As a life long Sonic fan, I’ve come to terms with the fact that he has never really kept up with other long running series of it’s ilk, time and time again building up hope then crushing it all with yet another mediocre game (also known as the Sonic Cycle). Sonic Mania changed all that in spectacular fashion earlier this year, a true homage to the glory days and literally the best Sonic game since 3 by simply remaining true to the formula. Sonic’s move to 3D went about as polar-opposite to Mario’s as it could, where he continually upped the ante and starred in some of the greatest games of all time, Sonic’s could easily be considered some of the worst. 2011’s Sonic Generations made a massive leap in the right direction, using a hefty dose of nostalgia in re-imagining classic levels from the better entries in the series in both 2D classic Sonic style and some actually brilliant 3D levels, each with style specific Sonic designs, one short and chubby, the other lanky with those green eyes! Since then, Sonic Team seemed to have ignored the praise that Generations got and have reverted back to the Sonic Cycle once more.
Until Forces that is. Once again, the 2 Sonics team up to face Dr. Eggman and his army of robots, this time with new enemy Infinite by his side using the power of the Phantom Ruby, letting him manipulate peoples mind to see vivid hallucinations that can interact with the real world. Sonic and his pals have formed a resistance and are on the back foot with Eggman having taken control of the entire planet. The menus and level screen has the look of a cartoony Cold War propaganda poster, with red and grey EVERYWHERE. To be honest, the premise is delivered in a mostly light hearted way, but it still feels odd to have Knuckles ordering the cast around like a General, talking about liberating bases and pushing back the enemy. After all, all this amounts to is running really fast from one end to another, while getting a running commentary about how you’re actions are turning the tide of war. I found myself just skipping the cutscenes and ignoring this dialogue most of the time and just focusing on the gameplay.
Speaking of which, this is probably the best playing Sonic game since Generations (after Mania, of course). There’s no longer 2 versions of each stage as in that game, instead levels are presented in a linear manner, alternating between both Sonics and the main gimmick here, your custom avatar. The world map has you moving from areas based on Green Hill, Chemical Plant, Mystic Jungle and others, but are brand new designs, no longer remixing old layouts. For the most part it works well, classic Sonic’s levels being the highlight for me. His physics are not as accurate as Mania, but he controls well and the layouts encourage exploration and improvisation. Modern Sonic has the most adrenaline fuelled stages, lots of visual eye candy with loops and huge camera pans but the trade of is that you really aren’t in control for sections of the levels.
However, as I mentioned I am a lifelong Sonic fan and as such, there was one moment in his levels which had my inner and outer child laughing with joy: at one point, you team up with the avatar character (we’ll get to him). A prompt comes up to mash the X button for double boost which if done successfully (not hard) the two characters blaze forward at a ridiculous speed, smashing through enemies and objects while the main theme (which is AWESOME) blares out behind them. Again, not really much control, but man, does it get the blood flowing! Last time I felt like that playing a Sonic game was Speed Highway on the DC; the first time you barrel down that opening ramp was amazing. There are still some of the usual issues with the 3D sections, falling off edges because it can get too fast, or poor collision detection having you fall through the ground but overall I really enjoyed the over the top action and spectacle.
Now. Let’s move on to the Avatar. In theory, this is a great idea. People have been designing their own Sonic characters for years, why not let them do it in a game for once. The actual process of making your avatar is fine, limited at first with options but you unlock new clothes and wispons at a rapid pace just playing through the levels so that’s not really an issue. Each animal type has a unique ability, though nothing that will really give you much of an edge. The wispons give you different attacks depending on the type and also a super move that can be used to follow a trail of rings, or build a platform to climb up higher for example. Some offer additional bonuses too, though I found that there was never really a need to change up too often unless you are chasing the Red Star Rings dotted through the levels as some require specific powers to reach.
Clothing is purely cosmetic, unlocked via completing in game challenges (not a loot box in sight!!) and offers a wide array of choice to get your avatar looking just how you’d like. So far, so good. Now using the avatar in game: pretty much makes the whole thing pointless. Unlike Sonic, your movement is slow, you can’t roll or spin dash and they just control awfully. Some of the later levels that require pretty precise platforming are incredibly frustrating, the controls just not responsive enough to accurately pinpoint your movement. The wispon attacks do take out multiple enemies in a wide area, and you have a grapple hook for lock on jump attacks but every time another avatar stage rolled around had me sighing hard, knowing the good stuff was locked behind this wall. If Sonic Team had leaned into using either just classic or modern Sonic styles for the levels it may have been a neat addition, but as they are they kind of take the worst of both styles and put it together.
There is a lot to like about this game. The Sonic levels are great, the visuals are really bright and charming and the music is excellent (Feel free to take that with a pinch of salt though, I still frequently listen to the Sonic R and Sonic Adventure soundtracks which this one will take a place along side for sure!). For the first time in years, I actually enjoyed and looked forward to going back to a Sonic game and will continue to hunt those red star rings for a while yet. But the main USP of the avatars let the side down. I really hope Sonic Team continue with the duel Sonic crossover games as they seem to be providing them with their best output in years.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.