Metroidvanias sure are different these days!
It used to be difficult to really explain why I love Sonic the Hedgehog. The Sonic series is one fraught with pitfalls, misunderstandings, bugs, and jank; but it’s equally full of fun, charm, adventure and humor. Sonic isn’t for everyone, and even for the people who love the series, all the good found in games such as Sonic Adventure 2 ends up counteracted by games like Sonic and The Black Knight and Sonic ‘06. Sonic has luckily, in recent years, been cleaning himself up a bit. Sure, there are still clunkers like Sonic Boom (though not made by Sega proper) and the snorefest Sonic The Hedgehog 4, but Colors, Generations, and Lost World were all solid games with a decent amount of fun to be had.
Sonic Forces was announced alongside the recently released Sonic Mania at last year’s Sonic 25th Anniversary party. For many, Mania took the limelight: a brand new 2D Sonic game made by fan programmers who had already made a name for themselves with impressive modern ports of Sonic 2 and Sonic CD. For me, however, as someone who prefers my Sonic with one extra dimension, my heart was set on this next game from the Generations team.
Sonic Forces is a game that feels aimed at people like myself, who enthusiastically prefer Sonic’s more modern iterations. Working off the boost style of gameplay pioneered by Sonic Rush and improved upon in Generations, Forces takes the game a step further by letting you create your own original character for the first time in series history. Your new character joins the ranks of Sonic and company (though Big the Cat is conspicuously absent) as they fight against a world completely overtaken by Dr. Eggman.
On the surface, the narrative of Sonic Forces sounds fairly trite. Though the game starts out strong, with standout moments like Knuckles the Echidna reading reports of Sonic being tortured, and Silver the Hedgehog musing poetically on the value of despair, the game quickly falls into the type of story you’d expect out of a Sonic game. Eggman has this buddy who’s super strong, Sonic has trouble fighting this new buddy, Sonic uses the power of friendship or raw strength, Sonic wins and saves the day.
The main draw of both the narrative and the game itself is that ability to make an original character. Players can choose from a handful of races like Dog, Cat, Bird, or, of course, Hedgehog, and make their own original Sonic-themed animal. When this feature was announced. I was actually kind of floored: the Sonic fandom has long been an infamous, near-infinite source of fanworks ranging from endearing to embarrassing, so to see that aspect of the game’s community brought into the game itself is really neat. When I started the game, I decided to pull out an old friend: a Sonic OC from my tweenage years, Roxanne Maria, who is Shadow the Hedgehog’s girlfriend. While I was initially disappointed by the lack of customization options (a few colors, a handful of clothes, and a single weapon), when I finally got a few missions into the game proper I found myself drowning in accessories. Forces constantly provides you with a stream of new unlockables, with four to five clothing items or weapons being unlocked any time you complete an in-game “Mission.” By the time the credits rolled on Sonic Forces, I found myself with over 300 different clothing options for my OC, and a lot of them felt too perfect for what I wanted.
Customizing my OC was absolutely the most fun I had in the game outside of seeing her in action with Sonic and friends. Going from a pretty basic black and pink hedgehog to a red-eyed gang leader with a hat that says “GAMER” was incredibly satisfying, and knowing that I could just as easily make ten more outfits that perfectly suited my desires was a big plus. From crocs to robot legs and bandanas, to full-on cosplay, the variety of options might seem overwhelming, but the way they’re trickled down to you means that your perfect outfit is gradually built over time, rather than intimidatingly dumped on you from the start.
The Mission system that unlocks all this is one of the best features of the game. While past Sonic titles have attempted to give incentive to replay, rewards of concept art and sound room bonuses only go so far. In Forces, every mission has a well-defined goal. You want to clear level 16 in under 60 seconds, not just because you have an itch to, but because you’ll get a shot at a whole bunch of new clothes for your OC. That’s why I really loved the system: it incentivized and rewarded behavior a lot of players might have already leant towards, and encourages further exploration of the game by those who previously mightn’t have. The way each mission’s reward is diverse and hidden might be frustrating for some, but for me the surprise of each reward encouraged me to keep on going to find out what crazy stuff I might get next.
When it comes to the gameplay structure of Sonic Forces, you’ll be playing through a 30 mission campaign with three different play-styles. There are the now-standard “Boost” style 3D levels with Modern Sonic, there’s 2D side-scrolling levels with Classic Sonic, and there’s the gadget themed/grapple hook heavy OC levels. While the Classic Sonic levels aren’t that bad, they pale in comparison to what the other two types have to offer, and are tough to get used to after how good Mania felt.
The Modern Sonic levels are fun and fast, averaging a playtime of around three minutes per level if you’re just rushing through, though a search for collectibles will bump that time right up. The OC levels are a fantastic change of pace that really let the game’s focus on speed translate into mediums other than just plain old running. It’s fun to swing from point to point, or enemy to enemy. It’s fun to just blaze through dozens of robots with a flamethrower, or slam them all apart with a big hammer. An unfortunate downfall of the OC levels is that because you can customize your character with a bunch of different weapons, with their own unique traversal modes, the levels’ attempts to cater to each weapon can end up feeling cluttered or disjointed.
While the level “Arsenal Pyramid” is incredibly fun when you use the lightning whip weapon that lets you dash along lines of rings and enemies, playing it with something like the hammer ends up making you feel like you just missed a huge chunk of the level. Ultimately this doesn’t matter, since the things hidden behind these paths are rarely more than fun distractions, but it still sucks to have no idea what weapon is helpful for a specific level until you’ve already finished it.
All three stage types feature the same three collectibles in the form of Red Star Rings, Number Rings, and Silver Moon Rings. Red Rings are easy: just find them hidden in each level and you’ll gradually unlock extra bonus stages for every few you get. Number Rings require you to gather them in numerical order counting down, and the game does a decent job of making these pretty fun puzzles to get, if not a little easy. At their simplest you’ll be running in a straight line on a hidden path, and at their hardest you’ll be haphazardly jumping across falling platforms back and forth to get the right order. The most annoying collectibles by far are the Silver Moon Rings. Gathering these rings in every level was a challenge that really, for the first time, laid how rough the game can control out in the open.
You have to gather all five of these rings within a short amount of time, or they completely disappear. For some rings this is fairly easy: just time some homing attacks right or boost fast enough that the time limit isn’t a concern. Unfortunately for most of these, they’re placed in gimmicky locations that make it tough not only to grab them fast, but to do so at all. The most infuriating are placed on things like water slides or rails, where your control is already loose enough that any sort of fancy movement risks either death or an agitating restart to try again. While I appreciate that these collectibles try to feed into the core focus on speed that Sonic is famous for, they felt more like a fight with the controls and blind luck than actual skill.
While the handling can be a struggle in parts, this is probably the most playable a 3D Sonic game has ever been. 2013’s Sonic Lost World wasn’t necessarily bad, but it felt more like a Mario game than a proper Sonic game, so I was thankful that Forces tried harder to match the style of 2011’s Generations. Blasting through levels with boost feels less like a risk and more like just part of the fun, and anytime the game expects more methodical platforming, the camera switches to a more comfortable side-scrolling perspective, regardless of the character. The only time I ran into any consistent issues with controls outside of the Silver Ring sequences was when I was expected to use the shoulder buttons to quickly push Sonic or my OC from left to right. When this happens you rarely go where you expect, and can sometimes push yourself too far, right into an enemy or environmental hazard.
In most Sonic games, these bad controls are often on full display in the boss fights. Sega has never been quite so good at designing bosses that are as fun to fight as they are to look at. Fights like the Biolizard in Sonic Adventure 2 are a fun spectacle, but often feel like a slog to play. Surprisingly, I enjoyed every single boss fight in the game, even if I ended up wishing they were a little longer. Each character fights bosses in their own style, and only the OC really struggles with their bosses, though that comes more from the same issues with weapon variety that I mentioned earlier.
Though you can just play through OC boss fights using only the homing attack, you can also weirdly use weapons like the flamethrower or lightning whip to deal more damage, albeit much more clunkily, and the game only vaguely tries to support you in this. For Classic Sonic and Modern Sonic, the fights follow a pretty simple jumping and racing style respectively. It feels slightly disappointing to say that the best fight in the game is probably actually the first boss fight against Lost World’s Zavok; a fight that has both interesting mechanics, and requires a tangible degree of skill. That’s not to say other boss fights aren’t good, but it does feel weird to go from a fight with actual depth, to what ends up feeling like a series of simple mini-games.
In terms of presentation, Sonic Forces has really nailed what one would expect out of a series so focused on speed. The visuals are vibrant and busy, levels are constantly filled with things in the background moving like flames, animals, or Eggman’s robots wreaking havoc. The music is punchy and fun, ranging from the standard Crush 40 guitars of Modern Sonic, the chiptuney Classic Sonic, and the weird, almost Persona-esque vocalized tracks of the OC levels. It feels really satisfying when you’re playing as Modern Sonic and you boost, only to have the music and world distort with you, or when you’re Classic Sonic and you pick up the speed shoes, and the music speeds up with you. The soundtrack isn’t what I’d necessarily call “good;” for example, the OC stages’ lyrics seem to just be a literal statement of what’s happening (e.g. “here comes the enemy mess them up” or “now’s the time of reckoning, the final battle has begun”), but they still feel just as fast and fun as the levels themselves. Also, hey! This is the first Sonic game where I can unabashedly say grinding on rails owns without a hint of reservation.
When Forces is at its best, you’re cruising along right there next to Sonic as he does his thing and it feels amazing. There’s always been this part of me that wanted this, but I never really knew it until I heard Hoobastank’s lead singer belt out the title track, “Fist Bump,” while Sonic and my OC raced through a level hand in hand. It’s hard to put into words how happy I was to have a character as invested and personal as a Sonic OC physically represented in a series that meant so much to me, and I hope that Sega brings back this option in future games. I S-ranked every mission in Sonic Forces, and if Sonic’s next outing keeps the pace, I could see myself doing it all over again.
— Rosie the Rascal (@horngal) November 7, 2017
Sonic Mania was a love letter to the classic 2D Sonic of old, and Sonic Forces acts in a similar, if less overt way for 3D Sonic. Though it may not be as elaborate or cohesive as Mania was with features and aesthetics (bring back the Chao Garden, damn it!), it’s still neat to hear things like “All Hail Shadow,” or hell, to see characters like Shadow done right for the first time in years. Sonic Forces may not be a game on par with big hitters like Super Mario Odyssey, but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be, either. Sonic Forces is what Sonic has always been for me, a feel-good experience, and this time around, it really does feel good.