Review: Sonic and the Black Knight

Review: Sonic and the Black Knight

by March 20, 2009

blackknightIs this Knight Fit for the Throne or the Guillotine?

Let’s not kid ourselves here: Sonic has not mastered the need for speed in a 3D environment yet.  The hedgehog has now had ten years to do so, and with each step forward attempted, many mainstream gamers have considered them to instead be two steps back.  It is only relatively recently that some in Sonic fandom have joined in that chorus.  Among the foul cries in the crowd are accusations that Sonic and the games he is in are now too littered with gimmicks and too tailored toward the young end of fandom, and that for Sonic to succeed, he must pull a Mega Man and return to the 2D landscape.

I subscribe to the philosophy that all things must evolve at some point, and that each individual stage of evolution should be judged on its own merits.  Current Sonic is not classic Sonic, and I’m not sure it’s trying to be.  That’s fine by me.  Equally acceptable in my eyes is that Sonic and the Black Knight is almost purely based on a “gimmick,” and while it and Sonic Unleashed may be the equivalent of snake oil salesmen, the former is being honest about what’s being sold.  Those trying to blast the game on the basis that it’s not classic Sonic likely were in the same group appalled at the game’s initial announcement, and were never going to give SBK a fair shake from the beginning.

The problems in Sonic and the Black Knight do not stem from the mere fact that Sonic is holding a sword, and they do not stem from taking a concept out of left field and running with it–Sonic and the Secret Rings managed to accomplish such a feat quite successfully.  There are fundamental problems with this game that leave a lot left to be desired.  Sonic and the Black Knight is not a good game.  It may not even be an average game.  There is plenty within the game to feel good about, and they’re not hard to notice, but those positive points are ultimately trumped by broken controls that are hard to understand, and will be almost impossible for SBK’s target audience to master.

It doesn’t help that Sonic himself was literally thrown into this game, summoned by Merlina from the skies in the middle of a chili dog run.  Knuckles, Shadow and Blaze are already in the thick of it, serving as Knights of the Round Table to King Arthur, the Black Knight who, strangely, bares no resemblance to Dr. Eggman.  The evil doc was shoehorned into Sonic and the Secret Rings, and I think Sonic Team missed out on a golden opportunity to keep some consistency going with the Sonic Storybook series here by at least having him play a role in the story.

Of course, Eggman’s specialty lies in high tech, so in the same vein of a child who grew up on computers and calculators only to look dumbfounded upon sight of an abacus, it may only be more appropriate that he’s a no-show.  Likewise, instead of item boxes, rings, and badniks, Sonic and the Black Knight features fairies, barrels, crates, treasure chests, and any number of Arthurian troops ready to go medieval on you with swords, poison, and more.  It’s Sonic’s job to hack and slash his way through the armies of baddies, defeat Arthur’s knights and the king himself, and ultimately join up with the displaced knights to rid the land of the true evil that comes about from a plot twist, revealed after the first set of credits runs.

It’s a nice exercise in teamwork–a life lesson I’m sure Sega is trying to drill in the young guns this game is geared toward–but for there to be teamwork, there actually has to be work, and there’s plenty of it in Sonic and the Black Knight in the form of missions.  Do well in them, and even more open up, mostly to test individual skills like defeating a certain amount of enemies, or giving rings to townspeople.

sonic_and_the_black_knight-nintendo_wiiscreenshots15375screenshot_00000072Visually, you’ll want to play this, because it’s one of the best looking titles on the Nintendo Wii, easily outdoing the Wii edition of Sonic Unleashed and coming close to the caliber of Super Mario Galaxy.  While SMG is more colorful and vibrant, almost the opposite is seen in SBK, but it works given the setting.  Character models look polished and the open fields littered throughout the action stages look breathtaking.  Design wise, some of the later, “post-twist” stages look like recolors of what you’ve already played through, but it’s a minor point.  Adding to the visual appeal is the excellent production quality that went into the game’s cutscenes and menus.  Some cutscenes are CGI rendered, but many are simple, flat, 2D compositions done in similar vein to Secret Rings.  The art direction extends into almost every other non-gameplay facet of SBK, and Sonic Team deserves some commendation for keeping a stimulating, consistent look throughout the game.  It really adds to the aura of what this game is trying to be, and clearly sets apart from what it isn’t trying to accomplish.

I am also a fan of the game’s soundtrack.  Lately I have found the work of Jun Senoue repetitive and uninspired, but in this instance, his work pared with that of other Sega musicians works well in almost every study.  The way the music of the middle ages is modernized is exceptional.  I also picked up on the slight Arthurian remixes given to some of the original Sonic Adventure image songs It Doesn’t Matter and Believe in Myself, and that alone shows the composers do care about the content in SBK.  If you’re not a fan of the new tunes, you can pick up and equip items throughout the game that will switch in-game music to some of those image songs, so there is room for accommodation–not to mention it’s a nice nod to more veteran Sonic fandom.

Indeed, Sonic and the Black Knight is good to look at, and it’s probably worth picking up the corresponding OST once released.  Unfortunately, it’s not very fun to play.  Missions in SBK are incredibly short, and that may not necessarily be a bad thing, because in almost all of the missions you won’t just be battling with foes and trying not to be turned into stone or poisoned…you’ll also, in a way, be battling with yourself via the controls.  The setup is also similar to that of Super Mario Galaxy–Wiimote in one hand for swordplay and jumping, Nunchuk for movement in another–but the execution is outright poor.  In combat, much of time you’ll find yourself mindlessly wielding the Wiimote, hoping something will stick.  A Soul Surge will take care of groups of enemies in quick succession, but those are only temporary sensations.  Sometimes attacks won’t hit, and on occasion even the most minor of mistakes will result in costly consequences.  Much of it is arbitrary, and it shouldn’t be, especially considering almost the whole game is linear and somewhat “on rails.”

sonic_and_the_black_knight-nintendo_wiiscreenshots15370screenshot_00000057The items you accumulate along the way may aid in fighting back against the spotty controls, but they won’t do much.  Many times you’ll pick up potions to keep you safe from RPG-like aliments such as poison or confusion.  That may help keep you alive, but it won’t do much ensuring your sword hits what it needs to hit.  Think changing up the characters will make life in Lancelot easier?  Think again.  I found Sonic to be the best equipped for almost all missions, because his skills can be switched out and improved upon.  Once you obtain access to Knuckles, Shadow, and Blaze halfway through the story, they may initially feel weak in comparison, especially if you’ve beefed up the stats on Sonic.  Even the better equipped swords Tails makes for you may not do their job.  It’s a shame, too, because there are echoes of a deeper RPG system in this game.  As blacksmith, Tails can create new swords and armor to equip based on what’s been accumulated and identified.  It almost feels as if the hope was there for this to be a more traditional RPG at first, only for the powers that be at Sega to later realize the element of Sonic speed needed to be injected somehow.

The haphazard controls are especially evident during the one on one battles between Sonic and the Knights of the Round Table.  Sometimes a mastery of the system is required just to get in a few hits.  Other times, you can defeat a boss in no more than fifteen seconds–just as I did my first go with Shadow.  Both extremes are unacceptable.

It appears as if certain enemies must be battled a certain way with the sword, and on occasion timing an attack just right will get you far, but most of time you’ll be learning through trial and error.  That may not sound so bad given the game’s target audience, who may not be able to mimic exact motions with the Wiimote as instructed, but even young Sonic fans will find it frustrating.  Ultimately, that’s the fatal flaw of Sonic and the Black Knight: there’s so much to unlock and enjoy throughout the game–including the legacy missions, where you’re treated to more traditional Sonic gameplay–but unlocking it all comes down to how well you do within the game’s main levels.  SBK grades your performance per level on many factors–none of which are crystal clear–but include items such as acts of chivalry, defeating enemies, and generally finishing in style, without too many errors.  Obtaining five stars in a mission is sometimes so unsympathetically difficult that there will be more than a few gamers who won’t bother going for the good stuff.

Therein lies the domino effect within Sonic and the Black Knight.  Because the controls are horrid, there’s little incentive to move forward toward all the extra content, and as a result, many will be through with the game once the second set of credits starts.  I can’t totally blame them.  The multiplayer battle mode doesn’t seem terribly inspired–though rules can be customized, as they are unlocked, of course–and the online leaderboard missions and online trading may only go so far to maintain longevity.  (The latter noted, these components are Sonic’s best online effort since Sonic Adventure, though that’s not saying a whole lot.)  There are more standard extras, such as the usual assortment of clean movies, music, and, of course, the fan art contest winners, and for jaded gamers, that may provide the only source of shelf life beyond the four to six hours it will take to run through the main story.  (Anyone who’s saying it takes two hours is either doing it wrong, or a master swordsman.)

It’s a conundrum, really.  Were all the extras unlocked from the beginning–truly idealist thinking–the game as a whole may be much more tolerable and heralded as a celebration of Sonic fandom.  It’s evident that the Sonic Team wanted to do something special for the fans, because the little things do add up.   As it stands, because getting those unlockables requires you to try your patience with almost outright broken controls throughout, not only will these small touches rarely be noticed, the obvious ones may never be seen.

Ultimately, the folklore explored in Sonic and the Black Knight pared with your own explorations within the game may lead you down the path toward another folk tale, that of the Wise Men of Gotham.  So the rhyme goes,

Three wise men of Gotham

Went to sea in a bowl.

And if the bowl had been stronger

My tale would have been longer.

Simply put, if the “bowl” of controls were on more solid ground, it would be well worth diving into the game much longer than the main story allows.  But it’s not.  So, rent it once–I assure you that’s all the time you’ll need, and in some cases, want–and quoting another Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “We’ll call it a draw.”