For anyone who’s played the Sonic games of old, there’s a faint feeling of dread when a new Sonic title is released. You wonder what will be wrong with it this time, will someone have decided that having Sonic turn into a Werehog was an idea that wasn’t explored to its fullest? Maybe Sonic Team will have come to the conclusion that what the series really needs is more characters, perhaps another hedgehog to be Sonic’s rival. Generally, whatever they add to the game can be covered with one word: Why?
This was the big question with Sonic Generations; why did it need to have Sonics from two different periods in game history? It was a cute idea, but seemed a little lightweight as a feature that was meant to define a game. The result? Well whilst the game was, passable, it’s hard to say that it was particularly good.[boxout]Sonic 4, on the other hand, was always touted as being in some way pure of these influences and, whilst I haven’t played enough of Episode I to fully comment, it’s safe to say that Episode II does certainly try to replicate that old Sonic magic pretty faithfully. Still, someone at Sega couldn’t just let things lie, and the result is the game’s Homing Attack.
Of course this feature is nothing new in the Sonic series, it dates all the way back to 1998’s Sonic Adventure and was present in Episode I as well. The problem is simply that the implementation is almost unfathomably bad, to the extent that it would be better not featuring in the game.
It doesn’t make the game easier, which is presumably its purpose, instead it makes you want to pummel a developer. Not only does it seem, at times, pointless but it’s so exact about the distance you can be from an enemy that it frequently breaks, causing your death because you’d put your faith in that targeting reticle.
More fool you, that reticle was a clever ploy to make you feel like you’re safe when you were, in fact, preparing to miss every enemy and fall to your death. I can only imagine Dr. Robotnik (no, not Eggman, that’s just a nickname and I refuse to use it) has managed to trick Sonic into using the technique, as it seems to be so rarely to your advantage.
Whilst the Homing Attack is essentially an exercise in frustration and futility, the game does have an added feature that works surprisingly well. Episode II sees the return of Tails and while many still harbour some hatred for the two-tailed suck up, he has his uses with the game’s Tag Action system. By hitting the X/Square button, Sonic and Tails will come together and perform a special move of sorts.[drop2]There’s three of these in the game, and the level design is such that it encourages them without forcing them on you in most situations, although there are a few paths through the levels that require their use. The first of these is the Copter Combo, performed by jumping in the air before activating the Tag Action. Tails will grab Sonic out of the air and carry him for a short distance, before tiring and lowering him to the ground (or dropping him in mid-air if there’s no ground below). Similar to this is the Submarine Combo, which is essentially the same as the Copter Combo except performed underwater and with the added benefit that Tails doesn’t tire.
The third and final of the Tag Actions is the Rolling Combo, essentially a stronger version of the classic Spin Dash that sees Sonic and Tails come together and spin as one. Whilst that doesn’t sound all that impressive, it’s a powerful move and particularly useful when confronted with sections of the level that need to be destroyed before you can continue.
While the Tag Actions make a nice addition to the game, they’re counterbalanced by one of the fundamental flaws in the way the game handles; Sonic feels too heavy. That may seem a relatively trivial complaint but the speed and momentum of Sonic has always been a core part of the game. From what I’ve played of Episode I this issue was present there too, he just feels too slow off the mark. Given that Episode II features a new engine with revamped physics you would hope that this issue would have been addressed, but it’s simply been ignored.
To be clear about this, you shouldn’t get a burst of speed as soon as you move but you also shouldn’t feel slow to get going. Perhaps in some strange, unexplained way this feeling of weight and a slight sluggishness that’s been added to the character is meant to represent him getting old, but realistically it was probably just a poor choice in development. It’s little touches like this that could, potentially, make a Sonic game great again if someone gets the formula right but, for now, it’s one of the elements that leaves Episode II falling short.
Another of those shortcomings comes in some, although not all, of the boss fights. The thing about a boss fight in a Sonic game, and in many old school platformers, is that the approach you need to take to avoid the boss’s attacks and inflict damage should be clear but not obvious. You want to have a small challenge in figuring out the attack patterns and then, when the inevitable weak spot becomes exposed, you attack.[drop]Some of the boss battles in Episode II break these cardinal rules, leaving you feeling confused and bewildered as to what you need to do. It’s worth saying that the majority are good, in fact the final boss fight is brilliant and a lot of fun, but some are just bad enough that they leave you feeling disappointed rather than elated when you finally complete the boss battle.
There are upsides to the game though. In particular, it looks simply beautiful. The 3D art style on characters is combined well with 2D elements and parallax scrolling, and the use of background layers for gameplay cues (as well as 2.5D sections where you’re moving back into the level) is quite simply wonderful. Almost everything from the title screen forwards is fantastic, with some minor flaws in the menu UI being the only thing that sticks out as an annoyance.
The audio is fantastic as well, and not just because no-one speaks in the game. The soundtrack is pretty much spot on for a Sonic game, and will have you grinning like a kid at times. It just sounds like it should, although with a clear modern twist that doesn’t make it feel dated.
The fact that there’s only about four hours on offer (although more if you get all the Chaos Emeralds or compete in time trials) isn’t terribly disheartening, but it does make the asking price seem perhaps a touch high. It’s not an entirely unreasonable price point (1200 Microsoft points or £9.99 on PSN), but it would be far easier to recommend if it was slightly lower.
It is worth noting that those of you purchases Episode I do get some extra content with Episode II, in the form of Episode Metal. This covers what happened to Metal Sonic between the events of Sonic CD and Sonic 4 Episode II, where he features as an antagonist. We didn’t try this content in our playthrough but it does improve the value proposition somewhat, featuring four acts to play through (although these are re-used from Episodes I and II).
- Fantastic soundtrack.
- Wonderful graphics and level design.
- Tag Actions work well.
- Episode Metal for those with Episode I.
- Homing Attack is worse than useless.
- Sonic doesn’t feel right.
- Some poor boss fights.
- Perhaps a little too short.
Sonic 4 Episode II feels at times dangerously close to being a great Sonic game, but there are elements throughout that let it down and leave you feeling distinctly underwhelmed. The Homing Attack is far, far more of a hindrance than an aid of any sort, and whilst the presentation is good you don’t really get the feeling of a classic Sonic game with Episode II.
By now most Sonic fans have probably stopped expecting a return to form, and Episode II certainly doesn’t provide it. Whilst it is enjoyable, the length and frustrations in the controls drag it down overall.