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Sonic Chronicles - The Dark Brotherhood (DS)

Rated: 7+. Since players will probably need to be at least seven to read all the text anyway, this isn't much of an issue.

Story: Some mysterious assailants dressed in black have kidnapped Knuckles, stolen the chaos emeralds and put in action a plan to take over the world. Sonic the Hedgehog and his friends must search them out and defeat them. Along the way, they must also confront Eggman once again, collect plenty of gold rings and help Cream the Rabbit find her lost chao, Cheese.

Yeah, exactly... If you don't even know that Knuckles is an echidna, then you're going to be struggling a little here.

Gameplay: This isn't like any other Sonic game. It's not about running at warp speed or jumping on monsters' heads. Instead, it mixes sedate exploring with turn-based battles.

You can have up to four characters in your team but only the currently selected character is visible on screen. You get to guide them around with the stylus. Interesting people and objects can be interacted with by tapping on an icon. Characters can employ abilities such as flying, smashing crates or dashing to get past obstacles in the environment. Again, this is achieved by tapping on an icon rather than utilising arcade skills.

Bump into any enemies wandering the landscape and the game cuts to a battle screen where your team stand in a line, facing the enemy who also stand in a line. Each team member can be ordered to attack, defend, use an item or to attempt to use a special power, such as a healing spell or an armour-piercing blow. Once everyone has orders, the results play automatically (with the DS essentially rolling dice to see who hits and how much damage is done). It's worth staying awake, however, because pulling off powers and defending against them requires success at short, rhythm-based minigames. These involve keeping the stylus in a moving circle or tapping areas of the screen with the correct timing. (If you've played Elite Beat Agents, then the concept will seem very familiar.)

Winning battles and completing quests brings experience points and items. Accumulate enough of these and characters go up in level, making them stronger and unlocking new skills. Items and equipment can be bought in shops using rings. Eggs can be found lying around and hatched into little creatures called chao that give characters additional abilities.

Yep, Sonic Chronicles is a lot like Final Fantasy with hedgehogs...

Save System: It's possible to save at any time while not in a conversation or battle. Happily, loading the saved game returns you to exactly where you left off. There's no being sent back to base simply for having the temerity to stop for lunch and there's no need to play for an extra twenty minutes in order to reach the next save point.

The only problem is that it's slightly too easy to save over someone else's saved game...

Comments: This game is initially a little strange. Sonic the Hedgehog is renowned for speed, so making him plod around the countryside, solving switch puzzles and chatting to old woodcutters, is something of a change of pace. (Worse, in my case, Tails' annoying perkiness gave me flashbacks to the overdose of Sonic cartoons I was forced to endure in the Spring.)

As with many role-playing games, you start with a single, first-level character who has no equipment and few skills. This considerably limits options for fighting and exploring, and means Sonic Chronicles takes a while to get going. Persevere through the first hour of instructions, back story and restricted choices, though, and things pick up. Extra characters introduce more tactics and open up new paths.

Winning later fights is heavily dependent on using special powers at the correct moment and succeeding in the rhythm minigames. This brings a good mix of tactics and skill to the battles. Defeating opponents isn't necessarily hard but it's never a foregone conclusion, either. That said, the battles can get repetitive during extended play. There are only three or four possible sets of opponents in each area and fighting the same formation of helicopter robots for the twelfth time in half an hour can become irritating. Thankfully, unlike Final Fantasy, there are no random battles. Enemies can be seen approaching and evaded by running round them. This doesn't earn any experience points but it avoids exploring becoming too frustrating, particularly in locations where monsters reappear within a minute of being defeated.

Hunting out all the rings, chao eggs and hidden items in the levels breaks up the battling and is the most entertaining part of the game. The small areas and handy map on the top screen encourage obsessive collecting of loot.

Still, this isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea. Much depends on being able to put up with Sonic and his pals. The dialogue is actually pretty good but having to play as a rabbit called Cream is just... well... unsettling... The save anywhere feature and the lack of random battles make Sonic Chronicles more accessible than many other examples of the genre, however. It uses the stylus well, can be played in short bursts and causes quiet moments to fly by. It's the kind of game that the DS was made for.

Sprog1 (age 8) is halfway through and really enjoying it.

I don't think even he knows what an echidna is, though...

Conclusion: This is a very competent role-playing game for children. It's reasonably forgiving, not too complex and packed full of Sonic the Hedgehog and friends.

Unfortunately, the same features may well put off adults. Nonetheless, if you can see beyond the anthropomorphic bunnies, Sonic Chronicles is an addictive alternative to the 'serious' role-playing games out there.

Graphics: The battles can be bland but everything else looks good.

Length: Medium.

Rating: 4/5.

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