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The Whole Game in My Hand #11

by Michael "txa1265" J. Anderson, 2008-10-15

Games reviewed in this article:

Wow ... the DS just keeps pumping out the games during this traditionally quiet quarter. Just barely out of the gates we got Sid Meier's contribution, and finish up with a classic Dragon Quest remake and the first handheld game from Bioware. My two PSP's were lonesome this quarter for some RPG lovin' which finally arrived in late September with the port of an excellent but overlooked GBA game (oh, and a mediocre Star Wars game, but that isn't relevent to this article). But the PSP also got to spend some time as a music player ... because starting this quarter I'm introducing a new platform - the iPod Touch / iPhone! There is a single real RPG game (and a simulation) to discuss now, but more will certainly come along soon.


Nintendo DS – July / August / September Releases

Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution (DS) (My Score 4/5, Rated E-10+)
Make no mistake - this game *IS* ‘dumbed down’ or ‘Civ with training wheels’ or whatever you want to call it … but does it matter? Personally I have mixed opinions on the matter - while I can readily see what was taken away from the game, and how it actually does diminish the overall experience, I really loved this game and have played it a lot since I got it.

More importantly, I loved the game publicly and showed it to my wife and kids so it was high on their ‘can we play it?’ list for the ride. My older son had a gleam in his eyes when I told him he could play it. The boys had never played a CIV game, but had watched me play some and found it completely fascinating if utterly confusing. Their first pick for a leader was completely in line with their personalities - my younger son went for cultural and economic victories as Abraham Lincoln and my older son went for global domination as Ghengis Khan. And then as Napoleon. And so on … crushing enemies became pretty much a theme for him!

What I was taken with as I watched them play was that they had no idea of the minutia and depth they were missing, but rather were enticed by the ‘one more turn’ nature of the Civ games. They were loving watching their world develop, even if they lacked all that much control over how it happened. Of course after vacation they both asked about playing Civ IV on the PC, and that will doubtless happen soon … and they told me I could have my game back after just one … more … turn!

And that is pretty much my feeling on the game - if you want to look for what is missing, there is plenty to criticize; but the developers did an excellent job of delivering a game in the Civilization tradition in handheld form.

Final Fantasy IV (DS) (My Score 4/5, Rated E-10+)
Square Enix is at it again - last year we got the 3D-ified Final Fantasy III (featured in my Whole Game In My Hand #3), and now we get the next entry in the franchise brought to us in glorious 3D. Aren't we thrilled!?! Yes and no. We are thrilled that this excellent game has been released specifically for the DS with a complete graphical reworking and decent touch-screen use ... but we are less than thrilled that we are getting this game about two years after it was released for the GBA. In fact let me pretty well sum this up: if you have never played this game, get it in one form or another; if you have the GBA version, there is nothing to see; otherwise, it depends on your value proposition - you get little other than better graphics for the full price you'll pay for the DS version of this game.

Harvest Moon DS Cute (DS) (My Score 1.5/5, Rated E)
The Harvest Moon series should be familiar to anyone who has played games on a Nintendo console or handheld over the past few years. The basis is this you play a character who starts out with nothing and is given some land to farm and a community to interact with. Traditionally the farm comes from family, but some recent entries have varied from this. You are required to handle farming duties and raise livestock, all the while also making friends with folks in the village and perhaps getting married and having kids along the way! In recent years the option of playing as a girl as well as a boy has emerged, generally with separate games for each. This is the case with Harvest Moon DS Cute, as it is essentially Harvest Moon DS ... for girls! Is it me or is calling something 'cute' to indicate it is aimed at the female market quite offensive? Don't worry, if the name doesn't scare 'em off, the game itself will!

The main problem with the original Harvest Moon DS wasn't that it was so terrible, but that it was an average GBA game with cheesy tacked-on touch screen content of the sort we would hae expected in early 2005, not late 2006! There are loads of examples where the touch screen should have been used, but wasn't - things like feeding animals and picking fruit spring to mind. But instead it is all about button pushing. And the game was pretty ugly for a GBA game, let alone something release two years into the DS life! The rest of the game just fell flat - you never care much about the characters, the story fails to go much of anywhere after the start, and the introduction of shop-by-phone reduces the need to interact with townsfolk.

So why so much talk about the old game - because Natsume pretty much failed to change anything! All they have done is swap boy for girl, and give a shallow Animal Crossing inspired 'quiz' at the beginning to determine which girl you will play. From there it is all the same - heck, you still give the same necklaces and pins as courting gifts to boys that you gave to girls in the original! The game still looks like a mid-cycle GBA game, plays like a early 2005 rushed out DS game, and is completely impossible to recommend to anyone.

Harvest Moon Island of Happiness(DS) (My Score 3/5, Rated E)
The Harvest Moon franchise is all about farming and building relationships, with the rare exception of a game like 'Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon'. The two 'traditional' entries on the Nintendo DS have been terrible, which made me nervous anticipating the release of this game. Island of Happiness is a minor twist on the standard Harvest Moon formula: this time you start out shipwrecked on a small island and need to develop the land just to survive, but as you develop more and more and upgrade your farm and house and other things you will begin to attract people to join you. Eventually you will have a full community and can marry, have pets and so on.

Technically the game is so much better than Harvest Moon DS or Harvest Moon DS Cute that it feels like an entirely different handheld generation. And of course, since those felt like GBA games and this is solidly a DS game that is pretty much a statement of fact. The visuals are detailed and pleasing, making use of the broader pallette available on the DS, and the use of the touch screen is more on par with modern DS games than the quick 'GBA port' feel of many early DS games. The controls are likewise much better, but feel imprecise and sluggish at times. There is some multiplayer available, but it feels tacked on. The game is pretty enjoyable, and is certainly lives up to its' claim to be the largest portable Harvest Moon game, but ultimately it is just more of the same barely tweaked to push out another game. The recent release of Harvest Moon DS Cute makes this one feel more like the next in the line of shovelware, which makes me feel that even if you are intrigued you should wait a little while for the next one to come along.

Mazes of Fate DS (DS) (My Score 4/5, Rated T)
I could hardly believe the email ... it came from Amazon and for once it was NOT a notice that Mazes of Fate was delayed. It was actually shipping. It arrived on Wednesday September 16th and I launched into it the moment I got it. For many months I had planned this to be the Featured Review, but with a Bioware DS RPG out this quarter, we'll get a quicker view of how the long-awaited port fared.

My review of the GBA original in The Whole Game in My Hand #4 said "I scored Mazes of Fate as a strong 4/5, which decreased from 5 after I found some bugs throughout the game. If I were 'half-starring' it would be a 4.5 game. The core gameplay is solid and addicting, and it is really like taking a step back in time and discovering a classic game that you never played, yet has been updated graphically and influenced by more recent games. You can only get it through eBay or (on eBay the publishers have a mini-store), but it is definitely the type of game worth seeking out. Indeed, even if you aren't normally a handheld gamer, you can get a GBA for pretty cheap now and enjoy this game - all for less than the price of two games."

Playing Mazes of Fate again felt like meeting up with an old friend after several years -they have aged and matured and added some nice qualities, but at the same time have also picked up some annoying traits. The story and settings are exactly the same. The dungeons are also identical, though the 'broken' quests I noted have been fixed.

The biggest changes are in the use of the DS features and a retooling of the combat system. In the original game movement was tile-based and combat was turn-based with some real-time elements as you had to wait for your 'turn meter' to refill. The real-time aspect is expanded in the DS version, but there is still a 'turn-meter'. If you take a step you will have to wait a second to take the next action; if you cast a spell or use a large weapon the wait is even longer. Enemies have the same constraints, but they tend to move rather slowly - so slowly that 'hit and run' is almost always a workable strategy and you can sometimes defeat boss-level characters without taking a single hit.

The game makes great use of the DS features - the top screen shows the local map while bottom screen shows your view while in a dungeon. Movement is done using either the stylus or the D-pad, and the combat system and menu interfaces use the stylus. Unfortunately the touch-screen usage is often imprecise - I regularly found myself tapping all over the place trying to enter a shop, or failing to cast a spell, or having to tap two or three times to bring up the full map from the menu. It could be viewed as a 'rookie mistake', but after so many delays we deserve better. Mazes of Fate is still a really enjoyable game, it has just lost a bit of luster in translation.

Lock's Quest (DS) (My Score 4.5/5, Rated E)
This really isn't a RPG, but rather an adventure oriented tower defense game. But it is really a very good game and I feel it is of interest to many of our readers, so here goes ...

You play as Lock, a promising young builder who uses the magical 'Source' to construct all sorts of defensive and offensive elements for a tower. When his peaceful village comes under attack, it is time for Lock to put his skills to use. This is much more than just a DS port of a standard tower defense game you could find online for free - there is a solid story, your main character is intimately involved and can directly attack enemies swarming the towers. Your enemies can directly attack the tower fortifications as well, and you have a depth of strategy and gameplay that will keep you going for session after session. The graphics are in the vein of Drawn to Life, but don't be fooled: there is a solid and engaging - and challenging - game here.

Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure(DS) (My Score 3.5/5, Rated E)
If you have avoided Nintendo handhelds or jRPG's because you thought they were too kiddie, or worried that being seen playing anything other than God of War or Syphon Filter on a handheld would get you labeled as immature, then perhaps you should just skip to the next game. Because the word I found coming to me over and over again while playing Rhapsody was 'whimsical'.

This is a solid jRPG about a girl named Cornet who is battling evil witches and searching for her prince charming. She can also speak to puppets, who join her as allies throughout the game. Given the name, it is not surprising that there are plenty of songs throughout the game. There are also cliches throughout - but it is clear that the developers know this. They knit such a tapestry out of the traditional Disney-esque story that it is at once serious and a parody, lighthearted yet subtle. There is loads of humor, and loads of fun. It is an easy game based on a simple turn-based combat system, yet it is quite enjoyable. It is mainly aimed at kids, but any kids-at-heart or parents with younger budding RPG-ers will find plenty to enjoy.

Izuna 2: The Unemployed Ninja Returns(DS) (DS) (My Score 3.5/5, Rated T)
When Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja arrived on the DS in early 2007, I hailed it as "a classic roguelike wrapped up in anime trappings" and liked it enough to put it on my 'Baker's Dozen Best RPG's of 2007' as the best 'Roguelike in disguise'. Well, she's back again, still unemployed, and filled with the same loud mouth as before! And the same graphics, music, style, dungeon types, basic enemy types and more. There are a few new features, but make no mistake - this is pretty much the same game we were playing back a year and a half ago. That isn't a bad thing, it just mean that it fails to reach the standard set by Shiren the Wanderer.

The game is fairly straightforward - after the initial introduction you set off into a dungeon and get to the heart of things: dealing with limited inventory, easily broken items and death that comes all too often and quickly. The movement seems to be real-time but everything is actually turn-based: when you move, equip or use items or take any action at all, every monster on that level of the dungeon gets a turn to make a move. This including passing time standing in place to accelerate healing. Combat remains simple and direct, and the ability to add special items to your weapons also remains. Combat is every bit as hard, but there are a few changes.

The biggest change is that you can now bring a second character into dungeons with you and make use of Tag Team - but rather than getting special attacks, all you get is teh ability to switch from one player to the other when the first one dies. This can help you get through a tough situation, but since followers don't gain experience when you aren't using them you have to grind up their levels to keep them useful against the ever more difficult enemies. The other change seems to have been made to address players new to the genre - dying ina dungeon will still lose you whatever items and money you've accumulated, but you no longer lose levels or experience. This pretty much means that defeating a dungeon is a matter of bashing your head against a wall until you break through.

Izuna remains a sassy, crass, bratty, brash little vixen. It seems that the vixen side of things has gotten more play in this entry - it seems that nearly every time there is plot development scene there seems to be some immature joke about boobs or references to being in a game or a direct reference to the size of another character's boobs. The pre-order posters for the game nearly qualify as hentai (anime pr0n) and largely focus on Izuna's boobs and relationships in hot tubs with other scantily clad female ninjas. It is a distraction that takes a great deal of appeal from an otherwise very good game. Sadly Izuna 2 might have put her out of a job for good - she doesn't live up to the first game, and a new game - Shiren the Wanderer - has come to town with a more robust roguelike implementation and less focus on puerile nonsense.

Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood(DS) (My Score 4/5, Rated E-10+)
When rumors started swirling that Bioware was coming out with a RPG for the DS it was big news ... when they announced that they were making a Sonic RPG, it started a swirl of controversy and discussion. So how did they do? Head to this months featured review and see!

Spore Creatures(DS) (My Score 2/5, Rated E)
Spore for the PC is a 5-stage 'everything simulator', with different stages giving different options. The portable versions - such as Spore Origins for the iPhone and this game - take a single chunk of the larger game, reduce the graphics and controls to work on the appropriate platform and let it go. And that is exactly the way it feels.

The game features a 'creature creator' similar to the PC version, but more limited; you are making 2D creatures that look like they were made from Colorforms! From there you have to work your way through the game chasing your lost friend and evolving your creatures along the way. It is clearly a 'subset game' that has taken an open-ended strategy game and turned it into a limited and linear adventure. While it is some amount of fun, it feels more like a commercial for getting the full game than a full priced game of its' own.

Disgaea DS (DS) (My Score 4/5, Rated E-10+)
This game has gotten around ... released in 2003 as Disgaea: Hour of Darkness for the PS2, and in updated form for the PSP as Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness last year (reviewed for The Whole Game In My Hand #8), it is now making its' way to the DS. This release is pretty much a straight port of the PSP version with a couple of tweaks and additions, meaning that (a) pretty much everything I said before about how great the game is still apples and (b) if you have a PSP there is no reason to consider this one.

Sadly many of the compromises made bringing the game to the DS diminish the experience. These include the removal of a great deal of the voice work, replacing it with a limited amount of text and thereby making some of the story elements feel weaker than before. Also, touch screen utilization is pretty weak and you are better off using the D-pad and buttons instead. The lack of a quick-save means playing full missions between saves, which kills the 'pick up and play' aspect that the PSP version delivered nicely.

Things that have been maintained or improved for the DS version include the detailed graphics: indeed some say that the DS game looks better than the PS2 original in some ways! The ability to turn off battle animations keeps things moving quickly. The best new part is the mini-map, which is on the top screen and utilizes the detailed graphics to constantly deliver loads of information to help you through battles.

Overall Disgaea DS is a solid port of an excellent game. The compromises made and higher price make it a second choice to the very nice PSP version, but if you only have a DS this is still one of the better strategy-RPG's you'll play this year.

Dragon Quest IV(DS) (My Score 4/5, Rated E-10+)
Way back in 1990 (1992 in North America) SquareSoft released the first game of what is now known as the 'Zenithian Trilogy' in Japan. The other two games in the trilogy never got a North American release. Dragon Quest IV was released for the original Playstation back in 2002, but that version never left Japan, making this port the first time in sixteen years a game from the trilogy has landed on our shores.

Unlike the remakes of Final Fantasy III and IV, Dragon Quest IV retains a classic look while updating the visuals to feel thoroughly modern. While you are exploring, the world is shown on both screens, giving an awesome sense of scope. You can rotate the view, taking in the detailed environments from all angles. Battles have also been updated to include more detailed environments and combat animations. Having never played the original, I was surprised and captivated by the way the game unfolded in chapters and that each chapter focuses on a separate set of characters. There is nothing groundbreaking in the story, but it is a nice way to get it across. When you begin a new chapter you start with a new first-level character to develop, which is a nice touch since each character and each setting is different.

Not everything is excellent, though. The music is good but the fact that you are constantly jumping back to the start of songs gets jarring and repetitive at times, and I wonder if that is just a carry-over from the console version. I was also quite surprised that they pretty much ignored the touch screen for the entire game. The controls work well enough, but over the past few years we've become accustomeed to occasionally using our thumbs to tap a menu item on screen or do something else without having to grab the stylus. These are all small things, but they add up to enough of an annoyance that they detract from the overall quality of the game. The biggest problem I had with the game was that after all of the fun getting the characters developed in the early sections of the game, the end section is unrewarding and much less fun. It focuses on a new character who is already fully developed and the overall narrative style turns away from the character focus of the rest of the game to a heavy-handed plot-focus. It is not enough to ruin the game, but it does weigh down the ending. This remains a fun and easy to recommend game, but one that is weighed down by a high price (Square Enix games are the most expensive DS games made) and some unfortunate and confusing design choices sprinkled throughout the game.


Nintendo DS – The RPG Outlook for the Next Quarter

Can the DS sustain the impressive quarter-on-quarter list of releases in the RPG and strategy-RPG genres? Of course it can! Let's take a look:

  • Gauntlet - delayed from June ... August ... and September.
  • Monster Lab(October)
  • Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals (October)
  • Naruto: Path of Ninja 2(October) - also delayed from September
  • A Witches' Tale (October)
  • AWAY: Shuffle Dungeon (November)
  • Rune Factory 2: Fantasy Harvest Moon (November)
  • Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia (November)
  • Chrono Trigger (December)
  • Master of the Monster Lair (October)
  • Age of Empires: Mythologies (November)
  • Luminous Arc 2 (November 18)


Sony PSP – July / August / September Releases

Yggdra Union: We'll Never Fight Alone (PSP) (My Score 4.5/5, Rated T)
The end of the GBA was marked with some really excellent strategy and RPG games - Final Fantasy VI, Riviera, and Yggdra Union amongst them. Riviera was released last year as a lackluster port to the PSP with nifty new sounds and graphics but little reason to buy, now along comes the port of the overlooked card-based strategy game Yggdra Union: We'll Never Fight Alone for the PSP. Is it worth looking at this time around? Definitely YES!

Well, OK, let me backup again - like most ports, if you own the original then there is little value to getting the port. But the original of this game was so obscure and sold so poorly that it is unlikely that many grabbed a copy - and it remains at high prices when you can get a copy online. Also, make no mistake that every aspect of this game has been greatly improved from the original. So unlike Riviera this doesn't feel like eating someone else's warmed up leftovers, but rather like getting a second chance at a game that nearly died in obscurity.

Enough platitudes! Yggrda Union is a strategy RPG that is not for the faint of heart: unlike the extremely accessible yet deep Jeanne D'Arc, this game has a learning curve as steep as the difficulty curve you will encounter in later battles. There are loads of strategic elements to consider in terms of characters and cards and overall tactics used in battle. You are rewarded for strategic thought and punished mercilessly for attempting to brute-force your way through a situation. The card-based aspect is heavily touted, yet is just one part of a much larger structure.

The port adds quite a bit to the original -includeing variable difficulty levels. I remember getting beaten badly by the GBA game just a few missions in and then having to ponder my way through every subsequent mission. The somewhat easier levels allow you more flexibility and are more forgiving of small mistakes - but don't think that the game is suddenly easy. The PSP version also adds some new characters, missions, side-stories, battles, and more, making it an excellent value as well as as an excellent game that will keep you struggling for dozens of hours.


Sony PSP – The RPG Outlook for the Next Quarter

Well, as the end of the year approaches it looks like we might get a few RPG's yet! First off, Valhalla Knights 2 was delayed from late September to the first of October. I have started playing it as I am wrapping up this edition. I thought about holding off for another week, but suffice it to say that even if you want the game, wait until the next edition is out, by which time the price should have dropped. Then there is word that Mana Khemia, the latest entry in the PS2 series that started with Ateier Iris, is coming to the US. Since that news, it appears the game has been pushed from October to next January, so we'll take a wait-and-see attitude. Another PS2 port - Cardinal Arc: The Neverland Card War, a strategy-RPG with card-based combat - is supposedly coming in October. Also, the first entry in the Star Ocean franchise is coming to the US for the first time with a PSP port in October. While opinions are that the PS2 version of Mana Khemia is mediocre, import reviews of the PSP Star Ocean game are very positive.

  • Valhalla Knights 2 - delayed from September. (Note: first impressions not good)
  • Mana Khemia (perhaps now January?)
  • Star Ocean (October)
  • Cardinal Arc: The Neverland Card War (October)
  • Dungeon Maker 2 (December)


Apple iPhone / iPod Touch – July / August / September Releases

Vay (iPhone) (My Score 4/5, Not Rated but approx E-10)
When the new iTunes App Store launched, some of the most popular items were games. Everyone knew about Super Monkey Ball and Crash Bandicoot and Texas Hold 'Em, and there have been myriad mazes released utilizing the accelerometer as well as ports of popular card and puzzle games from other PDA's and cell phones. But perhaps the most surprising release in that first couple of weeks was Vay, a classic jRPG originally released for the Sega CD system in 1994. Before getting into what works and what doesn't with the game itself, it is interesting to note that the download is a relatively huge 55MB, reflecting the large amount of content. Since the initial release a major patch arrived that helps fix all problems and concerns voiced in the user community.

The game opens with a bang as the main character - Prince Heibelger - has his wedding interrupted by an attack which results in his parents, the king and queen, being killed and his fiance Elin being carried away. He is tasked with battling an onslaught of RPG cliches ... um, no ... with claiming the Legendary Army, rescuing Elin and defeating the evil might of the Danek Empire! Could you feel the music swelling as I said that?

The game looks quite good for the port of a nearly 15 year old game, but if you are looking for 2008-era graphics you will be disappointed. The game maintains the traditional top-down look of classic jRPG's such as Final Fantasy. One surprise is that the soundtrack sounds nothing short of astounding. The game is controlled entirely by tapping on the screen - you move by tapping a new location, run by double-tapping a direction, talk and open chests by tapping on a person or chest. It all works very well - especially with the patched version. The patch helps with tapping precision as well as managing inventory and figuring out which weapons and armor is better and who can use what.

Combat is turn-based and done on a different field, which is typical for this genre. You select an action (attack, magic, items, defend, run) and a target, and then your action is executed and the next character gets their turn. When combat ends you find out how much experience and loot you obtained and occasionally one of your characters levels up. Levelling up is handled automatically by the game in terms of what stats are raised and skills are learned, but that is also typical for the genre. The final hallmark of the genre - random battles that seem to occur every 5 steps when you don't want them and once a minute when you are trying to grind out a level - are also on display.

In fact, pretty much everything here has been done time and again through the years. This is a decent game on its' own, but remember that it was released the same year as Final Fantasy VI and it is clear that this was not revolutionary even back then. It is a very long game - you will easily spend 40+ hours working through it all - and is fun to play throughout. One of the best things about it is the price - you can grab it on iTunes for $5! For that price the value proposition is clear - buy it immediately and enjoy, but don't be expecting to stray too far from the 'great list of jRPG cliches'.

Spore Origins (iPhone) (My Score 3/5, Not Rated but approx. E)
Spore for the PC is a 5-stage 'everything simulator', with different stages giving different options. The portable versions - such as Spore Creatures for the DS and this game - take a single chunk of the larger game, reduce the graphics and controls to work on the appropriate platform and let it go. And that is exactly the way it feels.

This game looks at the first part of Spore: you create a basic creature, amass the needed DNA to complete a stage, then evolve your creature a little at a time. It is simplistic and limited, but is surprisingly much more fun than the DS version. It is also one-third the price! Don't expect massive scope or depth here - these are just quick missions that are fun and use the tilt-sensor of the iPhone to guide your creature. For quick and inexpensive fun on the go this game delivers pretty well.


Apple iPhone / iPod Touch – The RPG Outlook for the Next Quarter

I wasn't going to include iPhone games until Vay was released; but that, combined with Square Enix's "Song Summoner" for the standard iPod changed my mind. Cell phones have had games for a while, as have MP3 players ... heck, if I really wanted to I could even do a section on PDA games! But the iPhone is something different, combining a large multi-touch screen with an accelerometer and more graphics and computing horsepower than a Dreamcast, the system just screams for games. Vay proved that large-scale RPG's were quite possible, now we just have to wait and see what else folks bring to the device.

Unfortunately, gaining insight into future releases for the iPhone App Store isn't easy beyond a one week window or a quick glimmer on a message board. So while I know that id is working on the Wolfenstein RPG for the system, nothing else has come up and I have no idea of release dates. OK, I have to change that a bit ... just as I was finishing this Dragon Bane II, a game released 5 or so years ago for Palm and Pocket PC PDA's came out for the iPhone.  I just started replaying (yes I have the PDA version as well) and will have that for next month.

Well, this has proved an interesting few months, once again almost entirely dominated by the DS. It is interesting that the PSP has continued with the 'software slump' even as we begin to hit the fall 'busy season' on other platforms. ... now let's move on and take a look at Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood in some more detail.


Handheld RPG Review - Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood(DS)

My apathy for the entire Sonic franchise met with my love for all things Bioware in an Epic clash for my wallet ... and the result is a little blue hedgehog in my DS. How is the game in terms of the Sonic franchise (I'll be having my kids chime in on that)? How is it as a Bioware game? How is it as a new DS RPG entering into a crowded field? Read on and find out!


The First First of Firsts!

This game has a number of firsts - it is Sonic's first RPG, Bioware's first license of a non-RPG property, and Bioware's first DS game. Surprisingly, expectations were fairly mixed: the Sonic franchise isn't exactly experiencing a golden age, and many first efforts on the DS prove too much for even very good development teams. While many Bioware-watchers had their hopes high, most folks made it clear that even an average game would meet expectations.

The good news is that Sonic Chronicles is a solid and entertaining game, delivering action and role-playing possibilities with a well implemented combat system and nice use of the DS features. The bad news is that the game is fairly thin in terms of story and character development and quite easy and lacking in replay value. Overall it is a solid effort but not destined for any 'game of the year' awards.


So much time and so little to do! Strike that, reverse it ...

The first thing you will need to do is adjust to the fact that you are role-playing Sonic the hedgehog. The game doesn't require you to know anything about the Sonic characters or franchise, which is good because I realized quickly how little I had picked up from my kids' playing these games over the years. I would describe my knowledge like this:

Sonic ... blah, blah, blah ... Knuckles ... blah, blah, blah ... Tails ... blah, blah, blah ... rings ... blah, blah, blah ... and so on.

But as I said the game doesn't depend on knowing the characters - when you start getting dialogue choices, the game lets you know that a side-effect of Sonic moving so much faster than everyone else is that he has little patience for others. As a result the default response is always whatever is most expedient and gets you back to action fastest - regardless of whether or not you know what to do. Sonic is all about action - so his first response is pretty much 'why are we wasting time, let's go!'. If you want to dig deeper or attempt to role-play a bit differently you'll have to constantly alter Sonic's replies.


It's like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered.

This leads me to my first two complaints about this game, which are fundamental things that have much to say about the Sonic franchise rather than Bioware's implementation of that world.

First, one of the key things in making an engaging RPG is having interesting characters. Sadly the characters of the Sonic world really aren't that interesting. Bioware tries from the start to show the contrasts, the conflicts and the tensions between the characters and their lives in the past. These characters were built out of 2D action-platform characters, so attempting to move them into a fully realized story-driven RPG in the grand tradition of Bioware RPG's seems a fool's errand. That isn't to say they are completely uninteresting, just that there isn't much depth to them.

The next problem is that the dialogue choices really don't matter. Whether you choose action, stroking another character's ego or constantly making snarky remarks, it doesn't matter to the flow of the game or the relationships within the party. There is no 'influence system' here that we have become accustomed to in some of the recent Bioware games (and Obsidian sequels to Bioware games). I went through the game trying to play my archetypal Paladin and it really didn't make a difference.

One thing that identifies the game as having western-RPG ties is the amount of control you get during character level up. You get attribute points to shape your characters basic skills and physical conditions, and you get skill points to use to increase the special attacks your character can use. These allow you to shape a more balanced party - or not, it is your choice.


The eternal quest of the individual human being is to shatter his loneliness.

Sonic Chronicles is set up as a fairly standard jRPG with some western RPG elements added in. There is a strong main story quest with plenty of side-quests along the way. These vary from simplistic to more detailed puzzle solving, but never anything that will make you reach to make an addition to your list of 'great RPG quests of all time'.

An example of an early team-based puzzles requires each of the four members to perform a task - two much step on switch-plates, a third needs to activate a switch and the fourth needs to help move a part. Completing this puzzle gives you extra experience as well as opportunity to get to a new area and grab more rings.

The main plot allows you a great deal of flexibility to explore areas and find side-quests. Once in an area you need to complete the main quest associated with that area before moving forward, but you can move back to previous areas and go anywhere your current party can travel within that area. As you get new party members with different capabilities you can go back and explore new places in old areas. And since enemies respawn over time you can grind out some more levels along the way.


Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play. - Heraclitus

If you take away the weak characters and thin plot, you are left with only the technical aspects of the game - graphics, music and gameplay. Fortunately these are all very well done and are the reason that once you pick the game up you won't put it down until you're done.

The graphics are some of the best looking you'll see on the DS: character models look great, actions and directions are distinct even in isometric perspective, and the 2D hand-painted backgrounds are just wonderful to look at. When you switch to combat mode the graphics are 3D, but they don't lose any of the detail or charm. Perhaps the worst looking part is when you enter combat and the enemy tries to flee - you are then faced with a side-scrolling chase sequence that suffers from being too distant and having to make quick decisions without solid visual feedback. Fortunately the consequences are minor - a little damage and possibly the enemies escape - and the game is easy enough to not be dependant on constant level-grinding.

The music is also very well done - the classic sound of grabbing rings is intact, and the music sounds great through the DS speakers. There is no voice acting - but that is seldom a bad thing ... and from what I have heard about Sonic games, in this case it is a blessing.

Gameplay is almost entirely stylus-based. Movement follows the stylus around, and context-specific icons appear whenever you can take an action such as entering a new area or a shop. There are also character-specific actions such as Sonic's 'spin moves' or other characters' abilities to bash or fly or climb. Simply tap the icon that appears and the characters perform the action.

Combat begins when you make contact with an enemy, and takes you to a separate turn-based 3D battleground. This means that you can avoid combat if needed, but since only one character needs to survive for all characters to get full experience, there is generally no need to skip a battle. During combat rounds you can choose standard attacks, defense, using an item, or a special POW move. POW moves are specific to each character and are increased in rank using skill points obtained during level up.

Combat itself is both the same and different than any game you have ever played. As I mentioned it is turn-based and features a menu-selection form of choosing actions. That all works in standard jRPG form familiar to anyone who has ever played a Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest game. The character attributes impact turns in battle, damage done and defense from attacks. Where it gets interesting is the POW attacks. These are based on a time-based stylus tap system very much like playing Elite Beat Agents. Your success at tapping things in time or following the stylus guide determines how well you attack or defend with your POW move. Combine the side-scrolling chases, the menu-based attack system and the EBA-like POW moves and you have an interesting battle system that helps carry the game.

Pros and Cons

+ Gorgeous graphics.
+ Fun combat system.
+ Full control of character level-up.
+ Nice 'power move' skill system
+ Nice combined RPG & platforming

- Too easy
- Paper thin story
- Uninteresting characters


Final Score and Game Info

I would love to have been able to report that Bioware's first DS game is a classic to rank up there with the best the company has to offer. Sadly it isn't - the character are too weak, the story too thin, and the combat too easy to be engaging over the long-haul. But there is much o like about the game - technically it is very nicely presented, and the combat system is loads of fun to learn and master. Also, the overall game is quite charming and definitely well put together. It is something that kids and fans of casual games will enjoy more than those who like to grind through a game from start to finish. It is a solid if imperfect effort, and hopefully a sign that more handheld games are forthcoming from Bioware.
Score: 4 / 5 Stars

Box Art