Sonic the Hedgehog: Take 2

Remember back when we explored Sonic 2006 and I suggested that game was an attempt to provide a “big-budget movie” type of Sonic experience? It’s hard not to see Sonic Forces as Sonic Team having another crack at that.

All the major components of “big-budget movie adaptation of popular series” are here: recognisable but somewhat different setting; established characters in unconventional situations; brand-new, original characters designed for newcomers in the audience to attach themselves to; and significantly higher stakes than seen elsewhere in the series as a whole.

If you’re a “once and done” kind of player, you can also probably add “done and dusted in two hours” to that list, too, but rest assured, if you’re the sort of person who likes collectibles, secret levels and objectives, there’s significantly more than that here. Let’s take a closer look.

Sonic Forces is the second game where Eggman has “won” at the outset — the previous being Sonic UnleashedHe has conquered the world, overrunning even familiarly colourful, natural locales such as Green Hill with his monstrous machinery and technology, and the animal kingdom is absolutely on the ropes. Worse, Sonic is widely believed to be dead.

In many ways, the world we see at the beginning of Sonic Forces is strongly reminiscent of the “bad future” levels from Sonic CD, and this is almost certainly deliberate. Eggman’s dominance of the world represents the natural endpoint of the series’ core theme of technology vs. nature, and the fact that, at least in the short term, technology is usually more powerful. Nature doesn’t go down without a fight, however, and accordingly we see a small but dedicated resistance force led by Knuckles doing its best to cling on to what is left of the world.

Much of Sonic Forces’ narrative revolves around the mysterious creature named Infinite, who appears to be working in concert with Eggman. Infinite is shown to have seemingly unnatural powers over time and space, able to create things seemingly out of thin air by essentially making the “virtual” real. Infinite, then, ties into the central theme of the series as a whole rather nicely, bringing it bang up to date with a warning to us that, as virtual reality becomes more and more compelling as a means of escaping from actual reality, we shouldn’t forget about the impact we’re having on the natural world and the planet as a whole. You can run from your problems, your sins and your guilt, but eventually they’ll catch up with you.

The “introduced in the movie” character for Sonic Forces is “the Avatar”, a player-created character that participates in numerous levels, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by Modern Sonic once rumours of his death are proven to have been greatly exaggerated. (You didn’t think we’d actually have a Sonic game without Sonic, did you?)

The Avatar is introduced as a character who wanted to fight back against Eggman’s dominance, but found themselves too lacking in courage to be able to do anything alone. Upon surviving long enough to meet up with Knuckles’ resistance cell, however, they find a group of peop– animals who work together and give each other strength. Despite being an “outsider” among a well-established group of characters, the Avatar is quickly accepted by Knuckles and friends — and, as a cipher for the player, is encouraged to be accepted by the audience — and it becomes apparent almost immediately what a difference that makes.

Another core theme of the Sonic series as a whole — from Adventure onwards at the very least, arguably as far back as Sonic 2 — is that old favourite of Japanese popular media: the power of friendship. This is particularly emphasised throughout Sonic Forces, both through the bonds the Avatar creates with the established characters of the series and through the existing bonds we see between those characters.

The opening stages of the game provide particularly potent examples of this; while Sonic is believed to be dead, the resistance refuses to give up on him, and ultimately end up launching a mission to rescue him once his actual status is ascertained. Meanwhile, Tails, understandably devastated and depressed at the apparent loss of his best friend, has gone into hiding, only to be confronted with Classic Sonic making a return from Generations as a side-effect of Infinite’s meddling with reality (and the events of Sonic Mania). Seeing this as an opportunity to reconnect with something he thought he had lost — albeit in a somewhat shorter, chubbier, more mute form — he quickly attaches himself to Classic Sonic, and from there starts to slowly recover hope in his shattered world.

The great thing about Sonic Forces is that it plays all this stuff absolutely straight. While elements of its plot are by turns cheesy, nonsensical and absolutely ridiculous, the sincerity and earnestness with which it is all delivered is infectious, and you can’t help but feel invested in the future of these characters. The situation in Sonic Forces is arguably the most serious one they have ever faced — with the possible exception of the shattered planet in Sonic Unleashed or the primal forces that formed the backdrop to Sonic 2006 — and it’s hard not to feel like you really want to help them out.

A lot of this feeling is helped by the game’s presentation. The cutscenes are well-animated, dramatic and, at times, genuinely amusing, and the playable stages themselves are filled with spectacular setpieces that are thrilling to be a part of. But probably the biggest contributor to the overall “feel” of the Sonic Forces experience is the excellent soundtrack.

Sonic Forces actually has a rather diverse soundtrack, encompassing traditionally “cinematic” orchestral pieces to accompany dramatic cutscenes, high-energy rock and electronic dance music numbers (often with lyrics) in action stages for Modern Sonic and the Avatar, and, delightfully, new compositions using the MIDI instrumentation and distinctive sampled drums from the original Mega Drive games to complement the side-on Classic Sonic stages. While these three elements are all very different to one another, they tie the different parts of the game together well, and each complement their respective components of the experience perfectly.

So what of how it actually plays? All this stuff about narrative, theme, characterisation and presentation is no good if the underlying game isn’t a solid Sonic title, but fortunately Sonic Forces certainly delivers there, providing an experience that is mostly akin to what Sonic Generations offered, with a few twists and additions. In other words, after a brief detour into the Mario-inspired platforming of Sonic Lost World, we’re back to a combination of “Boost Sonic” for the Modern Sonic stages and some traditional-feeling side-scrolling 2D platforming with an emphasis on physics and momentum for Classic Sonic.

The main new factor at play here is the Avatar. You create this custom character at the outset of the game by picking a gender, basic colour scheme and type of animal, with the latter giving a unique passive ability — cats can hold on to a ring or two when they get hit, for example, while wolves attract items and rings to themselves rather than having to pass through them directly.

In gameplay terms, the Avatar plays similarly to Modern Sonic with a few additional elements, the most significant of which is that they wield both a weapon and a hookshot. The latter is mostly used for the same purposes as Modern Sonic’s iconic homing attack — it can be used to lock onto and attack enemies, for example — but it can also be used to latch onto special hooks and swing to new areas, and in high-speed 3D segments, the Avatar often uses it to swing and “drift” around corners without having to slow down.

The weapons, meanwhile, are the latest implementation of the “Wisps” introduced in Sonic Colours. Before embarking on an Avatar level, you are able to select from any “Wispons” you have collected, and this provides you with two actions you can make use of during the level.

Firstly, by tapping the right trigger, you’ll make use of an attack of some description; these vary enormously according to what type of Wisp the weapon is based on. The orange “Burst” Wisp, for example, gives you access to a flamethrower, while the yellow “Lightning” Wisp gives you a lightning whip and the blue “Cube” Wisp causes a localised shockwave that turns enemies into blocks that can be shattered for rings. There is no limit to how much you can use these attacks, and most can be used while moving; accordingly, in many Avatar stages you’ll find yourself in situations where you’ll either need to clear out enemies while zooming through a high-speed 3D section, or in a few cases, dispatch all the enemies in an arena to progress.

The second function of the Wispons is more akin to the Wisps’ implementation in Colours and, to a lesser extent, Lost World. Collecting trapped Wisps of a colour that matches your Wispon allows you to make use of the Wispon’s special ability; again, this is unique to each colour. Burst Wisps can blast you up in the air for a much higher jump than usual, for example, while Lightning Wisps allow you to automatically follow long trails of rings for as long as you hold the button and the energy holds out.

The interesting thing about these latter uses of the Wispons in particular is that many levels are designed with multiple routes according to which Wispon you’ve brought along with you. One stage can be very quickly cleared simply by following along floating ring paths using the Lightning Wispon, for example, while in others the green Hover Wispon might help you bypass tricky platforming sections. It’s worth revisiting levels with different types of Wispon, though, since the game’s collectible Red Star Rings (and subsequently numbered rings, then silver rings) are often in locations that require the use of a specific ability to reach.

At no point are you made to feel like you have the “wrong” Wispon to complete a level, mind, so ultimately if you’re just trying to clear the levels, you can make use of whichever Wispon’s abilities fit your playstyle the best. If you want to fully explore the game, find all its collectibles, unlock the bonus stages and appreciate the level designs to the fullest, however, you’re going to have to experiment a bit.

The Avatar is also the recipient of most of the rewards you can acquire throughout Sonic Forces. There’s an achievement-style “mission” system that presents you with a series of objectives to complete over the course of the game, and successfully accomplishing these rewards you with both new clothing parts with which you can customise your avatar, and new Wispons, some of which come with attached additional passive abilities on top of the basic functionality their particular colour offers. These objectives are entirely optional and are not in any way required to complete the game, but you’ll find yourself completing many of them naturally simply by playing through the levels, giving you plenty of choices to customise your character.

If you’re playing while connected to the Internet, you can also “rent” an Avatar from another player and switch between your own and this “rental” during a level. By doing this, you can give yourself access to two different Wispons instead of just one, allowing you greater flexibility when exploring the levels in search of the various collectibles. It’s also a fun way to see how other players have dressed up their Avatars — and to make use of the different animals’ natural abilities. Once you’ve beaten the game once, you’re also able to create another Avatar, so you can experiment with alternative character designs and passive abilities as much as you please.

Interestingly, certain levels involve the Avatar fighting alongside Modern Sonic, which means you have access to both characters’ abilities, effectively controlling them as a single entity. Sonic is able to use his homing attack and boost, while the Avatar is able to use their hookshot and Wispon when the occasion demands it.

A “joint” level like this is also generally a pretty good indication that a “Double Boost” is going to happen at some point; these are setpieces that require you to hammer a button to “charge up”, then do something spectacular using the power of friendship, accompanied by the game’s cheesy as balls main theme “Fist Bump”… and it never gets any less delightful any time it happens. Sonic Forces absolutely knows the tone it sets, and rather than trying to hide it or being ashamed of it, it just leans full-on into it and embraces it fully. And it works; this is what modern Sonic is all about, and it’s hard not to love.

Ultimately, while I maintain that Sonic 2006 is nowhere near as bad as the Internet likes to make out these days, Sonic Forces is a much more successful attempt at making a “Sonic movie” game in many ways. It trims out elements that arguably weren’t entirely necessary, such as the hub worlds and sidequests, and places a strong focus on its unfolding narrative and characterisation. At the same time, it provides plenty of additional content and challenge for those keen to continue enjoying the game after they have brought the story to a conclusion.

Like many of the other Sonic games, Sonic Forces is kind of what you make of it. If you go into it somewhat cynical or with the intention of just blasting through it as quickly as possible, I can understand how you might end up disappointed. But engage with it fully and allow yourself to be immersed in the glorious, never-ending torrent of delicious cheese? You’ll have an absolute blast; and I defy you not to be incredibly attached to your Avatar by the end of the experience.


More about the Sonic the Hedgehog series

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3 thoughts on “Sonic the Hedgehog: Take 2”

  1. I had a fun time with this, but I fully recognise it as a perfect example of a 5/10 game for most people. It’s cheesy as all hell but there’s something very endearing about it. I’ve had a couple of play throughs with different characters even though you don’t get to play as them as often as I might like, and I might give it another run closer to the end of the year.

    Liked by 1 person

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