by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood & r & Rated Everyone; Nintendo DS & r & 3 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & onic the Hedgehog got lost. Sega's speedy mascot, who had zipped across game screens since the early 1990s, recently got caught up in a fiasco of franchise upgrades. The Sonic Rush series presented him as a swashbuckler, while the Sonic Rivals games posed him as a prizefighter. Sonic Riders made him a racer. None of the ideas worked. Sega was trying to redefine the very figure that defined them, but their efforts reduced Sonic to a generic videogame character in a series of commonplace videogames.
Then came BioWare. The company that first found the secret to a good Star Wars game (Knights of the Old Republic -- still the best) took a fresh look at the Sonic franchise. As a company that specializes in role-playing games, BioWare formed the Sonic characters into a team. In standard RPG fashion, this troupe traipses around the Sonic Chronicles' landscape, drawing on their individual powers to overcome obstacles and survive the game's battles.
Sonic Chronicles merges solid videogame principles with a dose of whimsy. The background landscapes that Sonic and his friends must investigate have the hand-drawn appeal of Disney animation, but they also hide areas that can only be accessed by the right combination of characters. And when these characters are called into battle, a simple series of actions on the DS's touchscreen -- line tracing, dot tapping -- are required to launch the strongest attacks. It's not quite as active as the combat system The World Ends With You brought to DS role-playing earlier this year, but it's much more engaging than standard static RPG combat.
The game's role-playing concepts suit the character-driven Sonic universe. Along with his friends, Sonic must establish his top-hog status -- it's not handed to him at the game's beginning. As one of Sonic's companions explains: "You're not the boss around here. Not anymore. YOU decided to go away for a while." At last someone is telling Sonic the bitter truth: He's not a videogame star anymore. Sonic Chronicles may be too small a game to bring him back as a superstar, but it's a good start at reestablishing the heroism of Sega's most recognizable hero.
THE GOOD: BioWare is emerging as a leading RPG designer because they know how to imply large fictional worlds. Sizable portions of Sonic Chronicles' story and setting are evoked through Sonic's conversations. Instead of the usual back-and-forth dialogue, players are often given the option of having Sonic respond with a positive attitude, a negative perspective, snark or outright curiosity. While these choices don't change the straightforward course of the game, conversational players will reveal rivalries and subplots that are nestled in the Sonic universe.
THE BAD: Despite branching conversations and a decent number of side-quests, Sonic Chronicles is a very linear adventure game. Sonic's development as a character and the story's overall progression seem to be limited to one standard sequence. Perhaps that's implied by the title's "Chronicles," but the game's relatively sophisticated role-playing system and setting offered me a game that I wanted to play free-form, writing my own chronicle my own way.
THE BOTTOM LINE: A role-playing adventure that's substantial enough to reinvigorate Sonic as a character, but too slight to feel thoroughly satisfying.