Sonic and the Black Knight Wii
During the twenty or so years that I’ve been playing video games, not once have I felt the urge to throw a controller in anger. Being a pretty patient person has lead to a vast collection of fully working – never damaged – gaming peripherals. Sure, I’ll sometimes grit my teeth as another Ken defeats me by spamming the fireball, and yes occasionally I’ll put the controller down and close my eyes for a few seconds having fallen – once again – to my doom in Tomb Raider, but I’ve never thrown a pad with rage. That was until I played Sonic and the Black Knight.
Unlike the recently released ‘Sonic Unleashed’, Black Knight is part of a separate universe, a follow-up to Sonic and the Secret Rings, released back in 2007. Switching the Arabian Nights theme for the Arthurian setting of Camelot, Black Knight sees Sonic summoned to the mythical land by the mystical Merlina (Merlin-a, do you see?), desperate for somebody to save her from King Arthur, who has become an evil black knight under the influence of a tainted blade. It makes as much sense as a bottle of chips, especially considering that the knights of the round table all appear to be characters from previous Sonic games, and the blacksmith just happens to look like Tails. Still, it provides the foundation for a fairly enjoyable romp through medieval times, and although it’s unlikely to win any awards for its dialogue – a constant barrage of one-liners from the increasingly irritating hedgehog – there are some interesting plot twists along the way.
Similarly surprising is the level of care that has gone into the presentation of each level. Those who endured Sonic Unleashed will know all too well of its seemingly last-gen visuals, but Black Knight is something of a marvel – at least to look at. Although the levels in each area rarely differ from one to the next, they are packed with little details that – when speeding through at a hundred miles a second – can often go unseen. A consistent frame rate also makes running at top speed through each of the games stages an absolute joy to behold. Although the levels within each area can become repetitive, a single trip around the world map will provide an ample variety of things to see. There’s a vast difference between seeing and doing however, and this is where Black Knight starts to come off the rails.
Or not, as the case may be – because regardless of what may appear to be sprawling grass-swept moors, and snow covered forests filled with branching roads, Sonic (and friends) are limited to moving down a single track for the entire game. Not so much on rails as ‘on rail’, every level requires players to hold forward, and then occasionally left and right in order to dodge enemies and dangerous scenery. There’s plenty of jumping of course and at times the speed peaks to an eyeball-bursting intensity, but when the level of control is as limiting as it is, it’s hard to find any sort of enthusiasm for the on-screen antics. And just when it would appear that things can’t get any worse, you go and remember that this time around, Sonic’s got a sword.
I have no idea when Sonic Team are going to just let the poor bastard retire, but the constant reimagining of the spikey blue mammal is becoming something of a joke. When Sonic Unleashed was announced, there were a handful of screenshots that gave the impression that the team were finally back on track, a seemingly 2.5D platformer than favoured speed and visual flare over everything that Sonic wasn’t (a werewolf/hog). This, in part, was one of the reasons Unleashed was such a disappointment. Black Knight however has always looked a bit rubbish, marketed as Sonic with a sword from day one it seemed destined to fail – which is why on some level there was hope that it could surprise us all and pull the sword combat off graciously. The only surprise here however, is that the swordplay in Black Knight is worse than we could have ever imagined.
Shaking the Wii Remote gives Sonic his cue to swing the sword. Depending on the direction of the analogue stick the sword-swings differ, allowing for consecutive strikes to form a chained combo. Add to these a jumping attack and Sonic has a fairly impressive array of dueling skills – at least he would have, were they not so completely unreliable. Any hope of performing a concise and carefully executed combo goes out of the window the second the Wii Remote is shaken. The delay between shaking and on-screen attacking is such that the real world action feels almost entirely separated from Sonic. This results in what can only be described as frantic waggle – with consecutive blows a thing of luck rather than skill. To add to Black Knight’s problems, what could have been a supersonic platformer quickly turns into a stop and start hack and slash, constantly requiring Sonic to stop in his tracks in order to defeat a slew of generic enemies, completely ruining the game’s flow.
Similarly, in combat centric stages such as boss-battles, the timing of strikes in between blocking (triggered via the Z button) requires some serious preemptive attacking, and once again feels far more hit and miss than a game based upon a melee system should. There are a few additions to even things up a bit – when filled, Sonic’s soul gauge allows him to lock-on to enemies and home-in with a one hit kill which can be chained for as long as the gauge is filled. Hitting jump whilst in mid-air also allows Sonic to jump dash towards enemies, but more often than not this results in going face first into a minion’s sword – losing rings in the process and bringing Sonic one step closer to restarting the level.
Which is where the controller breaking frustration kicks in. There are a couple of levels in Black Knight that manage to win the title of most infuriating level design in the history of 3D platformers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of floors that fall away into bottomless pits, but when Sonic is already running at the speed of light, and the game requires you to jump a crumbling bridge, whilst avoiding a platform of enemies that leads to another set of falling bridges, the misjudging of which leads to being sent all the way back to the beginning of the sequence, I start to get a little irate. The checkpoints through the levels are in most cases well thought out, but there are others similar to this that will do nothing but cause stress, and eventually tears. Considering that this game is almost definitely aimed at a younger audience, the patience required to finish the single player story is unreasonable beyond any stretch of the imagination.
There are a handful of redeeming factors however. Although the single player campaign is short, there are plenty of bonus missions to do before and after completion. Each one provides an abundance of rewards, including items and styles that can be used at the blacksmith’s shop as part of Black Knight’s RPG-like attribute system. Although they add an extra layer, it’s a fairly superficial one, with only a few items really making any sort of dent in level performance. There’s also a four person multiplayer mode, which similar to the long forgotten Sonic Battle on the GBA, sees characters from the story battle it out in a top down arena with a number of varying factors between game types. It’s an interesting afterthought but the movement is sluggish, and the combat retains the same thoughtless waggle-happy nature as introduced during the main game.
What Sonic and the Black Knight amounts to is a game that has been polished to within an inch of its life, yet one that sadly misses the point everywhere else. As wonderful as the presentation is, with its stylishly animated cut-scenes and beautifully realised scenery, the majority of the game is spent providing minimal input or shaking the remote like a loon. Sonic fans, stubborn as they are God bless ‘em, will no doubt buy this regardless, but once again Sonic Team have fallen short, leaving us with the question: Can the Sonic series get any worse? And, where can I get my Wii Remote fixed?