There was a time when Sonic Team was synonymous with stellar art direction, inventive play mechanics, and bold ideas. They created Segaâ€™s answer to Mario, they experimented with plastic maraca peripherals years before Guitar Hero caught on in the States, and they were the ones to introduce online RPGs to the console owning masses. But somewhere along the way, this hardcore darling lost its way. I donâ€™t know if it was because of the departure of guys like Naoto Ohshima (now at Artoon) and Yuji Naka, or if it had to do with Segaâ€™s internal restructuring of its development departments after the collapse of the Dreamcast. Hell, maybe Sonic Team just doesnâ€™t know how to meet modern gaming expectations. All I can tell you is that the little blue hedgehogâ€™s head is no longer a seal of quality, and that this apparently compromised team had no business trying to create a worthy successor to NiGHTS: Into Dreams.
Don’t get your hopes up yet…
Weâ€™ve been waiting eleven years since that dorky purple jester first took to the pastel colored skies of Nightopia, so I think it is fair to say that fans have been very weary of the Wii sequel NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams. Though the motion controls seemed well suited to a flight game (on paper), the aforementioned decline of its developer only inspired dread. Well, even if the signs were there, I still believed because I figured that such a special property would get the treatment it deserved. Sonic and his crew gave up their integrity in exchange for guns and human lovinâ€™, but NiGHTS just had to be different. Foolish, foolish Justin. While Journey of Dreams is far from a turd, the developers have chosen to bury the core game in broken platforming levels and endless cut-scenes that only take away from the overall experience. Quite a nightmare after all of my anticipation.
In its best moments, Journey of Dreams seems to do a passable job of mimicking the Saturn classic â€“ and little beyond that. For those of you unfamiliar with NiGHTS, the game is a 2.5D game that places an emphasis on high scores and flying through levels at high speed. On occasion, the perspective will shift to an overhead or behind-the-back view, but usually Nights just flies from left to right trying to chase down an enemy with a key before advancing to the next course. After youâ€™ve covered a stageâ€™s three courses, you move onto a boss stage.*It takes some time getting used to, but learning to chain together hoops and blue bits for high scores gradually becomes addicting. Course design in this installment is also a high point, as most of the levels feature tons of variety and colorful scenery, such as giant pool tables and halls full of mirrors. However, before you can play the game, youâ€™ll have to deal with the story.
Quite possibly the worst boss ever
Part of the charm of Into Dreams was that you were just dropped into a dreamlike landscape without any in-game explanations or dialog. While the surroundings and music were a bit too saccharine for my tastes, the title character had an enigmatic charm to him that just felt right. There was a sense of mystery, of otherworldliness, that fit perfectly with the dream motif. It boggles my mind then that the first thing greeting players in Journey of Dreams are CG and garish, in-game cut-scenes. Weâ€™re introduced to two British children whose parents apparently no longer love them. I canâ€™t blame Mom and Pop in this instance. From the get-go, these characters are just so completely nondescript that itâ€™s impossible to care about them. Ditto for Owl, your uptight guide throughout the game. However, considerably more offensive is Nights him/herself. Sonic Team just assumes that we find their androgynous hero endearing, but by giving this creature a personality, theyâ€™ve essentially ruined him. The sense of wonder in this world is gone. The fact that these cut-scenes continue to appear before every single mission in the game just adds insult to injury.
This mission structure is the gameâ€™s other major failing. Fans of our podcast may remember us complaining earlier this year about Sonic and the Secret Rings awful objectives in between levels. The main game was the closest weâ€™ve seen to a return to form for the hedgehog, but what should have been a nonstop roller coaster ride ended up getting bogged down in obstacle courses and time trials. However, in that gameâ€™s defense, at least you could choose to ignore much of that content, a luxury that we donâ€™t have in Journey of Dreams. Prepare to go back into each level four or five times before youâ€™re able to see the next area. While some of these missions are fun, others are complete chores. Does transforming into a boat with an inability to turn sound fun to you? Or how about a 3D maze stage with translucent platforms, an uncooperative camera, and a timer thatâ€™s constantly ticking? The original game was smart enough to keep the kids on the sideline, but the British brats and their disgraceful digressions in this installment enjoy way too much time in the spotlight.
If only every challenge was this fun
Besides the horrid plot and pacing, I found myself completely ambivalent to the rest of Journey of Dreamsâ€™ additions. Motion controls certainly sounded exciting, but the execution does not work at all. Luckily, the classic controller remedies any of those concerns. Equally terrible is the next generation of A-life. It seems odd to me that this distraction is somehow both uglier and less enjoyable than the chao hatching from the Sonic Adventure games (from more than five years ago), but nobody is going to play NiGHTS for the virtual pet angle anyway. Other changes include transformations via masks (think of a lamer take on Majoraâ€™s Mask), 2-player modes, Weather Channel compatibility, and online rankings, but these really donâ€™t add up to anything besides bullet points on the back of the box.
And I guess thatâ€™s why itâ€™s taken me a thousand words to bitch about a game thatâ€™s actually pretty decent. Rather than making this the big event it should have been, a return of a lost franchise with limitless potential, Sega really just wanted to make a buck. I guess thatâ€™s the end goal for any development cycle, but I was just expecting a bit more love to go into this production. Well, Iâ€™ve finally woken up from this dream. If a new Burning Rangers revival is announced tomorrow, I want no part in it. I have too many memories of Sonic Teamâ€™s past triumphs to continue settling for merely â€œdecent.â€
Overall: 3 Stars
*Journey of Dreams also features some pretty horrendous boss battles. I cannot fathom how a developer could think Willâ€™s second boss could be anything but tedious. Flying around in endless circles trying to find a hidden boss behind a giant curtain is just as miserable as it sounds.