Tails. Amy Rose. Shadow. Rouge. If gaming was to have a US Army-esque deck of most-wanted playing cards, they'd be the aces.1 Bioware can't change this. It would take an act of God to make these characters likeable. What Bioware can do is give them a fresh start: ignoring CVs fat with hateful cameo appearances and building them into a proper community where they can interact politely.
And so: Amy fancies Sonic. Shadow skulks, but wants to be loved. Tails can talk shop with Dr Eggman. It's hardly Shakespeare-troubling stuff, but chat is only the beginning. You see, while Sonic and pals do the solo levelling up 'thing', true combat power stems from POW moves, of which team moves are the most potent. Sonic's lone axe kick may scuff a robotic armadillo, but a Tails-assisted blue bomber will make it crunch like a Dime bar in a mincer.
Social glue also oozes from the character-specific actions that are performed around each area. Tapping action icons to make Tails fly, Sonic sprint or Knuckles climb is simple stuff, but organising your team to encompass all the abilities and reach a required spot is trickier. Hidden items and Chao eggs2 lie in wait as a reward for those that do.
Alas, while this pays homage to Sonic's platforming roots, it makes moving the speedster around quite laborious. Any pace-quickening intentions Bioware had are lost by constantly pausing to tap icons, leaving the otherwise slick stylus control feeling stilted. Sonic-like flow is a nice idea, but we ask Bioware to return to the source material and notice the distinct lack of: Constant. Button. Pressing. Every. Ten. Seconds.
Far better are the Ouendan-esque touchscreen commands that activate POW moves (see 'Touchy feely hurty'). They're also triggered to defend against POW attacks, and Bioware keep the tapping from growing dull by expertly pacing the arrival of new attacks and enemies. It doesn't hurt that there's great audio feedback for hitting the cues - a nice fat bloop that maintains your satisfaction with each strike. It's not new, timed button presses to boost attacks are as old as the hills - they're the backbone of Mario's RPG exploits - but in Sonic Chronicles they're vital for survival. Heaven knows what kind of cruel calculation hit probability is based on, but common attacks fail at an abnormal rate.
The 'luck' stat that's shrugged off in other RPGs is the key to breaking the cast iron defences the game throws at you, so unless you focus on upgrading it, you may find yourself getting quickly frustrated at the chains of missed hits your party will encounter.
Combat has other problems. The difficulty spikes massively for the odd battle, yet each area's focus on a specific race makes it too easy to learn that breed's weaknesses and subsequently breeze through the majority of the level. And while attack queuing gives fights a busy feel, it forces you to make unfounded judgement calls about future events. Anything can happen in two turns, so why not fight each one individually? Is it over already?
Considering the star on the cover, Chronicles is a bit of slow starter. Piecing together your crew is a pleasant refresher course in Sonic, but the opening four hours really don't do the game justice. Only later do Bioware start throwing around their universe-building weight, padding out the tale with neat twists and finding ways of compacting the grand mythologies of their PC games into manageable DS-sized chunks. Anyone who's dabbled with Mass Effect will surely recognise Bioware's epic fingerprints all over this.