie, however, there's no denying that the characters involved in the game should have some reasonable character development of some sort, correct?
That did not happen.
Sonic remains Sonic the entire time, mostly (he's kinda watered down a bit, I think). The most character development you could say they give him is that you can, if you play your cards right, have him take part in one extremely brief, wholly uninteresting scene of romantic implications with Amy. Now frankly, if I were to pretend for one second that I care half as much about Sonic’s love life as I do about the fart I just released a minute ago, I'd probably be dissatisfied with this scene, since it's not romantically fulfilling at all, and it comes from more or less goddamn nowhere. Maybe there are implications that Sonic has an interest in her in previous games and other series installments (though from what little I’ve been told, there aren't really), but in this one, there's really no indication whatsoever that he returns her feelings in the game until this scene, and even the stuff you need to opt to have had him say to her in order during the game to access this scene is generally pretty platonically positive--it’s really not so much him being shown to like her as him just not being outright hurtful to her. So his 0 character development remains a 0 regardless.
Rouge seems to still be a licentious howler out for her own personal gain and little to nothing else, which stands out not only as a case of her being incredibly under-developed, but also a little unbelievable. I mean, from what little I know of the Sonic series backstory, she has been involved with so much ridiculously convoluted hero shit on every side of the equation that it seems insane to me that she would not at SOME point have developed SOME sort of motivation beyond "sneakily flirt my way into money." But whatever, I guess.
Amy has no intellectual or emotional existence beyond her infatuation with Sonic, a personality type that always annoys me--I hate it when writers decide some female character's ONLY distinguishing point of character focus has to be obsessive romantic interest.** I realize that this has probably been the case for the character of Amy prior to this game, but that doesn’t mean Bioware couldn’t have added to the character, so it’s not excused. This one-dimensional personality type keeps Amy from having any actual character, it RUINED Prier from La Pucelle Tactics, and it made Martha the most boring Companion to date in the present Doctor Who. God forbid a female should have more than one single solitary thought in her head, and God equally forbid that thought be something other than unhealthy emotional dependence on some guy.
As for the rest of the cast...the random red robot has no character development to speak of. Big certainly doesn’t. Knuckles only has any characterization if you count his occasionally giving some slight context to the echidna legends and history and so on, but if I didn’t count Fran’s encyclopedic knowledge in Final Fantasy 12 of all things magical that she displayed whenever it was convenient to the plot and the writers’ subpar abilities to perform their job as characterization, I’m sure shootin’ not gonna do it for Knuckles. The new character, Shade, has a backstory, but it's quite boring and about as cliche as could be imagined, your standard “Proud Warrior of a Tribe that was Abused a Bajillion Years Ago Who Has a Grudge But Eventually Realizes Her Obviously Evil and Obviously Manipulative Boss is Actually Evil, and Manipulating Her” package that you’ve seen dozens of better incarnations of previously. Cream’s practically a non-entity. Shadow is the same boring, shallow brooder that made him such a hit with vapid, sexually-frustrated furry fangirls in the first place, and since he is basically completely superfluous to the plot, I’m gonna have to assume that his presence in this game is solely to boost sales with that demographic.
I will say that Eggman and Tails have character development, sort of. Eggman is acting reformed and exploring how one can act like a mad scientist while working for the good guys. This is pretty much the highlight of the game, depressingly, even though it’s fairly obvious that it’s all a ruse. But aside from how obviously false it is, it’s done pretty well, I guess. Tails's character development is that he enjoys finally having a friend and equal in Eggman, since they're both the brainy ones of the team. This is actually a pretty decent idea, and given the folks that Tails is running around with, it’s not exactly far-fetched that he might feel intellectually lonely. I can appreciate this characterization.
Or rather, I could, if it were not pretty obvious that Eggman is putting on a charade...and if it were not 100% PURE FANTASY RIDICULOUSNESS that any of them, Tails especially given he's been with Sonic the longest, would actually even remotely buy Eggman's reformation, even if Eggman were putting on a performance so great as to make Kevin Spacy jealous. The guy has been trying to murder you all for over 2 decades, Tails, in games and comics and cartoons and anime and I don’t even know what else. GET A CLUE.
Anyways, that's the cast. It's not good. It's underdeveloped, half of the characters are frankly a bit dislikable (Shadow, Knuckles, Rouge, the random robot, Sonic himself), and the one redeeming area of the cast is built off the assumption that after 20 years of unrepentant evil and plans that relied on deceiving his foes, no one has figured out that maybe the main villain does not really mean it when he says he's good now.
The main villain of the series in general, I mean. The main villain of this actual game is just cliched as hell. Which is another sizeable problem right there.
So the cast is a dud, but what about the plot? A well-written story can be more than enough to carry a game to success, after all. Unfortunately, that is not the case here. The writing doesn’t seem to be terribly cohesive, first of all, although I’m willing to accept that my occasional difficulty in keeping track of the magical pseudo-science bullshit here and there could have been my lack of intimate knowledge of the Sonic series. But when things were straightened out in my mind, all this game ever seemed to amount to was generic "formerly cast out peoples of the distant past come back for vengeance for the hell of it" crap, complete with the obligatory "thought she was totally into this vengeance thing but now has doubts for vague reasons so she joins our side" character. There’s nothing new here, and certainly nothing interesting. Despite being so maddeningly predictable that it almost physically harmed me, as well as embarrassingly obviously rushed, Eggman's sequel-bait betrayal at the game's end was literally the only part of the entire game's plot that stood out at all--and I’m honestly not even sure why it does!
So yeah. In the end, anyone who’s not a Sonic fan has no reason to play Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood. The majority of the poorly-introduced cast is one-dimensional, what character development is there is either an extremely overused cliche or doesn’t make much sense and doesn’t last anyway, and the villain’s generic and boring. The gameplay isn’t done well, and the music is kinda crappy (didn’t really have a chance to mention that above, but there you go). And finally, the plot is a bit messy yet irritatingly simplistic, and completely unrewarding.
And you know what? I think that anyone who IS a Sonic fan also has no reason to play it. The characters that fans like seem clumsily handled by writers determined not to explore them at all, and whether or not you happen to like the universe in which it takes place, a cheap, bland story is still a cheap, bland story. Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is a shoddy, careless product, and if I had to take a guess, I’d say Bioware developed it with SquareEnix-esque intentions, by which I mean, made in the hopes that Sonic fans have all the consumer discretion of a 4-year-old seeing Dora the Explorer's face pasted poorly onto a cheap Walmart backpack so shoddily made that even the 10-year-old kid in China was embarrassed as he stitched it.***
The really amusing thing to me is that according to Wikipedia, the developers at Bioware were big enthusiasts of the Sonic the Hedgehog universe. This slop is what FANS of the series came up with! Apparently, Sega would’ve done better to hand the project over to someone like me, someone who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the Sonic series, because even I could have and would have put more effort into making this a decent title than Bioware did.
* Okay, yes, typed text isn’t really the sound of my own voice technically, but how do you know I don’t read these things aloud to myself?
** An obsessive romantic interest that usually makes no sense, for that matter. Most of the time these characters are chasing after people who obviously have 0 interest in them (and even actively seek to avoid them), and/or are mean to them or just mean in general.
*** Of course, this game, and the Shadow the Hedgehog game, for that matter, were both commercial successes from what I gather, so apparently this kind of insulting assumption of a fanbase’s tasteless idiocy is, as with SquareEnix, a profitable one.