Sunday, 6 June 2010

Sonic And The Black Knight

Hopefully Sonic The Hedgehog 4, which looks this delicious...

...can finally break the infamous Sonic Cycle, as detailed below:

It will surely be an improvement on Sonic's most recent platformer outing, the Wii exclusive Sonic and the Black Knight. I reviewed it for D+PAD Magazine back in April 2009:

As predictable as it may be, no Sonic review these days is complete without an introduction bemoaning the current state of this once great series. It has now been 10 years since SEGA launched Sonic Adventure onto the world, amid the developer’s unconvincing battle cry that it would be the “best game ever” and provide the much-needed sales boost Dreamcast would have appreciated at the time. Back then this writer had nothing but cynicism for SEGA’s pre-release hype, driven in part by an ingrained Nintendo fanboyism, but largely because in the preceding 24 months both Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time had utterly redefined the design possibilities for taking beloved characters into a third-dimension.

Sonic Adventure was neither the world-beater SEGA had hoped for, nor was it Dreamcast’s initial death-knell (it remains the console’s biggest-selling game in the U.S.) – with the benefit of hindsight it was instead the first sign that everyone’s favourite blue and white hedgehog was flailing to keep up with the rapid rate of change in the industry. In the ensuing decade only a handful of Sonic titles have arguably managed to retain some of the brand’s respectability (and even they were far from perfect): Sonic Rush on the DS, the recent Sonic Unleashed and the first Wii title, Sonic and the Secret Rings.

Sonic and the Black Knight is the follow-up to Secret Rings, and the second in what has now been christened the Storybook series. Where that first game focused on the Arabian Nights, Black Knight takes the legend of King Arthur and his round table for inspiration. The medieval setting is a quantum leap from the world of Dr. Robotnik and pinball machines; here Excalibur talks, Tails has found work as a blacksmith, while Shadow and co are all armour-wearing knights. Not only this, but the bizarre story appears to act as a flimsy device/handy pretext for the introduction of swordplay. It’s a traditionalist’s nightmare.

The sword that Sonic carries with him at all times is a cheap use of the Wii’s unique controls. The poor response times and very limited move set lead us to believe that the feature only exists because Sonic Team think giving the player another reason to shake the remote adds a layer of immersion; it doesn’t, it just makes the experience that more annoying.

One way the sword does adhere to conventional Sonic principles is that half the time you never really feel in control of the weapon. Boss fights descend into inelegant flailing, and the QTE prompts lack any generosity – your movements don’t seem to be matched on-screen, which more often than not ends up in the loss of life. Sometimes the response is so bad it makes you think the remote itself is the problem – a quick blast on MadWorld and Twilight Princess confirms that it’s the game.

The rest of the gameplay, when you’re not struggling with the weaponry, fares marginally better. Black Knight’s world map isn’t especially huge – after all, it’s possible to see the ‘first’ end credits well within two hours. Divided into several locales, each of which feature smaller levels and challenges, this design betrays a fondness for padding, as well as stifling any emerging interest; many of the levels feature identical layouts, with a straight sprint to the goal first time around replaced by a challenge to defeat 50 enemies the next. It’s all a little dispiriting when played for any stretch of time.

Only once, on the first Molten Mine level, does the game reach the euphoric highs that we’d hoped for. Here the balance of grinding on rails, dazzling speed and player timing is almost perfect – we only wish such a combination was followed more frequently. The other conventional stages are sporadically enjoyable, but only if you’re willing to overlook the dodgy collision detection, the poor analogue control and the overall insubstantial and lightweight impression.

As a package Black Knight is competent: the frame rate is consistent while the visuals, taking their cue from Secret Rings, suggest that Sonic Team’s capability with squeezing results from the modest hardware is more successful than their understanding of how Sonic should feel as a game. There is also a fairly throwaway multiplayer mode and a system of post-level rewards that will satisfy collectors (there are 247 in total, while duplicates can be traded between friends: you’d be mad to try and find them all). The power-metal soundtrack is also laughably great. But all these bells and whistles can’t hide the fact that Sonic and the Black Knight is another example of the franchise falling far short of expectations. Every successive game only seems to highlight how wide the gap is between the past and present, something the endless retro compilations painfully underline. If things keep heading this way then it’s hard to see Sonic surviving another 10 years.

1 comment:

  1. sonic cycle never existed
    stop it!
    this has cost too damn mene the true fans