Thursday, February 12, 2009

Quick Diversion: Sonic Chronicles

I'm not a big DS RPG player -- and I don't think that Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is going to make a convert out of me.

The biggest problem so far (the first 10 minutes) is that there is no flow. The UI is cryptic and hard to manage, there's far too much reading (for my liking), and far too much flipping between the dual screens to make it easy to follow along with the story. Moreover, control is constantly being ripped from the player's hands by "cut scenes" that introduce too many characters and concepts at once.

The core mechanic should be fun enough to just "play with" in some sort of sand box mode until the player is ready to layer on some additional features and concepts. Ideally the first few few minutes will proceed more at the player's pace as he or she figures out the basic mechanics and controls. 

The other thing I noticed right away: I couldn't figure out which buttons to press to have Sonic move and jump. I soon realized that this was because the game is intended to be played button-free. Just the stylus. Now, I love me a good pixel hunter game and am generally a fan of the stylus input. But if I have an avatar in a 3-d isometric world and there are rings for me to pick up and ledges for me to jump up to, then I really (REALLY) want to use the Dpad and face buttons to interact with the world. 

If it looks like a platformer, it should play like a platformer. Sure, you can add RPG elements (maybe more story; maybe some skill advancement like in Ratchet & Clank). But the core mechanic of world exploration, jumping, and ring-picking-up needs to be more satisfying than pressing the stylus on the screen.

The problem gets worse when it comes to the "chase" minigame. What might normally be a fun challenge (running a course where you need to dodge obstacles and hit power ups) becomes tedious and boring. 

If there was a cool and inviting flow, I could probably look past some of the glaring usability issues that confuse and annoy me. But there wasn't, so I couldn't.
  • The chase sequence seemed optimized for right handed pen users. My stylus hand blocked the screen when I tried to tap Sonic to make him jump. 
  • Moreover, during the chase sequence I couldn't figure out whether or not I was making progress, whether Sonic had to beat his pink sidekick to win a race, or even who I was racing against in the end.
  • The UI screens require far too much text explanation -- and similar to other Bioware games, the first time players visit a new UI screen they are blasted with a wall of explanatory text that has no context and is skipped or forgotten immediately.
  • Dialog trees were hard to figure out and difficult to navigate.
Interestingly, combat was one area that I thought was kind of fun. Mainly this was because it was a familiar turn-based format that is typical of many jRPGs, with an improved selection model (target an enemy with the stylus instead of toggling through them with the Dpad).

Although use of the stylus should have made spell casting/special moves even more fun to execute, the stylus UI indicators were hard to parse and the initial "spell" that Sonic was equipped with was too difficult to execute properly.  The game would have benefitted immensely by starting players off with simpler spells that recharged quickly (instead of a hard to execute spell that takes forever to recharge).

I'll keep the game in my backpack for now. I figure I need to spend at least another hour or so in order to pass final judgment. 

That said, it's hard for me to imagine whether the story behind Sonic will be enough to keep me interested in what is, after all, a DS platformer.

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