I've ingested just enough Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood to cough up a respectable review without tossing my journalistic integrity to the four winds, and I can't help but be reminded of an old Chris Rock routine. On 2004's Never Scared, Rock said, "Remember when we was young, everybody used to have these arguments about who's better, Michael Jackson or Prince? Prince won!"
An unfair comparison, you say? Sonic and MJ are both famous for their fancy footwork, their ubiquitous gloves, and their latter-day trainwrecks which—despite a fanbase eager to forgive and forget given just one return to form—easily overshadow their early successes.
Face it, Sega. Mario won.
Sonic Chronicles is one of those inexplicable genre-breaking efforts that deposits an established universe into a previously untapped gameplay realm. Sega tapped Bioware, notable developer of Star Wars fan fiction games and space-sex simulators, to revive their long-struggling flagship series by dragging Sonic kicking and screaming into turn-based RPG territory for the Nintendo DS.
Someone in the Sega hierarchy missed a memo somewhere. Bioware is known for creating oppressively long games that chew up developers and spit out 80-hour save files; hiring them to produce a Sonic game is like hiring Leonardo da Vinci to design Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s new car and then wondering why Tony Stewart won't stop laughing at the resulting clockwork monstrosity.
The classic Sonic games weren't meant to be played in the traditional sense. At their purest, most distilled form, they were exercises in holding down whichever direction on the D-pad constituted "forward" and tweaking one's muscle memory to achieve, through hours of trial and effort, a speed run that matched the protagonist's effortless yet unstoppable attitude.
Sonic's entire draw, and indeed the only reason he survived the glut of snark-laden Disney knockoffs during the '90s console era, was the frenzied Zen quality inherent to the franchise's gameplay. The element of speed—speed in all directions, toward all goals, at all costs—is lost altogether in the Chronicles experience, leaving it with only name recognition and Bioware's reputation to keep it afloat.
The former is milked for all it's worth. Series regulars are announced and then forgotten. Instead of the subtle nods to the source material that are common to Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic series, we're treated to a bloated roster of every wide-eyed anthropomorphic abomination ever to see screen time in a Sonic game, few of whom should be joining Sonic on his quest to—well, to do little more than figure out how many different iterations of "Let's go, team!" can fit on one DS cartridge.
But wouldn't it be worth it if the game itself turned out all right? Mario has gone through more genres in his career than I went through majors in my first three years of college, and none of those spin-offs threatened his reputation. If Chronicles itself, divorced from the Sonic name, was a good game, then Chronicles as a whole would be a fine addition to the franchise.
While we're wishing, I'd like a pony. The meat of Chronicles, with or without Sonic, captures all the wrong elements of the series. Starting slow and powerless, Sonic and his ill-equipped team dash haphazardly into situations that rapidly outclass them, relying solely on luck to save them from inevitable one-shot deaths.
Just when you think you've built up enough momentum to actually make things fun, Chronicles' rollercoaster difficulty curve throws an immovable object at your all-too-stoppable force. It's enough to cause flashbacks to every time you ever made it within sight of the end of a level only to have some robotic bastard bee pop up and steal all your rings.
A control scheme designed to inspire frustration doesn't help. Chronicles largely ignores the full array of buttons that come with the DS touchscreen. Touchscreen navigation is painful, and every special move—each of which becomes essential once standard attacks are rendered too anemic to matter—requires the player to jump through an increasingly difficult series of quick-time events to ensure success. Any novelty engendered by drawing random patterns on the touchscreen wears off once you realize that you're spending what should be the best parts of the game looking at the back of your hand.
Maybe that was the whole idea. After enough Sonic Chronicles, you kind of feel like you're playing an hours-long slap to the face.