Few videogame mascots have endured as tenaciously — or as dubiously — as the once-proud Sonic the Hedgehog. Unlike Nintendo’s Super Mario, to whom Sega’s speedy blue anthropomorphic hedgehog was a worthy rival in the early ’90s, Sonic has largely failed to adapt with the times. With “Sonic Chronicles,” Sega makes the somewhat bizarre choice of abandoning high-speed action and putting Sonic in the hands of role-playing games developer Bioware, best known for detail-intensive, character-driven epics like “Mass Effect.” The result is surprisingly fun and competent, though far from the shot of adrenaline the franchise needs to return to its former glory.
“Sonic Chronicles” is essentially a traditional RPG, hallmarked by exploration, fetch-quests and turn-based battle. It’s all driven by Sonic’s convoluted and weakly motivated attempt to regain the powerful Chaos Emeralds and solve the mystery behind a dark force infiltrating the land.
Despite past widespread fan complaints about Sonic’s cast of pals, Sonic is once again rejoined by Tails the machine-savvy fox, Knuckles the surly echidna and Amy Rose the pink hedgehog. In “Chronicles,” each one at least has a useful role to play. Amy’s giant Piko-Piko hammer can smash through obstacles, for example, and characters like Tails and the unsettlingly sultry Rouge the Bat can fly, steadily opening new areas of the world as their skills evolve and new characters join Sonic’s party.
Aside from the exploration, the core gameplay is very much RPG-lite: Arrange members of party for optimum advantage, level them up through battles, and teach them signature techniques that exploit enemy weaknesses. Result is a nicely balanced game that’s engaging but not too demanding, accessible while still challenging, and colorful without being ridiculous.
Turn-based battles can be a repetitive snoozefest for some, but “Sonic Chronicles” changes it up by using the DS’s touchscreen for “Elite Beat Agents”-style timed, rhythm-based minigames that determine the success or failure of special attacks, keeping players on their toes. Many will find it odd, however, to control speedster Sonic via exact timing, instead of lightning-fast reactions.
The game world wisely encourages visual touchstones to the series’ earliest installments, with familiar aesthetics and nostalgic sound effects.