A blue ball named Sonic flashes from left to right and back again in a jumble of exploratory choices. The spiny speed demon bounds off a red spring and rockets through a speed booster; the momentum is palatable as he blazes through a loop, corkscrew, and lamppost in a flash. The original 16-bit Sega Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog games successfully bottled this sense of speed—which Super Mario rarely delivered. Unfortunately, Sonic Team's forays into the 3D platforming realm have hit debilitating speed traps in terms of gameplay structure and momentum.
Though their 2D Sonic the Hedgehog games tend to fare better, Sonic Team's latest collaboration with the Osaka-based development team Dimps, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II, fails to remember Newton's first law of motion: "the velocity of a body remains constant unless the body is acted upon by an external force." It's a simple concept we've all heard in introductory science classes and an integral facet that the flagging Sonic should begin to comprehend as paramount to his survival in a modern gaming landscape.
In Episode I, Sonic was weighed down as though all the chilidogs he devoured in his '90s ABC animated series finally got to him. Sonic has regained some of his momentum for this new game, but accelerating is still a plod and movement at low speeds is basically a humiliating experience. The sense of velocity in the game comes from overly hurried and downright annoying on-rails segments that bounce you off multiple springs and shoot you out of cannons before you can explore the stages further. The essential balance between exploration and fleetness is off-kilter. This would be a larger problem if the settings warranted additional investigation beyond collecting every Red Star Ring for an achievement.
Eighteen months have passed since the first Sonic the Hedgehog 4 episode, and this new chapter still tips its hat toward old races with each level design. Sonic brings his golden-haired sidekick Miles "Tails" Prower along for the ride across four stages comprised of three main acts and a boss battle. Episode I drew inspiration from the first Sonic the Hedgehog game, so it's only natural that Episode II would have remixed versions of Sonic the Hedgehog II's Aquatic Ruin, Oil Ocean, and Wind Fortress Zones. The snowy amusement park rides in White Park Zone prove to boast the preeminent level designs as Sonic and Tails zip across constantly shifting roller coaster tracks. Each level is polished and multihued, but lacks the enjoyable and contextual platforming that players experienced with the original games.
Most of these stages are shiny and hollow husks and the boss battles follow suit. Dr. Robotnik and his goons take cheap shots against the player at every turn and the impreciseness of Sonic's homing attack and Tails's sluggish flying can be terminal. There's also little joy or menace to these encounters aside from outlandish surprise attacks. It's easy to cheat the game when this happens, though. For instance, when you fight against Metal Sonic atop Tails's red Tornado biplane it's effortless to just replenish your coins right after getting hit by a laser beam. The cheapness of the gameplay is evident.
Dimps and Sonic Team sap any remaining bits of nostalgia out of the franchise in other areas as well. Sega CD's Metal Sonic makes an appearance in one of the game's many asinine boss fights, and Chaos Emeralds can be collected by playing those memorable half-tube special stages. A chiptune-aping soundtrack and co-operative play round out the retro aesthetic.
Those last two elements are the prevalent stumbling blocks for Episode II. First, the music in this game is absolutely grating. Loops of electronic noise practically squeal in your ears and the curt melodies are nauseating for extended periods of time. (A gravity-defying Death Egg mk. II stage paired alongside the disorienting music may make some players a little nauseous.) The boss battle tunes are particularly disconcerting, since the melodies are boiled down to an uncomplicated nine notes, ad infinitum. It's better to mute the music in the options menu.
The co-op play for Episode II is available locally or online, but both experiences are hampered by poor power and speed balance between the characters. Tails operates much as he did in the Genesis days, following Sonic around until he needs to fly up to unreachable areas or roll into a ball and dash through barriers and enemies. Tails can also use his double tail as a propeller while underwater. All of these moves work on a basic level. Sadly, there are several instances where they are awkward or highlight lazy game design. (The thrill of discovering a new area in a stage is entirely robbed throughout by constant handholding. or in the case of co-op play, a distracting catch-up mechanism that teleports the slower player to keep pace with the leader.) Sonic and Tails deserve better than this.
It's easy to tear apart a new Sonic game after fans have been burned so many times in the past. It may be best for Sega to give this franchise a protracted respite before augmenting its efforts down the line. Sonic's latest adventure is a playable game in the strictest sense of the term. Taking only baby steps toward the gameplay levels reached by postmodern platformers like Donkey Kong Country Returns and Rayman Origins isn't a good look for Sega. Unfortunately, Dimps and Sonic Team's combined effort to address fans' concerns can only be evidenced in fits and starts here. A Sonic game needs legs and this installment in the series burned out halfway through the race.