Here we go again...
I stuck by Sonic forever. I needlessly cleared Adventure 2 with all A's and earned my reprise of Green Hill Zone. I methodically ace'd every act of Sonic Heroes so I could fight Metal Sonic at the end, and I suffered through both Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic 2006 to completion simply because I found enough to like. No matter how much I utterly hated portions of modern Sonic games, I always hung around until the end. Sonic's Genesis titles (along with NiGHTS and my unhealthy fascination with the demise of STI's Sonic Xtreme) transformed Sonic Team into my favorite developer and, no matter what, I was prepared to follow them into oblivion.
But enough was enough, and when I saw the Werehog disaster getting ready to unfold with last fall's Sonic Unleashed, I folded. The divide between Japanese and Western games grows wider every year, and, as of late, Western games have greatly outpaced their overseas counterparts. JRPG's, for example, failed to evolve and, as a consequence, failed to sell well (look at Star Ocean, Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon, etc) while Western RPGs (Mass Effect, Fallout) have pushed onward and taken much larger stabs at evolution. Consumers responded, and their wallets have spoken; JRPG's just can't keep up.
And something similar has been happening with platformers and Sonic. The previous generation housed some of the greatest platforme games ever created; Ratchet taught us you could effortlessly throw weapons in the mix, Sly kept platforming effortlessly pure, Psychonauts boasted an alternate take on traditional storytelling and humor, and Jak seemed to do it all; those games pushed the envelope in ways the previous generation hadn't dared. Sonic sort of kicked off that era with the original Sonic Adventure in 1998, but, rather than grow and evolve as Jak or Ratchet did with their sequels, Sonic Team chose to walk a slightly different version of the path with each iteration. Sonic couldn't just have Sonic - it needed to add marginally interesting characters and minigames, or it needed to have an interchangeable team of three, or it needed new Hedgehogs, or it needed assault rifles. The point remains, the gimmicks rarely worked out, and each time out it was back to the drawing board. What Sonic Team (or Sega, whoever at this point) failed to understand was that Sonic needed none of these things. Sonic needed speed, beautiful art direction, and competent platforming, not the extraneous nonsense that sullied his recent titles.
And that's actually where things started to go right. A considerably inspired part of Sonic 2006 were the sections were Sonic went forward on his own and your input was limited to whether he should go left or right. It was mostly hands off (and terribly constructed), but the general concept automatically eschewed a couple of Sonic's 3D Achilles heels; it set the camera at a fixed angle and it dropped the poor collision detection. And the final product was pure Sonic nostalgia; go as fast as you can, dodge minor objects, and admire your blistering pace. Sonic 2006 was totally broken, but the (then) upcoming Sonic and The Secret Rings looked to capitalize on and flesh out an identical concept; keep Sonic on rails and build the game around that mechanic. Unfortunately the hands of fate stepped in and surrounded that idea with copious amounts of garbage; mandatory motion control, slowing Sonic down, delayed advancement via pointless objectives, and iffy response time marred an otherwise promising idea. The locals were beautiful and Sonic's 16-bit spirit felt more alive than ever, but Secret Rings was filled to the brim with poor controls and irrelevant gameplay.
Sonic Team just didn’t seem to be getting it. The games they crank out aren't necessarily worse each time; they're just a marginally improved version of something that was already barely passable. It's bold to reinvent Sonic in so many new ways and try out different mechanics, but few of them are ever well received and hope springs eternal that Sonic Team is going to learn from their mistakes and do it right next time. That happens every time, and I have some bad news for you; Sonic and the Black Knight leaves your heart just as broken as his previous adventures. "Next time," this is not.
Memo From Editor-in-Chief: Make Sure You Discuss The Game You’re Reviewing
Sonic and the Black Knight is the second entry in the so called "Sonic Storybook" series. Kicked off with the Arabian Nights themed Secret Rings in 2007, Black Knight switches the theme and plot to an Arthurian Camelot-inspired tale. In the opening cinema (which is delivered via impressive CG), we see Merlina (granddaughter of Merlin) begging for a solution to the region’s problems. A portal then opens up out of nowhere and face plants a hot dog holding Sonic The Hedgehog right down in front of her. That particular scene actually made me laugh, and Merlina begging for Sonic to circumvent King Arthur's apparent curse does a nice job of setting up the plot. From there we see some of Arthur's knights (Knuckles as Gawain, Blaze as Percival, and Shadow as Lancelot) debate on whether to obey their king or do what feels right, and off we go with the tomfoolery. The dialogue isn't anything special, but the plot does keep your interest, and the voice acting (save Knuckles) is quite competent. Finally, most of the narrative is delivered in mildly animated, water colored cinemas (almost like storyboards) which, while not as impressive as the sparse CG, isn't nearly as disconnecting as the still frames in Secret Rings. Overall, the plot, despite being lighthearted and often lacking in sense, is definitely a plus for Black Knight.
And, at first glance, it appears the mechanics behind the gameplay also took similar strides. For starters, Sonic is no longer exclusively motion controlled. Tilting the Wiimote is no longer required (or even offered); Sonic is locked into the blissful analogue control provided by the nun chuck. He's still on rails and always pushing forward, but moving left or right and jumping backwards is infinitely easier in Black Knight than it was in Secret Rings. The camera still offers no indication of what's behind you, but now you can instantly jump back ten or so feet, rather than slowly walk backwards. The speed issues, specifically Sonic having to “learn” to go faster in Secret Rings, have wisely been tuned; Sonic's breakneck pace is available from the beginning.
Mission structure has also received a significant overhaul. Rather than aimlessly barrel through unrelated missions or skip around the story (as often was the case in Secret Rings), Black Knight has a more free flowing selection process. Twelve or so areas, each with its own set of aesthetically linked missions, eventually appear on a world map, and you're free to skip between them. You're only required to complete a handful of missions (indeed, the "story" can be played through in just a few hours), which thankfully casts the hit or miss extra missions into the optional realm.
Unfortunately that's where most of Black Knight's positive aspects end. The main thorn in the game's side lies with anything and everything related to the combat engine. As you might have noticed, a large sword (Caliburn, it also talks) is permanently fixed to Sonic's hand. Sonic's primary means of eliminating foes is through this weapon and, sweet lord, manipulating it is completely mindless and wholly unfulfilling. Seemingly taking a cue from Zelda, the swipe of the sword is tied into the waggle of the Wiimote. Direction is irrelevant, as long as you shake the thing Sonic is bound to some sort of slash motion. Issues arise when you discover a delay between your actions and what's onscreen and, though it may seem miniscule, it's definitely noticeable and it's a huge burden on the gameplay.
Unresponsive waggling is nothing new, but it's even worse when the action is symbiotically linked to the experience. In Black Knight, Sonic spends a lot of time in combat. It's not uncommon to encounter dozens upon dozens of waves of enemies in every level, which means your hand is going to be doing a lot of work. I don't understand why it couldn't have been mapped to a button (unless they needed something to justify it's presence on Wii), and quite frankly I was annoyed by it after a few hours. There is a block button and the bosses require a moderate amount of restraint (masked as strategy), but toppling ordinary foes require little more than tedious waggling. Eventually I got to a point where I was just jumping over everyone just so I could clear the level faster. Sure, Sonic's traditional homing attack returns in the form of the Soul Surge, but, since the meter takes time to fill, it's often more trouble than it's worth. Combat isn't necessarily broken; it's just uninspired and totally mindless.
One would have to assume there are some rewards for sticking it out and battling everything in sight, and one might be right in their assumption. Letter grades have been replaced by a five star system, which probably (it's never stated, anywhere) is tied into how many bad guys were slain and how quickly you made it through the level. Even more bewildering is the "followers" you gain after completing a mission, the amount of which appears to be completely arbitrary. For example, I once five star'd a boss and only gained 32 out of a possible 100 followers. I then had to replay the mission to get more followers, which, thankfully are instantly added to my existing total. This means that, no matter what, you're going to have to replay each missions multiple times if you want to acquire all of the followers. Since they are somehow linked to your class ranking, getting as many followers as possible appears to be encouraged (though, to be fair, I initially beat the game without worrying about it).
Items also appeared to be tied into your performance. Some you can pick up and physically see in the levels, and other just seem to randomly appear in your post-level item revealing screen. You don't necessarily see the items you pick up without spending some item ID points, which seems sort of pointless as I almost always had enough points. Anyway, from there certain items can be equipped to boost stats, or forged at the Blacksmith (hello, Tails) for some new weapons. Each item also has a rarity rating, and the stickiest of the icky can be used to do some cool stuff (like change the levels music).
Boss fights are more of a traditional nightmare. Taking on the knights requires you to wait for a couple of attacks, block carefully, and then get your own swipes in. Nothing really challenging, but what you need to do is consistent your path to victory is at least marginally identifiable. The other bosses (the identity of which I suppose are spoilers, so they shall remain nameless) are facepalm-inducing tragedies. Once you're in range the wiimote icon will appear, telling you it's the appropriate time to start waggling. Issues arise when you realize how small this window of opportunity is, and when you realize you have to account for the inherent input delay. What this boils down to is a series of trial and error sessions, where you have to do things like memorize and time a four chain sequence of exactly when the next waggle indicator is going to show up. Who decided this was any fun?
Emerald Hill Zone, Where Are You?
Some of these issues might have been forgiven if the level design was more competent. The bulk of the game's missions, which ask you to simply reach the end, all play generally the same; run through, avoid/fight some bad guys, and reach the goal. A few variables, like when you have to stop and use the Wiimote to reflect light into crystals, exist - but on the whole each and every level is a carbon copy behind the mask of a different route. It's the same from the beginning of the game right up until the end, with the only difference being the length and amount of enemies in between. Shadow, Blaze, and Knuckles are unlocked toward the last third of the game, but save Knuckles and his ability to fly over large portions of the field, they all feel kind of same-ish.
To be fair, there are also a number of (mostly) optional levels that try and switch up the formula. You'll be tasked with missions that require you kill a certain number of bad guys in a row, make it through a level without getting hit, defeat a set number of bad guys before exiting the level, or give rings to townspeople. The last of those is a puzzling bummer, as it requires you to approach what appears to be Jawas, hit a button, and then complete a quicktime event. This somehow translates into Sonic forfeiting 20 or so rings, which itself has to be done five or six times to complete the level's objective. Finally, as something of a reprieve, a handful of "legacy" levels are eventually unlocked. These levels keep the same path, but remove the entire Black Knight context and replace it with traditional Sonic elements. That's right, you can run around, properly collect rings, hit red bumpers, destroy Badnik machines, and employ Sonic's trusty jump/homing attack. I don't know if the legacy levels necessarily qualify as an easter egg, but they managed to bring a smile to my face all the same.
At least the levels looks gorgeous, as Sonic Team has once again crafted some of the most beautiful looking environments on this side of 480p. Any portion of a level where the setting sun sneaks out from behind amount and set the sky ablaze looks fantastic (even if the trick is leftover from Secret Rings). Shrouded Forest, with its snow and purple hues, and Great Megalith, with its tremendous sense of scale, are equally impressive. The moody, atmospheric tunes are more prevalent than the default Sonic 80's metal, but, as a whole, the music is pretty solid all around.
The game also features online leader boards for each level, as well as some offline multiplayer. Leader boards are nice, but the multiplayer is rather dull (example: "who can kill the most ___ in a set time). This isn't necessarily recommended, but my roommate (who I had just coerced into a few rounds of multiplayer) suggested we play the main game with me on the nun chuck and him with the Wiimote. What resulted was an epic struggle of coordination and triumphs of communication, and it's definitely good for a few laughs. Anyway the extras package is rounded out with the option to send items/gifts to online friends, but I’m not sure how far anyone would want to go down that road
Somewhere along the way the idea of Sonic's intended audience came to mind. The Wii skews toward younger players and, indeed, the story and the dialogue all suggest Sonic and the Black Knight might be a game made for players in the 8-13 range. I thought maybe I wasn't getting it and this wasn't appealing to me simply because I am 25 years old and Sonic should no longer be "for me." But then I remembered playing 2D Sonic when I was eight years old, not caring about the lack of any sort of narrative (I used my imagination to fill in the blanks), and having an absolute blast with all the different levels. Kids today might enjoy the injection of a story, but they shouldn't be subjected to repetitious mechanics and unresponsive controls. Poor design is poor design, regardless of the intended age of the consumer.