Game Review: Sonic Forces

Sonic the Hedgehog was the first video game I ever played. The original Mega Drive (known elsewhere as the Genesis) quadrilogy is cemented in my mind the same way one might know their favourite album or film like the back of their hand. Hell, I can’t even recall all the names of my childhood friends, but the memory of completing Sonic 2 with all the chaos emeralds for the first time as a kid remains as vivid as if it happened last week. I’ve stuck with the series through all its ups and downs – and, let’s be honest, there’s been an abundance of the latter – hoping it could reclaim the glory of the aforementioned Mega Drive titles.

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When the series first made the leap to the third dimension with the Sonic Adventure games, the results were flawed but promising. Unfortunately, a slew of iffy to downright awful releases damaged the already-inconsistent franchise’s reputation, prompting Sega to return to the drawing board. The end result of this was Sonic Generations, a nostalgia-fueled game that consciously tried to condense the best elements of each era of the game into a unified experience, and was ultimately a pretty damn good game, despite some unfortunate flaws. Sega had earned back the goodwill of the fans, only to squander it again with the Sonic Boom games. This led to another “back to basics” approach, with the release of Sonic Mania just a few months ago – building on the original Mega Drive titles to create what was arguably the best Sonic game to date. The bar was set incredibly high for the next installment, and the question on every Sonic fan’s mind is: Was Sonic Mania a fluke, or has the series finally managed to stick the landing on a long-awaited comeback?

Well, the good news is, Sonic Forces is very much one of the better modern Sonic games. The game takes a lot of pages from the Generations playbook – old stages are once again revisited (I was admittedly a little disappointed to see even more iterations of Green Hill and Chemical Plant on the roster following their inclusion in both Generations and Mania, though the game does feature some classic settings that haven’t been explored recently, such as the Death Egg and Mystic Jungle), and the game appears to be using the same core engine as Generations. The storyline is perhaps most comparable to that of Sonic Adventure 2 – surprisingly dark in nature, with a large, sprawling scope that takes the characters all over the world as they seek to prevent another deadly crisis – only this time, we actually begin with Robotnik taking over the world, setting the stakes as high as they’ve ever been.

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The playable characters once again feature Modern Sonic and Classic Sonic, only this time, there’s a third character on the roster – an unnamed rookie hero whose avatar you get to design (and further customise as the game progresses, unlocking additional items for you). The character creator was billed as one of the defining features of the game, and while it’s a lot of fun (I personally got a huge kick out of trying to design the most ridiculous-looking character possible, as you’ll probably observe from the screenshots and videos I captured for this piece – and the game also allows you to play as characters created by other players), it’s ultimately not all that much of a game-changing addition. Which is probably for the best, seeing as how horribly ill-conceived Sega’s attempts to reinvent the franchise have been (Werehog, anyone?).

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Both types of Sonic levels play very much like they did in Sonic Generations, and the avatar stages borrow heavily from the former, replacing the boost function with a series of customisable weapons/powers (though the weapons are generally pretty light-hearted in nature, unlike the horribly ill-conceived firearm system in Shadow the Hedgehog – you can shoot electricity, turn enemies into cubes, etc.), and the return of the wisps from Sonic Colors. Having said that, this game very much cuts the bullshit and sticks to the basics of the series – gone are the groan-inducing HUB worlds of Sonic Adventure and Unleashed, along with the pointless extraneous content from Generations. There’s also no ridiculous final boss that completely switches the gameplay style for no reason; the first few levels give you most of the tools you use throughout the rest of the game, and the gameplay on offer doesn’t really deviate from that at all (there are some optional side missions, but they’re all very short, sparse, and stick to the solid platformer gameplay offered by the main game, merely with some additional obstacles).

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The sidescrolling segments are in abundance – Classic Sonic levels take place entirely from this perspective, and both the Modern Sonic and the player avatar levels feature long stretches of sidescrolling gameplay. As reliable as the sidescrolling segments are, I would’ve personally liked some more 3D platformer moments, given how the genre has been largely sidelined this past decade. It’s actually a little surprising that they didn’t implement a system where Classic Sonic levels are entirely sidescrollers, Modern Sonic levels are entirely 3D platformers, and the avatar levels are a mix of the two – which seems like the obvious move when you’re working with 3 different gameplay styles – but I suppose it’s also nice to see Sonic Team stick to what they know works (and it seems like they’ve listened to long-running fan complaints now; underwater segments are kept to an absolute minimum, as are quick-time events, which have now been simplified to a single button, allowing them to function more like the homing attack system, and very rarely did I feel like an enemy or obstacle unfairly crept up on me). Most of the stages can be completed by an experienced Sonic player in a good 2-4 minutes, and boast a fair amount of replay value.

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Sonic games have always carried a certain presence of spectacle – even the early Sonic game packed sequences that played like the big theatrical set pieces of modern action games. While other platformers may focus on exploration, puzzle solving, Sonic was always about the adrenaline rush (to the extent a family-friendly platformer could reasonably provide, of course), and Sonic Forces fully commits to that principle, making full use of what the game’s dystopian premise affords. City stages are decorated with fire, explosions and giant robots destroying the surroundings in the background, and many of the other stages also succeed on the “pure sensory overload” front – there’s pretty much always something interesting happening on screen. The constant visual extravagance and the smooth framerate make this game a real treat for the eyes, even if some more variation in the settings would have been nice.

While the regular stages are plentiful, enjoyable and addictive, the boss fights are more hit-and-miss, as is generally the case with modern Sonic games. Most of the boss fights boil down to “memorise the pattern, dodge the obstacles, attack when you can,” changing up the pattern after every couple of successful hits. That’s not to say they’re totally devoid of merit – the presence of the space-time-altering phantom ruby makes for some pretty unique turns sometimes, and the boss fights are rarely ever frustrating to play – but they’re not something I imagine most players will return to regularly – particularly the very lengthy ones that close out the game.

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As far as the music goes, the soundtrack is a predominantly electronic one, with cuts ranging from thumping club numbers to entirely chiptune pieces. It’s a given at this point that any modern Sonic game is going to feature some in-game music with vocals, and this game may have the highest number of these to date. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of this, though I also can’t deny that the vocal melodies often worm their way into my brain, and I’ve long since come to terms with this now being one of the series’ flagship elements. I continue to hope that they one day add the option to turn vocals off, but aside from some grating auto-tune singing and the occasional eye-roll-inducing lyric, they’re relatively tolerable, and sometimes even genuinely enjoyable. I’d have like to hear a bit more variety in the music styles, but overall, this game retains the high standard held by most Sonic games’ soundtracks.

Another element of the game I wish could be customised is the character commentary. Although there are only three playable characters, the rest of the Sonic cast plays a big part in the story – coordinating the mission, giving you instructions and assisting off-screen with the resistance. Unfortunately, this means that the stages are full of dialogue, as the other characters interact with you and each other via some sort of intercom system. It’s not a horrible idea on its own – the commentary does indeed make it feel like you’re part of a larger team mission, and contributes to the storyline – but on repeat playthroughs, it can be quite annoying. I can’t imagine it would’ve been difficult at all to add an option to simply turn this off after your first play-through of a stage, and the fact that it remains a mandatory part of the experience no matter how many times you’ve played a level (likewise for the pop-up hints) is undoubtedly a detriment.

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This isn’t the only easily-avoidable poor creative choice on display here, either. For example, the game also offers optional “S.O.S. missions,” where you replay through an old stage with a new condition. There are three types of these, each colour coded, but if, like me, you accidentally skip past the pop-up that details what each one entails, you’re… just kinda shit outta luck. I completed a couple of these only to be met with a “MISSION FAILED” screen, and it wasn’t until my second time playing through the game that I realised that some of these missions actually required searching for characters; there are no further on-screen instructions to inform you of this. And this isn’t the only such instance, either – on the world map, you explore with a crosshair and select missions from there (much like the world maps from Sonic Unleashed and Adventure 2). With 30 standard stages in total, it gets cluttered quite quickly, but pressing  Y (on the Xbox One version) can bring up a little side menu that allows you to explore the stages in chronological order; unfortunately, this is also explained in an easy-to-miss pop-up, and while there is a “Y” prompt on the side of the screen, it’s really not obvious at all what it does if you miss that pop-up.

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Perhaps the biggest annoyance (aside from the character commentary) is the abundance of pop-ups upon completing a mission for the first time – with window after window appearing on screen to inform you of each individual item of clothing you’ve acquired, rather than condensing them all into a single screen, or giving you the option to turn these notifications off completely. It’s a shame, as there’s so much to like about Sonic Forces, and while most of its flaws are forgivable, there’s no reason these annoyances should’ve been present in the first place. Sonic Mania gave us the most basic menu screens imaginable and didn’t overload the player with unskippable nonsense, so to follow that up with this is a step in the wrong direction. Here’s hoping this is rectified in future updates for the game (likewise for the lack of multiple save slots).

Having said that, there are also some changes to the game mechanics which I was very happy with. The lives system has been completely eradicated, as is the “GAME OVER” screen. Here, death is followed by a “TRY AGAIN” screen, taking you back to the last checkpoint, no matter how many times you die. The player is instead penalised in far less obstructive ways (the timer doesn’t reset during death, and the number of retries contributes to your end-of-stage grade). It’s a long-overdue change to the game’s mechanics, seeing as the old system never really gelled with the way modern games are played, and a change I hope sticks with future releases. This is also the first Sonic game – to my knowledge – to feature multiple difficulty levels. I’ve played through on both, though didn’t notice a whole lot of difference, save from the number of obstacles in the boss fights (in addition to one’s ring count maxing out at 100 and times/scores not being recorded on beginner mode). Additionally, the special edition of the game also features a bonus “episode” where the player gets to play as Shadow – effectively serving as a prequel to the main story. It only consists of three stages, and it’s very much “more of the same,” but it’s a welcome extra nonetheless.

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Overall, Sonic Forces is a solid entry in the series. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any means, but if you’re looking for a straightforward by-the-books Sonic game, this should provide a very satisfying experience. It refines a lot of the more problematic elements of modern Sonic games (even if it also introduces some new ones), and of the game’s 30 stages, most are an absolute blast to play through. The game certainly doesn’t reach the same heights as Sonic Mania – or even Generations – but given the franchise’s history, a “good but not great” release most definitely counts as a win. Obviously, I’m speaking with a considerable amount of bias here – and I imagine those who don’t view the series through the same sentimental lens as myself will be less forgiving of Sonic Forces’ flaws, and likely even less impressed by its strengths. But, I think a Sonic comeback is well underway at this point – and if this trajectory continues, the previous era of Sonic games will hopefully go down as a temporary rut. I already wait with bated breath for the next installment in the series, though until then, I’m incredibly grateful to have received not just one, but two enjoyable releases this year in a series that still means a lot to me.

GAME GRADE: B+