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Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood

Preview: Struck with grins and +10 anticipation

There's a hint of madness to Bioware's Sonic outing. Just how can an RPG - the most patient genre this side of Microsoft Hedge Simulator - capture the jittery, tarmac-shredding ways of Sega's blue blur?

Sonic's the Sunny Delight of gaming mascots; RPGs are the stomping grounds for mugs of Bovril. The only grinding he's heard of involves skateboarding, and XP is merely an emoticon for showing disgust. Spend time with Chronicles, however, and disgust is the last thing on your mind.

Sonic's coming home

Entering Chronicles for the first time you're struck by two things: stunning hand-drawn backgrounds and an overwhelming sense of Sonic-ness. It may not be labelled as such, but this is Green Hill Zone.

The chequered rock, the palm trees, the giant loop-the-loop rising from the ground like a bendy Ayers Rock. It's as if someone booted up the original Mega Drive Sonics and saw not 'levels' to be played, but 'locations' that the characters would be happily living in if they weren't fighting off Robotnik every bleedin' hour of the day.

And they're not just aesthetic nods to Sonic's roots; movement within them is retro-flavoured, too. Not control-wise, mind. This is a thoroughly modern stylus-only job: point and Sonic follows. No, the hint of old seeps from context-sensitive level furniture.

See a platform? Tap the icon that appears and Sonic hops up. See a spring? Another tap sends you flying with a 'ba-doing' noise with 1991 written all over it. Tap the icon next to the loop-the-loop and, yes, Sonic speeds round it like the last 17 years haven't happened.

While it's easy to imagine the constant tap-tap-tap as counter-intuitive to the movement flow it attempts to inject, it works surprisingly well. We've certainly not seen an RPG with such physicality before.

These real-time actions also contribute some nice brain-teasing moments. Each character has unique abilities so swapping between them is necessary to activate the context-sensitive icons around the map.

At set points the party divides into its individual members to go to work on a conundrum as a team. Faced with a broken pipe network, you can send Amy and Tails to channel power into a nearby crane, and move Rouge to hook the pipe before Sonic activates the machine.

Hardly taxing, but impressive to see some thought going into aspects that RPGs usually overlook in favour of battling.

Fights begin when you wander into on-screen foes (random battles have been consigned to the RPG cliché bin) and switch to a 3D view not dissimilar to the DS's Final Fantasy III. The scrapping itself, however, has more in common with the Mario & Luigi RPGs.

Although each round begins with a dry menu selection, the action is augmented with timing minigames and reaction tests. Our battle guide below will show you just how well Bioware have busied up the combat to suit Sonic and co.

A tale of Tails

It's great how Bioware have streamlined the RPG aspects to keep up with our nippy hero without harming the depth we demand from the genre.

There's still a big focus on levelling up stats - speed is particularly useful as it grants extra actions during each battle turn - and item equipment is present in a range of natty trainers for Sonic to wear down into rubber pancakes. And a stint chopping wood shows side quests play a part, earning you rings, the in-game currency.

Perhaps most impressive is how Bioware have tackled the major Sonic hurdle - narrative. Usually comprised of inane skater speak that makes Hollyoaks look like Shakespeare, stories and character work haven't been Sonic's strongpoint.

Bioware promise to address this with a tale that begins as a simple 'oh no, Knuckles has disappeared' but grows into something much darker, with a promised twist that splits the game into two different acts. Possible hint: Tails dies?

If you've played Mass Effect or Knights Of The Old Republic, you'll understand Bioware's dedication to building exciting mythologies (indeed, KOTOR's Star Wars offering is better written than the films) and we expect them to work wonders with Sonic's cast.

Just 15 minutes of play saw Sonic consider leaving Knuckles to rot - a choice on the conversation tree that can't, sadly, be acted out - and a bizarrely adult moment in which prim Amy says to mammalian slattern Rouge the Bat, "You're a tramp!".

Late 2008 can't come soon enough for us. If only to hear what Amy has to say about Vector the crocodile...