Ah, Sonic, Sonic, Sonic. You're better than this. You've shown that you're willing to at least attempt to better yourself, by looking towards your past triumphs for inspiration. You just seem to keep falling back upon gimmicks, from guns to hoverboards to werehogs to psychic friends. So what makes you think that a sword, of all things, is going to be the gimmick that saves your franchise? Sonic and the Black Knight is the second instalment of Sonic's 'Storybook 'series on the Wii, which began with the unusually good Sonic and the Secret Rings. We hoped that this game would set a trend for Wii-exclusive Sonic games, and the slick presentation of Sonic and the Black Knight actually had us somewhat excited to play a Sonic game again. Then we actually got around to sitting down and playing it.
Sonic and the Black Knight draws upon Arthurian legend for inspiration for its story, just as Secret Rings drew upon Arabian Nights. In an alternate world, Merlina (a gender swapped hot elven Merlin) is being hunted by the corrupted King Arthur. She calls upon the legendary 'Knight of the Wind' for help, and shortly after Sonic is deposited from the sky, complete with the chilli dogs he was previously enjoying. He agrees to help Merlina to defeat King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table (who look suspiciously like Blaze, Knuckles and Shadow). It sort of makes sense, but there's never any reason for it to be a story set in Arthurian times. Remember how in Arthurian legend, when the Lady of the Lake bestowed Excalibur upon King Arthur? And then it granted him immortality, made him an evil despot and gave him the ability to raise armies from the underworld? This game gives 'loose adaptation' a whole new meaning.
The game also handles quite differently to Sonic and the Secret Rings. In that, you held the Wii Remote sideways, and tilted it to move Sonic from left to right, or to make him go faster or backstep, as well as thrusting it forward for a homing attack. It wasn't perfect, but you got used to it over time. Sonic and the Black Knight loses this system in favour of a Wii Remote-Nunchuck combo, allowing you to control Sonic via the analogue stick. Initially, this sounds a lot more intuitive than the horizontal Wii Remote method, but the tracks which Sonic runs along are incredibly narrow, which means that you don't really feel like your control has been freed up any more than before. You can jump and home-attack by punching the A button, which works just fine. The real problem in the controls, and subsequently the gameplay and level design, comes down to Sonic's latest gimmick - his sword.
So just how do you control Sonic's slicing stick? Pure waggle. And not even necesarily well timed or sensitive waggle. Waggling the Wii Remote allows Sonic to slice and dice, but there is noticeable lag between your action and Sonic's, making the mechanic feel very unresponsive. The game doesn't even differentiate between different types of waggle. You can slice up and down, left and right, in the shape of Boris Karloff's face, it doesn't matter. It's completely mindless. And this is worsened by the fact that swordplay has been given the front-and-centre place in Sonic and the Black Knight's gameplay. In most levels of the game, you literally cannot go five seconds without running into a batch of enemies who need to be destroyed, completely ruining any sense of speed that may be associated with Sonic. There are sections that are meant to be fast, such as Sonic hitching a ride on a horse-and-cart, but isn't Sonic supposed to be faster than that anyway? Isn't he supposed to be faster than the speed of sound?
We also realise that speed isn't necessarily a pre-requisite for a great Sonic game. The very first Sonic the Hedgehog wasn't all that fast, and it's still a classic. The problem is that Sonic and the Black Knight slows Sonic down in all the wrong ways. Spending three quarters of a level mindlessly waggling the Wii Remote is bad gameplay no matter how you look at it. The boss battles don't fare much better either, mostly taking the form of duels. At first glance, they appear to rely on an interesting system of blocking and timing sword strikes. You'll soon get confused when you realise that this doesn't work. No, instead mindlessly waggling will again win the day for you, even letting you beat some bosses under a minute.
The problems with the gameplay are a great shame, since there is at least the illusion of depth in Sonic and the Black Knight. Essentially, after every mission in the game you collect 'identification points' which allow you to identify any mystery objects you have collected during the mission, and then use them. Some can be equipped to make identification cheaper, some are used to produce new items, and some are weapons which can be equipped to any of the supporting characters in the game (who, incidentally, don't differ too greatly to Sonic). You also gain 'followers' who help you level up and gain new abilities, although this seems to a mostly automatic process with no real involvement from you. You also get a star rating at the end of a level, in an attempt to give you an incentive to go back and earn a five-star rating. There are also a bunch of unlockables in the game, including some nice additions like fan art from Sonic fans around the world. There is also a multiplayer Battle Mode with a top-down perspective that is serviceable, but probably won't hold your interest for long.
As is the norm with Sonic games these days, the game has high production values. While it opens with an impressive CGI cut-scene, the in-game cut-scenes are two-dimensional animated storybook pages which have a very pleasing aesthetic. The graphics in the game are also very nice, with some beautiful outdoors locations, although they are marred by darker, more generic levels and some uninspired character design. The map screen of the main game is also quite appealing, and a much easier way of managing missions than the Secret Rings system. The game also has a large amount of voice-work as well, with all of the actors the best they can with the cringe-worthy dialogue. Interestingly, the Wii Remote speaker is also used (albeit extremely occasionally) to voice dialogue from your talking sword, Caliburn. Having your talking sword actually talk to you from your actual sword (stay with us, we're making sense) isn't a bad idea at all, even though he doesn't have a lot to say besides "Sonic" and "well done".
Sonic and the Black Knight is just more firewood for Sonic's funeral pyre. We're not against the idea of Sonic having a sword, we actually think that's kind of a cool idea (kind of). But when this mechanic turns the game into a slow, brain dead waggle-fest, there's clearly some extremely faulty thinking at work here. Sonic tries to show some depth with some RPG-like elements, but beneath the solid presentation lies a deeply flawed game. This is utilising the Wii's capabilities in the worst fashion possible, and we're actually concerned about the amount of waggle in this game hurting people's wrists. We know ours were certainly sore after the first hour with the game. This isn't Sonic's comeback, not by a long shot, and the chance of that actually happening now seems further away than ever.