Crispy Gamer

Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood

What do you get when you combine one of the world's most celebrated game studios specializing in RPGs with a beloved blue spiky-haired hedgehog? The answer, of course, is Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, a portable role-playing game for the Nintendo DS created by BioWare (Mass Effect, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), to be published by Sega this fall.

Crispy Gamer spent some hands-on time with the game at a pre-E3 event in San Francisco, and though the developers wouldn't answer all of our questions, specifically about the story and characters, we liked what we saw and played.

In this first-ever Sonic RPG, our hero bands with his pals to defeat a menacing evil that's disrupting life on this once-peaceful world. Yes, the tale sounds awfully trite so far, but we'll trust BioWare not to let us down. BioWare has a well-deserved reputation of delivering a decent story; we'll know more about the story by E3 in July, we're told.

In any event, this Nintendo DS game is played from an angled 2-D top-down perspective, with Sonic and up to three friends in your party controlled via the stylus on the bottom touch-screen. The top display is reserved for a map of the area, or during combat, character stats and other information (more on this in a moment).

We played through Level 3 in the game, called Mystic Ruins, where Sonic attempts to rescue Knuckles, who is held captive somewhere in this dark, outdoor jungle-like level. The first step is to pick friends to join your party, specifically those whose skills can help your quest. For example, one of our three extra characters was Big, a chubby cat with invincibility as his power, and therefore he was able to walk through poisonous green smoke that obscures some paths. Along with Sonic, who enjoys fast speeds, we rounded off our party with Tails, who can fly, and Amy, equipped with a big hammer, which is convenient during battle. She can also blow a kiss to other party members to give them extra strength. Changing from one controllable character to another is as easy as tapping on the character's face off to the side of the screen.

The two available BioWare reps said they couldn't reveal how many characters will be in the final game (Sega originally confirmed 11 when the game was announced), nor would they tell us how many were classic Sonic characters versus all-new ones. Sigh.

The 3-D combat is handled in a turn-based fashion, therefore you'll find yourself facing, say, three big centipedes or a giant worm, and as with many other RPGs, your party will take turns walloping the enemies with that character's main weapon or with a special attack, and you'll see the damage done as hit points. Some attacks require real-time stylus work, such as accurately tapping inside fast-moving circles, drawing a pattern or tapping the screen quickly. You can also use up your turn with a defensive move, by using an item such as a healing potion, or by fleeing the scene.

In order to fuel your power-up moves and enable new abilities, players must find and collect "Chao" (pronounced "chow") in the game. You'll be able to wirelessly trade Chao with other Nintendo DS players in the room via Wi-Fi in order to unlock everything.

Puzzles were also littered through this Mystic Ruins level. One involved four pads on the ground that required players to step on them in a particular pattern to get Tails to fly to a high ledge. On a related note, if you collect enough rings, which are used as currency in the game, you can buy hints to help solve puzzles, but many will figure out these environmental challenges through trial and error.

Visually speaking, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood looks impressive with its colorful levels, detailed characters and environments, and smooth animation and weather effects. The final version of the game -- which should take 15 hours to complete or up to 25 hours to explore everything, says BioWare -- will feature more than 20 unique environments, including Eggman's fortress city, Angel Island and even alternate dimensions.

The demo we played looked surprisingly polished for a game that might be up to six months away from launch, but the humble team said there is still a lot of work to be done with tweaking the combat mechanics, perfecting the stylus controls, and trying to give Sonic fans their first epic story-driven adventure with memorable characters and thousands of lines of dialogue. (OK, so we tapped through a lot of the conversation sequences to get to exploration, fighting and puzzle-solving, but it seemed like the developer is trying to offer a lot of meat here.)

Be sure to bookmark Crispy Gamer for more details on and hands-on experiences with Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood leading up to the game's launch.

This preview was based on a hands-on demo of the game at a recent publisher event.