Sonic and the Forever-Swinging Sword
Monday, 23rd March 2009, 8:40pm (UTC), 3 Comments
My apologies for the last month of silence. Things have been stupidly busy at work, plus I've actually been without an efficient way of making a new blog post until now. Finally got round to building a sleek new blogging system in my secret underground site admin bunker, plus I've put in a clever system that resizes any images in recent posts in order for them to squeeze in that little gap on the left in the home page, below the two newest ones. Javascript and I are becoming closer buddies every day it seems.

Hopefully those who have been patiently waiting for them will notice that Palmtree Panic is now fully mapped up, and has been for a week or so now, so go check out my handiwork - not possible of course (or, possible I suppose, but would be far too time consuming to even attempt), without the help of mercury's marvelous Sonic Extractor tools, which you can find out more about in the Recommended Links section of the home page. Still, even with all the objects placed for me, and even though the Good and Bad Futures are essentially the same, it was still a few hours of work just to place the arrows and time travel warps and things in. I'm wondering about my blue arrows, to be honest. In some cases they're essential for pointing out hidden passageways in walls, but I also use them to identify where multiple routes split and converge. A level like Palmtree Panic is massively loose and open with regard to its routes, so it was hard to determine how long a path should go on for before it should technically be classed as a route, and how thorough can I be with them before they get too pointless and distracting? I'd like your feedback on this, as obviously I need to be consistent across all of my maps with their use, but I also want them to still be a useful addition. It seems in this case, there's an awful lot of them flying around and its difficult for me, having made them, to decide whether they're worthwhile in such a loose structural layout. Blue arrows should be more useful when S3&K comes around, as those alternate routes are much more deliberate and complex. Anyway, let me know what you think about them.

Now. Sonic and the Black Knight. Hmm. Yes.. You may find some mixed opinions in my twitter feed recently as I've waggled my way through most of this game. Still haven't quite finished it but I'm near enough the end I think. First of all, Sonic with a sword doesn't really bother me inherently, and neither did Sonic as a werehog - I'm fairly open to new gimmicks if they can be handled well, but Black Knight sadly does not use its new found swordiness for good. Rather, it relies on it as the near-sole gameplay element in a game that I struggle to class as a true Sonic platformer.

Things start off interestingly enough. The game's illustrated interface is very contemporary and cool and the story scenes and dialogue are about as good as you can expect from the usual stuff in the series. Scenes are illustrated with storybook style animated stills just like Secret Rings. Oddly, credits appear smack bang in the middle of the game, after which the story takes on a whole new direction that's quite an interesting choice, unusual for the series, which is normally quite predictable in its plots. Still, it does place you under the illusion that the game is about an hour and a half long at best, when in fact there are a load more levels afterwards. I would liked to have seen them get more mileage out of Sonic being a villain to the townspeople, given that he's going against King Arthur.

Sonic is now armed with a talking sword named Caliburn. Inevitably this leads to levels filled with dialogue, but at least it's a lot more entertaining than it was with whats-her-name in Secret Rings (Sahra? Saria? Sharia?.. oh well, don't care), who made everything very difficult to enjoy. With self-aware sword in hand, Sonic traverses technically thirteen or so levels, although don't get too excited by this unusually high figure, as there's only about six or seven different environments, which double up into other, slightly altered stages much like in Sonic Adventure 2 or Shadow the Hedgehog. These include castles, woods, giant fields, caves and volcanic mountains. Some, in fact most games in the series let their story carefully meander around often imaginative, uninhibited levels and locations - others, such as this and interestingly SA2 again, let the story and theme dictate the levels, which in my opinion is the much less attractive option. Sure, things are more consistent, but part of the Sonic magic for me is dreaming up whole new, exciting ideas for level locations and gimmicks. Sure, there's some new stuff in here, but I longed for the imagination and innovation exhibited by this game's predecssor, which gave us likes of sunset ruins resting on the backs of giant stingrays in the sky, a stormy pirate ship and a dinosaur-infested jungle for God's sakes! The whole thing about delving into alternate storybook worlds gives us license to place Sonic in these slightly crazier situations, which this game does not take advantage of, and everything ultimately ends up looking a bit bland, uninspired and like any other bland and uninspired, non-Sonic game.

So that's my first, slightly geekish gripe. It of course doesn't stop the game from being graphically impressive, for the Wii. A much better and easier-on-the-eyes affair than the console's awful excuse for Sonic Unleashed (which I still haven't bothered to finish). There are some effects such as bursting and unudulating lava rivers that are fantastic, and of course those fields of long grass are a well-documented feat. The biggest problems though come when you start playing and realise how shallow and monotonous the whole thing is. The first few levels keep on throwing strings of very short challenges, either full levels or missions, some of which are straightforward enough to be able to complete without really being entirely sure what it was you had to do. It initially feels like a sequence of tutorial stages, but it becomes hard to decipher where the tutorials end and where the actual game begins, if indeed there were any tutorials in the first place.

The basic premise is that Sonic is set on a linear path around the level, with the camera mostly stuck behind him the whole way, like Secret Rings. Your control over him is a little more straightforward and traditional this time though, as the nunchuk's analogue stick is now used to run him forward, strafe left and right, and pull him back. This is ultimately better. Predictably, swinging the sword is accomplished by waggling the remote, which you'll do a lot. Except perhaps by introducing the odd jump and then waggle, causing Sonic to spin his sword round and round vertically with his spinning body, there's little art to it, and the real life waggle and in-game slice don't really feel connected. Just keeping it to a button would been less interesting, but at least saved me a week's worth of wrist pain, and otherwise would have made little difference.

As I've already mentioned, the game relies on this new activity a great deal - so much so that there is very very little good old fashioned platforming involved in this.. platformer. There are instead, enemies. Enemy, after enemy after enemy. And don't forget the occasional large enemy that won't move out your way until you slice him up good. What's more, very rarely did I ever gain any satisfaction from killing these lifeless drones - and when that's virtually the only thing that some missions offer you, it leads to a level of boredom that is not common in the series. It makes you wonder just what the hell they were thinking, if they ever thought they could get away with being lazy enough to fill the game with so much of this tedium. Some more interesting moves are acquired by charging up a gauge of power, but this doesn't exactly improve matters a great deal. More often than not I just wanted to jump right over each wave of enemies that came running towards me, and a double jump is in place, which would allow you to gracefully soar over them.. if of course it didn't transform into a homing attack when an enemy is nearby, which seems to be entirely ineffective in this game anyway.

Control over Sonic himself isn't exactly perfect either. He runs around winding roads, from one thing to another while you simply hold forwards and his speed seems to be dependant on however fast he feels like running. I would of course expect to be able to dart from one thing to another fairly quickly - but when he does it automatically, it all feels a bit empty. For example, when Sonic is flung towards a series of poles, he swings and flips between them without you having to do anything at all, completely ignoring the fact that the wii remote is specially designed for enhancing the interaction with elements like these.

I don't want it to seem like the game's level designs have absolutely nothing of merit. Molten Mine is actually a reasonably entertaining level, which includes hopping over runaway mine carts while grinding along train rails, splitting tumbling molten balls of rock in half with a jumping slice, and careful sidling along narrow ledges with obstacles. There are also scripted sequences where you ride on the back of a horse drawn cart, or boat or a floating rock on lava, and some levels actually have a decent supply of unique objects. These include hanging spikeballs or bee hives, bear traps, wooden cages that encase you until they're destroyed with your sword, crystals that you must reflect light onto with the sword, and even a magical dragon of light on the back of which you must run and keep up with before he flies away. So there is some variety here, it's just overshadowed by poor controls and lazy object and enemy placement.

Oh, and the who the hell had the idea of replacing rings with fairies? Seriously, this is pretty much a Sonic platformer that doesn't have rings. At least not in the conventional "lines of rings everywhere" sense - no, instead, yellow fairies provide you with various amounts (usually 1). How did that brainstorm go? "Hey! I know! Forget the rings. Rings are old. We're going medieval, right? ..FAIRIES! We can have yellow fairies for rings and blue fairies for springs and dash panels! It'll be AWESOME!". No, it won't, and isn't, and yes, they really have ditched springs and dash panels in favour of blue fairies. What happened to the apples as well? The first level uses apples as those little glowing soul spheres were used in Secret Rings, but then they don't appear for the rest of the game. Almost as if they completely forgot about them. Anyway, as far as I'm aware the moron who came up with the fairy idea, and whoever allowed it to be included in the game, are still allowed to live and breathe, but not if I had my way. Sacrilege.

It does however, get kudos from me for being the only 3D Sonic game to integrate the classic spinnable, end-of-act signpost to complete a level, let alone the only one to have used it at all since Sonic Advance, I believe. Don't think it makes up for the whole fairy thing though.

The music is a bit of a mixed bag. What you may or may not notice is that rather than the more varied and interesting scores of recent large 3D titles, some of it is reminiscent of a lot of Sonic Adventure 1 and 2, Heroes and Shadow, in its choice of instruments and samples. There's a lot of crazy guitar riffs in there, and most tunes are fairly forgettable to be honest. Favourites though include the lovely, calming music of Deep Woods and the dramatic, if slightly cheesy Molten Mine. Also look out for the reappearance of character themes of old for Sonic, Knuckles and Shadow. Always a pleasant treat.

So, what can we say in summary about the Sonic game who tried too hard to be different? The sad thing is, it's not really that far off from being a half decent game, if only they'd cut back on the pointless enemies, made the controls and pace a bit more consistent and included a bit more platforming. That said, I have managed to gain some reasonable enjoyment from replaying a few of the finer levels, so maybe in the future, a bit like Shadow the Hedgehog, it'll be one that I won't mind picking up every once in a while, just for something a bit different. Problem is, in the here and now, it's damaging for us, as Sonic fans. Just as we were starting to pick ourselves up off the ground with a series of games that have had a fair few good reviews, this thing comes along and at the very least, puts us in jeopardy of being knocked right back to square one.

Not good enough SEGA, not good enough at all. You've once again chased a crazy idea in hope of refreshing the series when all anyone really wants is something that is just Sonic as Sonic always has been.

I don't know if any of you share this view, but the perfect Sonic game for me is one that cares much less about grand plots in which the world is destroyed and characters that have feelings. The perfect Sonic game is one that puts all of its time and effort into cultivating interesting, fantastic and inventive levels, each filled to the brim with their own array of exciting features and challenges, exploring colourful, fantasy worlds, all backed up with a sturdy control system that can handle them all. Mario might be about inventiveness and innovation, but Sonic is, and always has been about the experience, the adrenaline rush you get by dashing between ledges and objects and on top of enemies along to a gorgeous and fitting piece of background music and amongst a massive level layout filled with options. Surely there is no experience in the history of gaming that is better than Sonic at his best. And the secret to getting him at his best is simplicity. Gimmicks are not required. Simple, pure Sonic is all you need.

For God's sakes SEGA, I know you want to make money and are willing to throw out endless filler material (like this), to take advantage of idiots (like me), but amongst that it all just give us one that is completely and utterly simple, and beautiful. Make it shine so brightly with pure Sonic goodness, that no amount of Black Knights and Zero Gravities will be able to distract anyone from its power.

"Only you can do this, stop the Chaos Emeralds lazy level design!"
Comments   3 Comments have been posted.
#1. Comment posted by xamoel on Wednesday, 1st April 2009, 5:37pm
What happens whit the 2d Sonic era? The best sonic games was in 2D.

Theres a fan drawing project, hope that you like it.
#2. Comment posted by Craig on Saturday, 11th April 2009, 7:55pm
I don't have anything to say about Black Knight, I avoided it after buying Secret Rings. Just wanna say this website is rather awesome. I never knew about the shortcut in Chemical Plant 2, that's pretty mind blowing.

Looking forward to 3&K :D Keep up the good work!
#3. Comment posted by Anonymous on Friday, 17th April 2009, 1:24pm
When will addtional Sonic games be added like Sonic 3 and so on?
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