Sonic certainly has had a comeback as of late. With the successful Sonic Generations last year, and the revival of one of the most fan-requested titles in franchise history with the digital re-release of Sonic CD, interest in the speedy blue hedgehog might be at it’s highest since the early 90s. However, with the original episode of Sonic 4 releasing to mixed reception two years ago, does the new Episode II make an effort to correct the mistakes of its past?
Who hasn’t played a Sonic game by now? The game is a simple platformer. Your ultimate, basic goal is to get to the end of the level in one piece, dodging obstacles and dispatching or avoiding enemies along the way. Should you become good with that, the next logical step is to try to rack up a high score through completing the level faster and collecting more rings before you hit the end marker.
The game itself is split up into four stages, each with three acts, or levels, and a boss fight. There’s one additional stage with a pair of boss fights inside. Should you have Episode I also installed on your platform of choice, you’ll have access to a prologue of sorts showcasing Metal Sonic’s return through a few of the stages in the last game, which plays out in the form of four additional acts. Not a bad deal for the real Sonic fans out there.
But that’s right, kids. Eggman has resurrected Metal Sonic. Eggman’s evil plans this time around focus around constructing a Death Egg mkII. For what? We don’t know. Probably nothing. Probably more jamming of fuzzy, lovable animals into steel containers. That jerk.
But of course, Sonic knows that two-on-one isn’t a fair fight, so he’s enlisted the help of his lifelong pal Miles “Tails” Prower. As a throwback to Sonic 2, and in an attempt to bring Sonic players together once again, Tails is utilized quite a bit. Almost too much, in fact. You see, there was never a problem in the previous games where Tails would ever be necessary. He was a nice add-on to folks who wanted to play Sonic with a friend, but the puzzles in stages themselves were all entirely solvable on your own. That’s not the case here. Players will come across several roadblocks requiring the use of team moves like the team roll to break through barriers, or the classic helicopter mechanic that Tails can somehow perform.
The frustration extends ever-so-much into the newly featured co-op mode. Just like the old days, you and a friend can jump into the same game to try and team up for the extent of the levels. However, because of the forced nature of using team moves, this doesn’t go so well. It’s entirely likely your friend will try to screw you up at some point. Which I suppose itself could be a throwback to the old days too depending on if your friends were jerks as a kid, but I digress.
The rest of the game has gotten a great aesthetic overhaul. That weird sort of shine that enveloped everything in the first episode is gone, instead looking like a slightly less detailed set of levels from Sonic Generations. There’s the occasional texture or something that looks a bit odd (the parts where you have to burrow through snow come to mind,) but there are no deal breakers. But what really grabbed my attention was the music. Sure the soundtrack in the first episode did a good job at trying to emulate that magic of the original series’ soundtracks, but it still sounded too modern. The soundtrack for Episode II, however, feel like they went and pulled them out of a vault not opened since 1993. They’re catchy, they’re energetic, they fit. There were a few times where I left the screen paused on a specific level simple because I wanted to keep hearing the music.
The level design is 90 percent well done too, and bring a bunch of variety. Sylvania Castle Zone is a ruin area not unlike the classic Aquatic Ruin Zone from Sonic 2. White Park Zone is an arctic act filled with ice and snowy hazards. Oil Desert Zone is a mass of industrial junk in the middle of the endless sands. Sky Fortress Zone and Death Egg mkII are both highly futuristic environments in which Eggman calls home. And of course there’s the Episode Metal content which revisits four of the zones from the previous game. While many of the levels have expertly done design, and the developers have obviously tried to make the levels less “automated” than they’ve been in the past, there are a few levels that completely miss the mark. Namely, the first and third levels in Oil Desert Zone.
The first sees Sonic and Tails traversing across numerous bottomless pits while battling sandstorms and heavy winds, with much frustration coming from having to adjust your jump according to the winds. The third level places our duo thrice into a silo ever filling with sand, tasking the player with making sure not to get wedged between the rising sand and any ceilings, which isn’t easy considering the aforementioned forced team mechanics are very heavy here. These were the only two levels where I seriously considered throwing down my controller in frustrated defeat, not entirely caring about what the ending should bring.
However, for many, including myself, that feeling of frustration is expected with the likes of a new Sonic game. Having re-played nearly every main game in the series within the past year, I’m all too familiar with the necessity of memorizing level layouts, realizing I’m milliseconds away from my demise with my last life only to hope I can hit the pause button quick enough so I can restart the level without penalty. So you all will have to forgive me if I’m slightly torn on how to feel about frustration in a game. Anything else and it would have been condemned. With Sonic, however, the frustration plays a strange sense of nostalgia. Obviously this won’t apply to the newbie gamers, but honestly, who would be interested in a Sonic game at this point without being a lifelong fan?
When I review a game here, there’s an unexpected aspect I put into the process to gauge what I have to say about it. By the time I sit down to write, how much do I want my word to impact the reader? Do I want someone to simply get the gist of what I thought of a game, or do I want to break down a game into excruciating detail in an attempt to have all the bases covered. This gets especially difficult with a game like Sonic 4: Episode II because of the overall lack of depth. Which is certainly not a bad thing. Sonic doesn’t need depth. The simpler the better.
It should also be noted that the game is fairly short, as are most of the other Sonic games of the past few console generations. Although, the decreased price tag from traditional Sonic games evens things out a bit. Leaderboard junkies will be right at home playing levels over and over again in an attempt to get better scores every time they boot up the game.
My ultimate decision is that I, as a die-hard Sonic fan, enjoyed the game a great deal, despite a few poor design choices and an overall odd direction when it comes to the inclusion of Tails. I didn’t enjoy it more than the nostalgia-driven Sonic Generations, but I did enjoy it more than Episode I, a game which I didn’t find overly disappointing either, while many of my fellow fans did. Considering that the fate of the Sonic franchise rests on if this Episode does well (we’ve heard both sides from SEGA on whether they want to make more traditional Sonic games after this,) I give the game a solid recommendation. If for no other reason than this will be the closest thing you’ll ever get to the classic Sonic in a modern era.
This review is based on the XBLA version of the game, which was provided to us for review purposes.