Games 12/9/08: Chrono Trigger DS, Sonic Unleashed

Chrono Trigger
For: Nintendo DS
From: Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, mild fantasy violence, suggestive themes, use of alcohol)

Square-Enix has struggled, rather mightily, to usher the magic of yesteryear into the present generation. Unfortunately — be it due to games that are good but not great (“Infinite Undiscovery,” “The Last Remnant”), sequels that can’t live up to their predecessors (“Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift”) or great games undermined by flimsy marketing and word of mouth (“The World Ends With You,” “Crisis Core”) — nothing seems to land with the splash Square and Enix used to create with seemingly invincible regularity once upon a time.

So it’s hard to blame anybody for retreating back to those glory days and unloading all the first-rate remakes that have graced the PSP and Nintendo DS this year. In fact, if there’s any finger-pointing necessary regarding the reissue of the Super NES role-playing classic “Chrono Trigger,” it’s that it took Square-Enix this long to give us a portable rendition of what many consider the best game (a) in the company’s catalog and (b) the history of the genre.

To its credit, “Trigger” returns as neither a slapped-together port nor a tinkered-beyond-recognition remake. The look of the SNES original is preserved, but the animated cut-scenes from the Playstation reissue are subbed in and gifted with a cleaner translation of the original Japanese script. The migration to the DS produces obvious benefits with respect to touch screen menu management and extra screen real estate, and “Trigger” utilizes them exactly as it should and to whatever degree you want them to intervene. (Translation: No new gimmicky touch screen mini-games gumming up the works.)

“Trigger” keeps it simple with respect to content additions as well, sprinkling some new dungeons, missions and items on top without monkeying too much with the original storyline. Unfamiliar players likely won’t be able to distinguish between new and old, but those who have the game committed to memory will likely appreciate the occasional surprise wrinkle, not to mention a new ending (in addition to the multiple preexisting endings) that give “Trigger’s” biggest fans a few new revelatory stones to overturn.

Somewhat fittingly, “Trigger’s” only major blight comes thanks to its biggest grab at change. The game’s new multiplayer component (two players, local wireless only) is an arena mode in which you train a monster and pit it in battle against friends’ creatures. It isn’t broken, but it’s a long way from great, and there are numerous dedicated DS games that offer a deeper and more engaging take on this idea.

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Sonic Unleashed
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii
From: Sonic Team/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, fantasy violence)

By hook or by crook, Sega needs to pull the plug on Sonic Team’s disastrous dismantling of Sonic the Hedgehog’s good name and give the reins to a developer that can figure it out.

“Sonic Unleashed,” the umpteenth reboot of the franchise since things started careening south seven years ago, merely drives home this point — yet another example of a developer too stubborn to give fans what they want and not nearly capable enough to justify such obstinacy.

To its partial credit, “Unleashed” isn’t the technical nightmare 2006’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” was. The camera only occasionally rather than constantly interferes, and the game’s failings are merely disappointing instead of staggeringly impossible to understand. “Unleashed” also looks considerably better than its predecessor, which was chock full of graphical glitches, and while the story remains a complete mess, it at least won’t creep you out the way “Hedgehog’s” weird romance did.

At its best, “Unleashed” even behaves exactly like a Sonic game should, with fleeting levels and boss fights that perfectly encapsulate what Sonic is (or should be) all about. These moments are hyper-fast, kinetic and blissfully reminiscent of Sonic’s two-dimensional glory days.

As seems to always happen, though, these moments continually suffer from interruption. Considerably more than half of “Unleashed’s” playtime stars you as a werewolf mutant version of Sonic, and here, the fast gameplay gives way to tedious combat and puzzle-solving that pay respect to “God of War” but fall hopelessly short due to sloppy controls and brainless enemy A.I.

Distressingly, the game’s story portions make the werewolf segments look like a thrill ride. “Unleashed” unnecessarily structures its story around a hub world, which leads to several more hub worlds that eventually let you actually play a level. Traversing those hub worlds is tedious in its own right, but having to gather clues by talking to mostly useless townspeople first is an unbelievable drag.

Slogging through long werewolf levels and dreadful hub crawls might be tolerable if “Unleashed’s” traditional Sonic levels were continually first-rate, but sloppiness yet again takes over whenever one of those fleeting moments of bliss ends. You will die often in “Unleashed,” and often it will be because some aspect of the game — be it loose controls, bizarre momentum shifts, an inebriated camera or something else — fails you.

Perhaps if Sonic Team poured all its energy into these levels, which precisely is what everyone wants it to do anyway, that sloppiness would subside. Once again, though — and, sadly, probably not for the last time — the powers that be have demonstrated that they just don’t get it.