Version tested: Wii
A rarity amongst videogame characters, it's now perfectly possible to love Sonic and wish he was dead at the same time: a testament to recent games, which have made it their mission to kick your cheery childhood memories of the Greenhill Zone into tiny fragments, and stamp out any lingering enthusiasm you may have for SEGA's aging mascot.
Well, the blue hedgehog's back again, this time wedged into the role of an Arthurian knight. This would normally sound ridiculous, if it wasn't for the increasingly desperate variety of Sonic's latest escapades. If his penultimate incarnation - as a werewolf - is a fair statement of intent, subsequent games can take the series absolutely anywhere: Darfur, a sinister Victorian insane asylum, or into the dry heat of the Tex-Mex border, casting the blue streak as a would-be economic immigrant bent on sprinting to freedom.
At least that would involve running, something the series has struggled with lately. The truth is that, despite healthy sales, when it comes to making decent games, Sonic's recent history is a tale of steady decline: Sonic Heroes saw him looking rather unwell, Sonic the Hedgehog was a desperate attempt at last-minute defibrillation, while Unleashed, sadly, had the grief-crazed morticians losing their minds and painting funny faces on the corpse.
Sonic and the Black Knight, however, has a real sense of attempted reanimation to it: whatever its faults, however it irritates, this is not a lazy or cynical game - it's a frantic attempt to get Sonic working properly in three dimensions again. So while it alternates between periods of pretty boredom where it appears to be playing itself, and bursts of rage-inducing frustration when it's disastrously misinterpreting your every input, it's worth remembering that Black Knight isn't terrible, just awkward, and it's not broken, just misjudged.
Following on from the rather good Arabian-themed game, Sonic and the Secret Rings, Black Knight is the next instalment in the series' Storybook offshoot, with the hedgehog dropped into the medieval world of King Arthur. This time, the game is built around swordplay, which doesn't sound particularly promising. And not just swordplay, but swordplay with a snooty talking blade, who constantly criticises everything you do.
At least Black Knight looks beautiful. At its best, SEGA's game is flinging you through a world that, while linear, is detailed and imaginative, sending you off to ride on the spine of a lightning bolt, blast through glimmering chunks of pink crystal, and coast past new-age landmarks, over whispering green grass. Other than Mario Galaxy, nothing else on the Wii can really match this, and the quality of the visual design extends right down to the menus and first-rate FMV, while elegant watercolour cut-scenes pop up to offload the story.
But there are problems. Firstly, those beautiful environments are reused a lot, with the plot wasting no opportunity to send you racing down the same track you just explored, with very minor variations. Often there's a new objective - kill enemies, give rings to villagers (a fiddly QTE distraction), or avoid taking any damage - but you can't escape a lingering sense that the developers are struggling to give you something to do in their pretty, but constricted, playground. Mario 64 could get away with this kind of structure, with clever goals and worlds created as open sandboxes, but Black Knight is no Mario 64, and its levels tend to be extremely narrow corridors which, once beaten, have little else to offer.
Handling and combat are both weak, too. Despite a variety of evolving attacks, including a decent lock-on rush and a nice focus on chaining, fighting remains a simple matter of endlessly jiggling the Wii remote. Elsewhere, with the game taking all the corners for you, movement never really rises above the taxing business of pushing forward on the nunchuk. Occasionally you'll have to hop from side to side across the three feet that make up your usable play area, only to find that doing so feels weirdly sluggish, as if Sonic is tethered to an invisible fridge, or battling Scoliosis. Sometimes, you'll even need to turn around, to go back for a treasure chest you missed, or fight an enemy who's accidentally spawned behind you, whereupon you'll discover that you can't: there's no animation for it, so Sonic has to resort to a cludgy Moonwalk with the camera facing the wrong way.
For the first half of the game, Black Knight is inane, good-looking, and mostly pleasant: you lower your expectations, shake your remote, and burn through the game without a care in the world. The opening two hours left me with the suspicion I'd actually become brilliant at Sonic, but the truth is, simplified and mollycoddled, it's impossible not to be brilliant at what the series has had to become - an on-rails platformer without meaningful challenge; the videogame equivalent of one of those Reader's Digest lotteries that you literally cannot lose.
For the game's second half, the developers try to crank things up, prodding you into increasingly complex corridors, with falling rocks and flaming pits, and asking you to indulge in some precision platforming. The ambition is to the designers' credit, but the results, sadly, aren't. With controls this vague, and visual feedback that tends towards sluggish animations - generally featuring Sonic flying into an abyss when he's meant to be hitting someone with his sword - the game is throwing into the mix the one thing this pretty rollercoaster can't entirely handle: a player.
The predictable argument would be that this is a game for kids, and that I should get back to my middle-management strategy games and bowler-hat sims. While that will explain why it goes on to sell a million copies, and almost excuses the non-game handling of the first half, it makes it harder to justify the intensely frustrating difficulty spikes which mar the second - moments where you get stuck between the controls and the design, and suffer a punishing string of cheap deaths as miserly checkpointing combines with a lazy camera and the controls start to register disastrous phantom moves you didn't even know were available, and certainly hadn't tried to pull off.
And yet, there are moments when you'll find yourself really enjoying things. There's always room for the colourful, big-budget spectacle that Black Knight regularly delivers, of course, and there are a few rare levels where things actually click - where you sense that you're genuinely in control, and the environment isn't creating challenges the game hasn't given you the tools to deal with. But such moments are fleeting, and the other things Black Knight has brought along to pad out the experience - a light RPG element, item collection, leaderboards and a lame multiplayer battle mode - add very little.
SEGA's going through a promising renaissance as a publisher at the moment, with bizarre treats like MadWorld, Infinite Space and Bayonetta nestled in alongside brainy favourites like Empire: Total War, and it's increasingly hard to see what Sonic can add to this kind of line-up. Sonic's not much of a werewolf or a knight. He's not actually much of an anything: he's a reactionary idea perfectly tailored for a 2D world, and, unfortunately, in 2009 that makes him about as relevant as a ticket to go see Penny Farthings race around the decks of the Titanic.
A hedgehog out of time, he's become a bit like the shambling old duffer sitting in the corner of a modern office building. Back in the days of ledger books and hand-cranked adding machines, this guy was an unstoppable winner, but when computers came in and he could never quite get his head round Excel, he should have been pensioned off for a luxurious retirement, or quietly whacked over the back of the head during a staff meeting, and buried under the server room.
But he wasn't, and so he comes in every day, pecking disastrously at a workstation he doesn't understand, sending out the wrong kind of invoices, crafting letters filled with random gibberish, and finally completely deleting the stockroom inventory and sinking the entire company. Sonic's stuck in a rut, then: he can run as fast as he likes, but no matter the fancy new tricks he learns, he just can't seem to keep up any more.
4 / 10