Version tested: DS
Sonic Chronicles is interesting in many different ways, so let's tick them off. It's the first Sonic role-playing game, finally following in Mario's footsteps a mere twelve years after the plumber tackled the Legend of the Seven Stars on the SNES. Not only that, it's a Sonic RPG developed by the role-playing legends at Bioware, the company behind Baldur's Gate, Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect. And what's more, it marks the Canadian developers' DS debut, as they squeeze eighteen years of stat-juggling experience on PCs into the smallest console on the market.
Yes, there are many reasons to be intrigued by Sonic Chronicles, but the game itself is sadly not at the top of that list. Oh, it's nice enough - a colourful and accessible role-playing game that is never less than entertaining - but as you rocket past the finish line in a blue blur, the whole of the experience never quite adds up to the sum of its constituent parts.
Set a few years after whatever the last Sonic game to be considered an official part of the series canon was, we find our blue-hued hero summoned back into business as those bloody Chaos Emeralds have been stolen. Again. Except this time it can't be Eggman (i.e. Robotnik, here using his original Japanese name), because he's been defeated and driven into hiding. Nope, it's the work of Marauders - mysterious mechanical alien creatures who seem to harbour nefarious plans for the entire planet.
Of course, story has never been Sonic's strong point, despite what some scary obsessive fans will tell you (bonus challenge for the open-minded: Google "sonic passion"). Even so, for his first full-blown adventure game, it's a shame to see a narrative-driven company like Bioware falling back on the sort of plot that could comfortably pad out one of the hedgehog's platform outings. If you're looking for an epic yarn, you're in the wrong place. This is strictly a case of run here, grab this, go there, fight the bad guys. Drama is minimal, unless you genuinely care whether Sonic and Shadow will make friends, while any plot twists are either signposted far in advance or have already been spoiled by Sega's own pre-release revelations.
Gameplay breaks down into two fairly distinct sections - exploration and combat. Exploration involves guiding your team, drawn from a steadily expanding cast of familiar Sonic characters, around a series of self-contained zones. To begin with these are based on the original games - Green Hill Zone is your starting point - but at the halfway mark the game shifts to an alternate dimension as you pursue the naughty buggers behind the Marauders to their home turf.
Control is entirely on the stylus, and you tap the screen where you want your squad (represented by the currently selected character) to go. The further the tap, the faster they'll move. But it's not quite that simple, and you'll often have to call on the specialist skills of different characters to access different areas by clicking on the icon that appears when you swap control to the correct hero. Sonic's dash can be used to zoom up and over ramps and loops, for instance. Knuckles can climb specific surfaces. Tails can fly from designated points. Some even double their skills, with Knuckles also able to smash obstacles - an ability shared with Amy. Rouge, the whorish bat, shares Tails' flight skills.
The main reason for this exploration is to find rings to spend on items, occasional chests of loot - although your characters can only equip one item at a time - and to obtain Chao eggs. There are 40 of these hidden throughout the game, and once found they're spirited away to your Chao Garden where they later hatch. One Chao can be bonded to each character to supply different status effects. Some simply add elemental damage to attacks or defence, but the more rare critters are extremely useful. They also provide the only wireless element of the game, since you can swap them with friends. This is actually the only way to level up the Chao, which seems a bit cheeky, even if the upgrades are far from essential.