Describing Sonic’s early career to young gamers is like discussing dinosaurs, it’s been so long since he was the golden boy of video games whose cheeky blue mug was a bringer of joy in the early Nineties. Since then each new game is touted as a “return to form”, with the Wii’s Sonic and the Secret Rings being one of his better outings in recent years, and that game forms the basis of Sonic and the Black Knight. It’s just a shame that the game itself is a huge letdown.
As the second game in the Storybook series, Sonic and the Black Knight (S&BK from now on) places Sonic into the legend of King Arthur, complete with the Knights of the Round Table, Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake. Like Secret Rings, each character from the story is played by a side character from the Sonic universe – Shadow is Lancelot, Knuckles plays Gawain and presumably they’d ran out of interesting characters when they cast Tails as a blacksmith. In fact, the story is almost identical to that of its predecessor – Sonic is summoned into a faraway world by a lady with magical powers to stop an evil chap who’s gained access to an all-powerful object. Of course, story isn’t everything in a Sonic game, but as part of the Storybook series it should be an interesting tale, and here the game doesn’t disappoint, putting its own blue spin on the well-known legends.
After the very shiny and well-produced intro movie we’ve come to expect from Sonic games you’re thrust into the action with a brief opening level that introduces you to the control system. Unlike 2007’s Secret Rings, this time you use the Nunchuk control stick to move Sonic about and the Remote for waving the sword, a system which sounds like it should grant much more control to you than it actually does. You’re still on-rails as in its predecessor, but if anything it feels as if there’s less control because there’s a lack of branching paths and alternative routes. The paths you can take are even narrower than in Secret Rings which, coupled with a very low camera angle, makes it hard to dodge the obstacles in your path, particularly when there’s man-traps, bottomless pits, trapdoors and more.
There’s more to S&BK than just dodging traps though – this is the first game Sonic has wielded a weapon, which takes the form of the talking sword (yes) Caliburn. Shaking the Wii Remote results in a sword swipe, and combos are performed by swinging repeatedly, but there’s a disappointing lack of control over the sword, with no difference in attacks whether you swing up and down or left and right. There’s also an irritating delay after each swipe which means you never get the feeling of fluidity as you would with a Legend of Zelda game, and the lack of control over Sonic in the first place severely limits any feeling of strategy in the sword fights. To see Sonic repeat his mistakes is disappointing – one of our criticisms of Sonic Unleashed was that the Werehog fights were so repetitive you’d simply move from one room to another defeating the same enemies, and the same is true with S&BK, where they appear in waves as you run through the levels. The presence of a homing “Soul Surge” attack is a welcome boost to the action, but can sometimes slow the game down even further as you wait for the icon to appear over each enemy.
There are some high points to the swordplay, though. The opening sword fight with King Arthur lets you parry with a well-timed swing and a short set-piece on the back of a carriage, although more LucasArts than Lancelot, is great to see. The only problem is that for each good moment there’s a poor one to drag it down – a boss fight against a dragon is simply a case of moving left and right to swing at its head, and the encounters with Shadow and Knuckles feel more like fencing than swordplay due to the narrow path. With more freedom for these fights in the style of Zelda they should have been much more enjoyable, but as it stands they just don’t stand up.
Perhaps to make up for this lack of depth, Sonic Team have introduced a number of features to extend the game’s lifespan, including a multiplayer battle mode that stands head-and-shoulders above Secret Rings’ poor party mode. There’s also the option to exchange collectible presents with friends over WiFi Connection, online rankings and a level-up system that rates you on how many followers you have, with honourable bonuses available for not harming villagers, never attacking foes from behind and so on. It’s an interesting system that never really feels as fleshed out as it should; with the camera angle and inaccuracy of the sword combined it’s sometimes tough to have the necessary precision to gain good honour bonuses, though the system’s presence is a welcome boost to its longevity for those willing to stick with it.
Sonic scripts have never been great, but S&BK probably presents a new low for the series as each character attempts to talk in an English accent whilst saying phrases like “it’s kinda my fault, see?” The anachronistic dialogue and voice acting aside, the audio side of the game sticks to the well-worn template of soft rock and orchestral pieces, with composition duties spread between series stalwarts Jun Senoue, Howard Drossin and Richard Jacques, with other composers contributing too. Even with this quality talent the music never reaches the heights of the excellent Sonic Unleashed soundtrack, nor beats the variation of Secret Rings, but it does its job.
Sonic and the Black Knight had alarm bells ringing from the start with its addition of a sword to the formula, which isn’t surprising considering the uproar when Shadow got his gun. It’s not a terrible idea but it has been poorly executed – without the speed and sense of adventure of a traditional Sonic game, and the sword fighting lacking enough control and strategy to be worth coming back for, there just isn’t enough here to recommend it even to the most die-hard Sonic fan. Sadly, for this die-hard Sonic fan, Sonic and the Black Knight just doesn’t cut the mustard.