Developer Dimps Publisher SEGA Genre Fighting Platform OTHER Release 27th February 2004
- Sonic Battle is an oddity, not only as a game but also in this look-back at the last 10 years of Sonic. When I set out to write these reviews, I wanted to primarily focus on the "main" Sonic series. These included both the 2D and 3D exploits of the Blue Hedgehog, rather than the gimmicky games such as "Sonic And SEGA Superstar Racing", which has as much to do with Sonic as tying a brick to the back of a formula one car. Doesn't matter how fast that brick goes... It isn't a race car. Which conveniently segways into Sonic Battle.
Sonic Battle was created by Dimps, who if you haven't noticed by now, did all of Sonic's major outings on the Gameboy Advance. However, rather than create a traditional Sonic game, Dimps and SEGA thought it best to branch out the ways in which Sonic could be milked for every precious drop of that milk-cash which the franchise seemed to gushing out from every possible orifice. Sonic Battle is a pseudo-3D angled-down fighting game, think Streets of Rage if it were elevated away from the characters, set at an obscure angle, had no charm and was constrained to bland battle fields... Oh wait, scratch that last one. Basically, the game revolves around the concept of doing what years of Street Fighter has taught me: button mashing sometimes wins the day. Skill or strategy isn't really a huge concern for Sonic Battle, so if that hasn't turned you off already, let's begin.
Don't you want me baby? Don't you want me whooooooa.
Sonic Battle starts off with Dr.Eggman finding a mysterious robot which he finds when doing spring cleaning
, or something. Apparently Dr.Eggman's grandfather... I assume the one from Sonic Adventure 2, you know, the one who got executed for some
reason? Couldn't quite getting the thing working, so he just sort-of did what any man would do when he gets frustrated with something not working: Just store it somewhere hoping that one day
he'll amass the intelligence to work the damn thing. Eggman on the other hand, once getting bored with the robot not responding and presumably asking him to file numerous error reports, slings the robot on a beach, much like I expect owners of the iPad to start doing now the new, better iPad 2 is just around the corner. Didn't like that joke? How about this one; I guess you could say... Life's a beach
. No? Sheesh, tough crowd.
Anyway, Sonic and pals come across the robot and almost immediately the thing starts working once Sonic starts showing the thing some emotion
, rather than just doing what Eggman would have done; kicking it while tearfully pleading for it to start working again... Not that this is how I fix any technical problems, of course
. Once it starts working again, the robot creates a "Link" with Sonic, which basically means that the robot has a seething bromance
on with Sonic. And from this point in the game basically does the motions going through just about every notable Sonic character since Sonic Adventure, shoe-horning them in where they don't belong. To cut a long story short, the Robot, whom Sonic names "Emerl", which is apparently dumbass-enese
for "Emerald" is actually a "Gizoid" which was built by some ancient race to be an ultimate weapon capable of destroying the world
(+1 for Eggman releases world-destroying evil onto world storyline count.) However, Emerl's experiences with Sonic and Co. has left Emerl much more than he was intended to be, he's become more than his soulless robotic self that was washed up on a beach, he's become a... A real boy
. But then he goes crazy and Sonic blows him up. The end.
Tell me about it.
The game's story is a long-play, one which doesn't have any sort of emotional bond that the player can latch onto. Perhaps you should feel something for Emerl, like he's a tamagotchi which is overly needy and bleeps every 5 seconds for food or for you to play a crappy mini-game with. The story drags it's heels over several character storylines bringing you a pretty obvious and predictable plotline which is so hollow and devoid of any underlining subtext that it actually hurts
. I mean, this could be said of any Sonic game really, but Sonic Battle is so story-intensive that you spend as much time in boring text-slideshows as you do in battles. There's no excuse for having us sit through a boring-as-hell storyline without there being some storyline there for us to care about. I mean, if they were trying to make a Super Smash Bros.
-like instalment to the Sonic franchise, perhaps they should have just taken note of Super Smash Bros. and it's lack of story and... Done the same; Omit the damn story. I can't let this go, especially since, despite all the build-up, the obvious hints to Emerl's true nature and the forced "daw, isn't he cute. Yes he is, yes he is
" nonsense just ends up with Sonic blowing him up. An event which you may have cared about had Emerl's character not been one to loathe.
Just as bad as the story is how the game plays. As mentioned before, it's a kind-of-sort-of top-down fighting-come-brawling game in which you control one character, either the character you selected when you went into the game from the story select mode or Emerl which the game forces you to play as just to spite you. Each character has their own unique abilities and attributes, each have a distinct fighting style with their moves. For instance, Sonic has the ability to move quickly and double-jump away from danger, a bit like a homing attack, except instead of being used to attack enemies (which would have been helpful, and you'll see why in a bit), you instead flee from them, where as a character like, say Rouge; is a bit slower but instead of a double-jump she can fly to get away from danger. As you enter a battle, you're told to select what abilities your character does in a given context. These three contexts are; ground-move, air-move, guard-move. These contexts mean that depending on if you're on the ground or in mid-air what move is performed when you press the R-Shoulder button. Different abilities behave differently when set to different contexts, so it's all about finding the 'right' (read: cheapest) moves which you can spam endlessly against dopey AI.
Abusing R-Shoulder button moves, like a boss.
And I mean, dopey AI. In one match in the game, when getting my arse literally handed to me by the AI, I gave up and just started spamming my ground-based special context attack which laid a mine on the floor, which when an enemy got near, exploded flinging the enemy into the air. I then laid another, the enemy landed on it, over and over. There was no attempt by the AI to avoid this attack, once airborne, the AI just did nothing. Allow me to spam this one move over and over. At first I thought this was just a cheap cop-out and the game would get harder... It didn't. Well, okay, it did... Slightly. See, after you hand the AI it's buttocks to wear as a hat, it respawns and then starts gaining an immunity to whatever the move you just spammed was. Basically, this just means that you find another R-Shoulder button move to replace the one that's now blocked. And then it becomes immune to that attack, but the other attack you were spamming before is now free to hurt them. Surely, this wasn't how the game was intended to be played, right? But then I started looking up videos online and... I couldn't find one alternative method. Occasionally, you get bored and try your normal combos by hitting the B button repeatedly, but this regularly opens you up to attack and later into the game, enemies can be really
cheap and KO you in a good solid combo. So yeah, here's Sonic Battle, a game all about battling, but not really. Fantastic.
As I was saying about Emerl, when you first get Emerl, you're basically stuck with a character who can't jump high enough to reach any elevated surface
in a stage, who moves like he needs a zimmerframe and punches like he's fighting his way through a wall of strawberry jelly. And the game literally throws you from one character, who you've become quite accustomed to their moves and skillsets and immediately expects you to adapt to Emerl's slow, awkward and not-at-all-fun fighting style. Early into the game, you fight against an Emerl clone which is basically identical to Emerl, and so you watch as you rapidly mash the B button as you slowly punch towards the enemy, he punches back... Until you realise, about 2 minutes later that he's only removed one quarter of your life bar, meaning you've done almost exactly the same damage to him. And then you just give up and spam the R-Shoulder button moves and start winning. That's it. What the hell was the point of this? I don't get it, was this supposed to make me appreciate all the time I'll spend annoyingly trying to balance Emerl out to be an all-around decent character by the end of the game? Which the game then screws you over anyway, using your ideal load-out of Emerl against you in the final boss.
Shadow Chop, Shadow Kick, Shadow Miss, Shadow Whine A Lot...
Guess I should explain what I meant by 'ideal load-out', see you're given the option of customising how Emerl acts and behaves through the use of "cards" which are supposed to be captured attack data from characters he meets through the game. You'll be given a fair number of cards just as the story progresses, with some extra cards awarded for going out of your way to engage in long-winded, boring optional battles which you'll hate yourself for conducting. I believe there's also some cards which can only be obtained by putting in long-winded password-like code into some obscure terminal near the end of the game, could be wrong and you can get these by normal means, but really. They're giving you cards without having to go through the tedium of battle... Just the tedium of typing in long passwords using a D-pad, which is a huge, huge
step-up over fighting in this game. As you unlock cards, you can use them to power up Emerl, but you're restricted by what moves you can use with Emerl by "skill points" which are arbitrarily given to you as you progress through the game.
But here's the kicker about these cards. Now, when I started this game I was told I could upgrade Emerl, so you're given this set of cards which you can equip. So you basically just equip the first thing that you see on the first page of cards and then go on to see what else you can equip but... Nothing works. So I notice that my "Skill Points" counter at the top is pretty much maxed, well okay. That's fair enough, but then I realised that I didn't actually know how many Skill Points was consumed by that first equip. Surely a single card couldn't consume 30 skill points
, right? Especially at the start of the game where you're basically given that many points when you start out. But guess what? The game does. It seems that every card you get at the start of the game is worth at least 15 to 30 points. So what's the confusion? The card just displays how much each card is worth to equip, right? No. I first thought the numeric value in the top right-hand corner of the card was how many skill points was required to equip the card. Makes sense, right? But no, it's just a unique card value, like an identifier. Instead, the number of skill points required to equip the card is displayed in the top left-hand corner of the card using stars
Each star is worth 5 skill points, well that's intuitive isn't it?
So how many Skill Points does this take?
And I'm not done moaning about this yet. Oh no, here comes a whole paragraph about it. So what gets me about this is that you have basically a whole chapter based around 'tutorials', thankfully -- although most likely due to how rushed the game was -- there's no over-bearing tutorial full of pages worth of text how to do simple things like move your cursor on the world map, select an 'event' circle or fun things which the overworld map offers (we'll come back to that). This is mostly because these are intuitive game elements which have been a staple of video games since the late 80's.
What's not intuitive is presenting Skill Points in a numerical fashion in the counter at the top of the screen, then expecting people to understand that stars place on a card equate to how many Skill Points are required to use the card. It's like if you walked into a shop and they listed all the prices in US Dollars, but you have Pound Sterling currency. Then you have to, by trial and error, work out the exchange rate. No, you use the currency of the land and in this case, that currency is numerical values
. You know, if the Skill Points counter was based around stars or even just had a star icon by the counter, it would have made a whole lot more sense
, but as-is? It's nonsense. This is basic stuff, guys. At least explain the conversion rate of "star" to "skill point". And no, I don't have a manual to refer to, these things get lost, especially with 2nd hand games.
One feature which you would think is an awesome inclusion, but you quickly find out the AI uses it to kick you in the crotch and run away giggling is the "heal" ability. If you hold down the L-Shoulder button, you'll begin to heal yourself... Ever-so-slowly. By doing so, you naturally regain health but also your blue One-Hit-KO bar also fills up, this bar also fills up when you just normally conduct battle. Once the bar is full, you can use an R-Shoulder button attack to instantly KO an enemy which comes into contact with that attack. Sounds great, right? However, because it increases both bars so slowly (Emerl has a slightly faster heal ability late-set into the game) you'll never really feel the benefit of the healing, just getting your health back to half-full takes a solid minute of healing, that's about a quarter of a battle. This is mostly done so that you can't abuse the mechanic, but someone forgot to tell the AI that. Sometimes, AI opponents will just disappear. You can easily lose track of opponents in 2-on-2, 3-on-1 or free-for-all battles, and when one AI opponent goes missing that usually means, without fail, they're going off to heal. Of course, then when you've found that the enemy's missing, you need to go hunt them down and the camera is less than accommodating for this. The AI will linger away in a corner somewhere at the bottom of the map where it knows the player can't see it very well unless it's standing right on-top of the enemy. It's annoying as all hell.
Up goes the robot, down goes the robot. Up goes the robot...
The camera confusion doesn't even end there. The game's perspective, mixed with 2D characters moving around a 3D environment means that judging how far away a character is to you from above or below is near impossible. But of course, that doesn't matter since any character which is below your character has a far greater chance of hitting you. This was illustrated to me quite perfectly when I was punching just above an enemy, mashing the attack button as fast as I could to prevent them getting a combo in... When I was just punching air. Then the AI suddenly wakes up, doesn't move an inch and starts hitting me. Now what the hell is that? Somehow I can't hit him, but he can hit me? Despite the fact I haven't moved, I was still in a combo while he attacked me, he didn't move a muscle other than when he started punching me. I think this is a much larger issue than just the camera being all-around crappy, this is a fundamental gameplay issue where so long you're beneath an enemy, there's very little risk of being attacked yourself unless they move down to attack you. But this strategy is only really valid on human players and novice human players at that, which you can get cheap hits on. The AI knows that it can't hit you from above, so it'll move out of the way or come down to meet you, where it can interrupt your combo. But of course, the AI will also move up into that sweet-spot where it can hit you, but you can't hit it as well. Nice, good job guys. Glad you playtested this.
As I alluded towards previously, the game has an overworld system which is basically just what you do outside of battle. It's an easy enough system, you're basically moving a cursor which your player characters follow. What's nice about being a cursor, rather than the player is that you can fly over buildings, while your characters can't. So it's some-what fun to try and get your characters stuck on a rock or a building and see how far away you can get. Here, you basically move around the map with two major objectives, finding arrows or finding circles. Arrows take you to new maps, circles initiate events. Events are basically one of two things, they either launch a battle or progress you in the story... And launch a battle. Each map in the world has at least one unique battlefield within it, some have two. Most aren't a big difference from the ones before it, they're all basically flat arenas with the occasional raised area or dipped area, most of which are just death traps for a lower-levelled Emerl. As you progress through the story, you meet different characters. Once met, you can play as these characters and get bits of their story, but of course, also get their fighting style and ability for Emerl to unlock new skills. The interlude between levels isn't a very well-thought or executed feature, but at least they had the decency to keep most story exposition to a minimum, which is a real plus considering how dry the writing is and the ability to fly over buildings rather than walk over them is nice indeed.
And if I do that hell again, I unlock more pointless story exposition. Whoo!
The game's art direction really bugs me though. When you first see the game, you are greeted by a very distinct art style, characters in the game have this strange rough-around-the-edges look about them. Thick coloured borders and blocky-shading give the art a really unique look about it, which is a good thing. It also plays well to the limited colour pallet the Gameboy Advance offers without going down the generic anime-styling route. You see this artwork everywhere, on the box, on the cartridge, on the menus, in story scenes... But then in comes to the actual in-game visuals and... Well, it looks just like Sonic Advance. No, seriously. And I say "looks just like" because there's no recycled animations from the older Dimps-made Sonic Advance titles. All these poses characters are striking are unique. So why aren't they in the style of the game's primary artwork? My only thought is that they started work with the game looking like Sonic Advance, but then decided to take a radically different approach later down the road, probably when they had a few hundred animations already drawn for use in-game. So instead of redrawing them, they just replaced the less numerous story-scene graphics and left it as that. Or they simply ran out of time when rolling out the new style. Or it could just be the case that the art style didn't quite look as great in miniature. Either way, it's a rather jarring difference.
Other than that, the game's visuals are pretty impressive for the time. Other games which were implementing 3D into Gameboy Advance titles were either playing it easy with Mode7 effects or making really crappy driving/racing titles. So big plus points for that alone, and I've said nothing about how fluid animations are in the game either. My only complaint about the visuals? The camera. That damn camera.
Sonic on the efficiency of the crotch-kick.
The game's soundtrack is perhaps a case of person preference, but I largely dislike it. There's some jewels amongst the rough like the theme for "Emerald Beach", but largely, the game offers an 'edgy' soundtrack full of forced electro-infused-house-style music and it comes across awfully, largely due to technical problems with the Gameboy Advance's sound chip. There's nary a memorable tune to be had. That is, of course, if you can hear the music over the drowning sound effects which are always in the high-pitch frequencies, voice samples which sound like they were made with the Voice Recorder on a Sound Blaster card from 1994 and the fact that most sound effects make the music cut out. Put that altogether and you basically just have noise coming from your speakers. Heaven help you have headphones in. Perhaps I'm being harsh on the game's technical short-falls here, but the constant voice samples which play don't add to the game what-so-ever. Sonic's constant "What?" every time you die, or Gamma's faint "Deploying Recovery Mode" line gets old, quickly. Sure, you could go into the settings and turn off sound effects or voice samples, but that's not the way they intend you played the game, right? They included the voice samples and sound effects which cut into the music because that's how they intended it to be played. So, no. I don't accept that "you can just turn them off" argument. They shouldn't have been implemented in such a manner to begin with.
Sonic Battle is a game which you should be able to pick up and then put down. But sadly, it's one you'll pick up, wonder why you ever bothered, put it down and never touch it again. It's weak, shallow gameplay offers very little to those who play fighting games and as a Super Smash Bros. clone, it falls far, far short. I never did get a chance to play the game's multiplayer, but I had a hard enough time tracking down a copy of the game, let alone 3 more so I could coerce people around me to waste a solid hour or so on this awfulness. I am staggered to think how this game could get worse than it already is, really. There's no compelling narrative, no decent gameplay, no alluring soundtrack... All it has going for it is nice visuals and a unique art style, which hardly makes a good game in my books. And now I have to subject myself to the last Gameboy Advance Sonic game for next week. Joy of joys.