Did you know how many Sonic games have been released in the last five years? Discounting re-releases of old arcade titles, and any game that also had Mario in them, there have been at least eight, and their quality has ranged from sort of okay to just plain bad.
For some reason, Sega seems content to churn out a bunch mediocre Sonic games to keep the franchise alive long enough to get its characters into Smash Brothers while it could put the same amount of time and manpower behind an actual quality endeavor you would be proud to put on the shelf next to Mario Galaxy and Twilight Princess. With Sonic and the Black Knight, exclusive to the Wii, Sega continues this fairly disappointing trend, using the beloved blue speedster in titles that are, frankly, beneath him.
Thankfully, Black Knight is on the higher quality end of the spectrum, but it is a far cry from the quality gameplay and genre that made Sonic a landmark franchise. It’s mostly ‚ hack-and-slash game with a few speed-based and platforming elements at odd intervals, featuring a sword wielding Sonic in the kingdom of Camelot. For purists of the Sonic franchise (and scholars of Arthurian legend), the very idea of this might seem offensive, but when you put those details aside, and accept the fairly high level of ridiculousness as just entertaining, it makes for a pretty decent game.
Mar. 12, 2009
The game opens with Merlina, granddaughter of Merlin, being chased by a huge scary looking King Arthur, who is the titular Black Knight. Merlina, being a wizard like her grandfather, casts a summon spell when faced with an army of dark soldiers from the underworld. A hole is torn in the sky, and out falls a blue hedgehog and two chili dogs. Sonic rescues Merlina, but can’t defeat Arthur because he is in possession of the scabbard of Excalibur, which grants the bearer the power of immortality. Sonic and Merlina go off to find the lady of the lake (who is Amy acting in that role) and Arthur dispatches his Knights (Knuckles, Shadow, and Blaze), and from there on out the very basic objective is to run fast and smash stuff with your talking sword, Caliburn. Yes, there is a talking sword.
Once you take the plunge and accept that you are playing an Arthurian legend game with a hedgehog protagonist, the game actually starts to get fun. The principle mode of gameplay is running in a mostly straight line, steered occasionally with the nunchuck, and hacking with the Wiimote to swing your sword. The combat elements are a little repetitive, but the fun comes in at fighting at as high a speed as possible. The sword swinging graphics aren’t great if you slow down and really scrutinize them, but you shouldn’t be doing that because you’re Sonic; RUN! When combat is at its height, you are charging into thick groups of enemies, sword swinging, and you can barely see anything but the crush of soldiers and demons until the dust settles and Sonic moves on to the next battle. The combination of speed and swordplay is a fairly novel one, and, I think, worth a lot more exploration, though it’s done fairly well in this game.
At its worst, which occurs in the somewhat-to-very awkward boss battles, the combat expects an aggravating amount of precision timing in your Wiimote swings: swing half a second too late, you get hit, swing half a second too early, you get hit (yes, there are instances where this Sonic game will punish you for being too fast). However, the satisfaction of leveling an entire phalanx of underworld soldiers makes the frustrating bits worth enduring, and ensures a strong replay value.
Unfortunately, the other aspects of the game do not play out as well as the combat. If you’re looking for a Sonic-style speed platformer, you will not find it with Black Knight. There are definitely platforming elements, and some of them are very cool (near the game’s end you run across the back of a beam of lightning), but they are few and far between, though the levels in which they are most prevalent are definitely the most satisfying to complete. These platform-intensive volcanoes and dragon’s caves are, unfortunately, mostly towards the end of the game, and don’t completely make up for the bland environments of the castles and villages. Sure, there’s lots of jumping from one stone structure to the next, but most of it is just progression down a line of enemies and can quickly get repetitive if that’s not why you invested in the game.
The game also has a few, very weird glitches. There was one instance in a boss battle where, as Sonic was running towards a fire-breathing dragon, he came to an abrupt halt and attacked a stone pillar on the side of the battlefield for no apparent reason; it had no bearing on defeating the boss, and Sonic’s attacks seemed to do nothing more than waste time and attract fire balls.
There was also the instance where I was somehow able to completely bypass a story-relevant cut-scene, where Sonic and his new wise-cracking sword go visit Amy, the Lady of the Lake. I know this scene exists because I saw my roommate play through it, but I somehow just played around it, and was surprised to find myself completing the mission Amy would have otherwise have set before me. It wasn’t really detrimental to the game overall, but just keep it in mind if parts of the story don’t seem to flow together the way they should.
Definitely the strangest thing about the game-yes, even stranger than Knuckles, the flying echidna in knight’s armor-is that after you defeat the knights of the round table and find a way to bypass King Arthur’s Scabbard of immortality, the credits roll. What makes this strange, and this is crucial to your gaming experience, is that the game is only half way over at this point. There is only about 3 hours of gameplay up to that point (it’s a short game), and there are at least 3 more much, much better hours afterwards, but there is also a full credit sequence dividing the two. There’s a chance I would not have caught it and gone on thinking I had just finished the shortest game ever. If your gaming experience does not sync completely with the rest of this review, check your game status: you may have only just started.
Sonic and the Black Knight gets off to a rocky and somewhat ridiculous start, and is likely not what a lot of us are looking for in a Sonic game, but give it time and it will grow on you. It definitely picks up in the later levels, and without giving too much away, there is the requisite Super Sonic level, which is one of the better boss battles. The story and the characters aren’t subtle, and the world isn’t particularly imaginative or worth exploring, but the game doesn’t take itself too seriously, and can provide several hours of good solid fun. It’s probably not worth the full $49.99 price tag, but it’s definitely worth playing if you get the chance. It’s by no stretch the corner stone game the franchise really needs to stay afloat into future generations of gaming, but it’s more fun than not, and in the end not a bad game. It just doesn’t live up to the expectations attached to the name Sonic the Hedgehog.