Will Sonic ever return to his former glory, or has his long-time rival all but conquered the platforming landscape?
Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the video game heroes that shaped my childhood. Many a bleary-eyed night was spent with the original games on the Mega Drive, speeding through classic worlds such as Green Hill and Casino Night Zone. Anyone growing up in the same era will remember the schoolyard arguments –Nintendo vs SEGA, Mario vs Sonic – and though The Blue Blur held his own at the time, a categorical fall to mediocrity over the next two decades has firmly cemented Nintendo’s portly ex-plumber as the champion of the platformer genre. While Mario defined, and continues to redefine, the 3D platformer, the majority of Sonic’s three-dimensional outings have been universally underwhelming. Sonic Forces is the latest attempt at relevancy for the franchise, and while kudos goes to SEGA and Sonic Team for sticking to their design template with such conviction through all these years, at this point in time it may not be enough.
I sincerely wish that I could describe with any degree of certainty just what is going on in Sonic Forces’ storyline, but after having played through from beginning to end, I honestly still have no idea. I can tell you that Eggman is up to his usual evildoing, and has enlisted the help of an angsty Jackal named Infinite to conquer the planet, and I can tell you that ‘Modern Sonic’ and friends team up with ‘Classic Sonic’ and a brand-new character to take him down, but that’s about as memorable as it gets. Between the extreme levels of ‘edginess’ and cumulative effect of years’ worth of introductions of terrible side characters, the game plays out like some sort of officially-sanctioned fanfiction, especially so when you consider that the newest member of the heroes’ team happens to be player-made. That’s right, for much of Sonic Forces you’ll be playing as an anthropomorphic animal of your own creation, picking from a handful of species and tweaking them with the usual assortment of face and body parts and dressing them in their own style. It’s all quite basic, but it’s still a compelling addition to the package. I had far too much fun trying to make the most nightmare-ish character possible.
Jumping into the game proper, it’s immediately apparent that Sonic Forces doesn’t stray too far from the formula first established in 1998’s Sonic Adventure, with its fast-paced pseudo-3D level design that has players running ever forward at a breakneck pace. Most of the game’s 30 levels follow this template, with the odd side scrolling ‘classic’ style mission to break it up. There’s some level of thrill to be found in the sheer speed at which each level moves, and the onscreen action almost always looks flashy and exciting, but that’s when the level design and controls work together. When they don’t, the game slows to a crawl and frustrates with tedious platforming and cheap deaths, and unfortunately this happens far too often. Sonic’s appeal lies in his speed, and so slowing him down to make a series of precise jumps, or throwing waves of enemies at the weapon-toting player avatar characters is not playing to the franchise’s strengths. That said, the moments that do work are an absolute blast. Blasting through robot baddies at full speed while masterfully careening through city streets exemplifies what fans want out of a Sonic game, and it’s never looked this good before.
Visually, Sonic Forces isn’t all that impressive from a technical standpoint, but it does look nice and sharp on home consoles and there are some truly exciting action set pieces that really stand out. It’s always nice to see classic Sonic locations dressed up for the modern era, as well, although at this point I’m certain fans are becoming tired of the Green Hill, Chemical Plant and Casino zones. Surprisingly, the most accomplished facet of this game’s presentation is in the menus. Riffing heavily on another SEGA franchise, Persona, Forces’ interface has a bold and dynamic punk-rock aesthetic that adds a tonne of flair while still being incredibly easy to navigate and it plays right into the other high point for the game, the music. Equally as eclectic as the menus and executed with the same loud confidence, the soundtrack to Sonic and friends’ adventure ranges from pounding synth beats, to funk jams, to an original track from rap-hardcore band Dangerkids (seriously!) and is a seriously good time. I can forgive the incredibly hammy vocal performances for the game’s cast of characters when I’m tearing up the Death Egg to some high-energy beats.
Outside of the levels themselves, Sonic Forces adds a few important wrinkles when it comes to progression. On top of simply playing through to completion, the game gives players a plethora of achievement-style ‘missions’ to complete, such as collecting a certain number of star rings or finishing each level with a certain rank. Completing these missions unlocks more outfits and accessories for the custom player character, and there is an impressively huge number of these to find. These missions are important in adding some replay value to what is otherwise a relatively brief experience, and encourage skilled play and experimentation with different character setups. My only gripe with this system is that at one point I unlocked a pair of Crocs for my avatar. I wish there was a way to delete them from my inventory.
It’s no secret that Sonic has suffered from a bit of identity crisis ever since video games moved into the three-dimensional realm. Strictly 3D titles in the franchise have been panned by critics and fans for frustrating design and ridiculous plots and characters, while the television series Sonic Boom! is praised for its goofy tone and humour and the sprinkling of 2D throwbacks have been mostly well-received. Why SEGA and Sonic Team would continue to try to push the series in the direction that has led it to misstep in the past, then, is a mystery – but here we are again. As the credits roll on Sonic Forces, the platformer fan in me can’t help but feel a little flat, especially after the world has just been graced by the masterpiece that is Super Mario Odyssey. While it’s far from the worst game in the blue hedgehog’s storied history, and there’s definitely something here for die-hard fans, it doesn’t do enough to win back its detractors or compete with its peers in 2017.