Name: Sonic and the Black Knight
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Aside from the Sonic DS titles, the past few games in the series have been lambasted for their complete disregard for their fan base and nearly unplayable gameplay. Sonic Unleashed took a few steps forward, but still fell drastically short on quality, adding in gimmicky elements and an obviously misplaced focus. Sonic and the Secret Rings for the Wii had an entirely different take on the hedgehog, and gave birth to the Sonic Storybook collection, which placed Sonic on-rails and out of the traditional settings of the series. Gone were the grassy fields of the Green Hill Zone, replaced with desert environments out of 1001 Arabian Nights. It also wasn’t up to par, but it had some potential, and was nearly worthy of the Sonic name. For his next storybook adventure, Sonic is summoned to the kingdom of King Arthur, but is he moving the series forward, or simply running in circles?
Being on-rails isn’t really an issue, and is the only way to truly bring the Sonic series to the third-dimension without losing the Sonic feel. It isn't too limiting; especially when compared to the 2D Sonic titles of old, which were, in a way, even more on-rails. Speedy gameplay and smart platforming still works in this style, as well as alleviating most of the camera issues associated with third-person adventure titles. The swordplay is also well-developed, although limited. Anyone who worried about the mechanic should rest easy knowing that swinging a sword doesn’t really play all that differently than charging into enemies. There are a few more things it can do, but it’s really all the same, just more fitting for the fantasy setting. If the next iteration of the Storybook saga takes place in Atlantis and Sonic should be wielding a trident it will likely play identically.
In this game, however, it’s about swords, and after literally falling into Camelot Sonic is educated on the area by the wizard Merlina. King Arthur has been possessed by some wickedness and, with the help of the Knights of the Roundtable, has spread evil and hatred throughout the land. In order to defeat the ruined king, Sonic must become a true knight, completing chivalrous acts and proving himself to both the Lady of the Lake and his sentient sword, Caliburn. For most of the game, this is done by selecting different missions from the map and completing them, the objectives of which range from typical Sonic levels to ones with more complex goals. Needing to distribute gold to townspeople, for instance, is a task that needs to be completed several times throughout the narrative, and Black Knight dips into the same locations more than a few times.
On the whole, the story missions are fairly easy and oftentimes unnecessarily short. Some can be completed in under a minute, while others stretch out to around three, with bosses being among the lengthier sections of the game. The few boss battles can be frustratingly hard, relying on unresponsive motion controls and maddening memorization. On top of that, most are simply re-skinned versions of each other, swapping out one knight for another and maintaining nearly identical annoying mechanics.
But while the story is on the short and easy end, the game doesn’t end with the defeat of the final boss. There's an epilogue of sorts, and there are numerous side quests unlocked after the credits roll. A few new characters become playable and the difficulty is ramped up a bit, adding a bit more game to experience. If the previous three or four hours don't impress, odds are that the change of character won’t modify the formula enough, but it definitely feels like the actual game could have been expanded, instead of adding this strange second wind. It continues the plot, in a way, but splicing credits halfway through a story doesn’t make much sense from a narrative point-of-view.
It feels like, in lieu of simply expanding the single player mode into a full story, the developers took the easy route and filled the game with unnecessary elements. There’s multiplayer, and it comes in several variations, but none are nearly as deep as any one of the standalone party games on the Wii. After each mission, items are unlocked and can be equipped, but it seems to take up an unnecessary amount of time for what it’s worth. During the story, only a few items can actually even be equipped, with the rest being entirely useless, and it isn’t until afterwards that this mechanic becomes even slightly important. Being able to send items to friends over wifi expands this features a bit, but even then it still struggles to maintain any sense of relevance.
Just like Sonic and the Secret Rings, Sonic and the Black Knight is a game that needs the preface of “it’s not that bad,” which is something Sega should be able to reach above by now. Visually it’s a success, with wonderful blur effects and animations accompanying the colorful world. The gameplay is even something worth paying attention to, as it shows that Sonic Team hasn’t entirely forgotten how to make a Sonic game. However, it falls apart, and the repetitive nature of the missions can become grinding. It might be energetic, but there’s little value past the nostalgia factor, and Sega has to do a lot more to impress Sonic fans. The die-hard might find what they’re looking for with Black Knight, but there’s also a good chance that group might be the ones the most offended by the game.