Review: Sonic The Hedgehog 4 – Episodes I & II

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Originally written in 2010 and 2012

Episode I

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Everyone knows Sonic the Hedgehog. He’s one of gaming’s biggest icons and surely most of us have played one of his classic games on the SEGA Megadrive at some point, whizzing through loops and collecting rings. Well, after 16 long years (and many a recent disappointment in the third dimension), the blue blur is finally returning to his 2D roots in this first chapter of the episodic Sonic 4 – but can the game live up to its name?

As soon as you start playing, things feel both very familiar and very different. Everything looks and sounds as you would expect it to, but Sonic himself is a tad slower in picking up speed and there are noticeable physics differences between the original trilogy and this latest instalment. If you’re looking for a perfect replication of the classics, you’re going to be disappointed. Sonic 4 works well for what it is, with new moves such as the homing attack allowing you to lock on to enemies and a lesser emphasis on momentum allowing for more precise platforming, but it’s not the same Sonic you once knew by any means – the spin dash and rolling into a ball having been particularly nerfed.

Episode 1 consists of four zones each with three acts and a boss, all inspired by Sonic games of old. Some will be swept away by nostalgia, others will consider it a rehash. In fairness there are a few new twists (such as having to light up a dark labyrinth with a torch) but there’s not much here you won’t have seen before, be it for better or worse. The game is incredibly short considering the price tag, though there is some incentive for replayability thanks to score and time attack modes. Collecting all of the Chaos Emeralds via special stages reminiscent of Sonic 1 also lets you view a sneak peek of what’s in store for Episode 2. Ultimately the game leaves you wanting more which is undoubtedly what SEGA set out to achieve, but you can’t help but feel you’re being a bit short-changed once all is said and done. On the flipside though, if you consider this is merely the first episode of a much larger game, then it doesn’t seem quite as bad.

All in all Sonic 4: Episode 1 is a fun but flawed game. It shows promise, especially if the few niggles are ironed out in later episodes, and is without question one of the best Sonic games in recent memory – but your mileage may vary. As it stands, it does not yet compare to the lofty heights of the original Sonic the Hedgehog trilogy and for many won’t be “Sonic 4 as you imagined it”.

Episode II

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Oh boy, here we go again. Almost two years after the release of the first episode of Sonic 4 – which, as is pretty much common knowledge by now, received very mixed opinions from fans and critics alike – SEGA has finally decided to release the next chapter in the series. Featuring the return of Miles “Tails” Prower and flaunting brand new physics and graphics engines, is this finally a game that can live up to the classics?

Following a brief cutscene showing Sonic and Tails arriving on the Tornado bi-plane, you kick off your new adventure in Sylvania Castle Zone and everything seems promising. The visuals look very nice indeed, and Sonic handles a lot better too. His physics, while not spot-on in comparison to the MegaDrive trilogy, have been greatly improved and you’ll be able to relive the joys of rolling down hills and spinning through loops whilst picking up momentum, something which Episode I was sorely lacking. The level itself is pretty nice and a good introductory stage, showcasing the big new selling point of Episode II – a certain two-tailed fox. This time around Sonic can team up with Tails to pull off ‘tag’ combos, allowing the ‘hog to be carried into the air, pulled along in the water, or (in a rather dubious position) perform a super-duper spin attack that blasts through walls. They’re all pretty nifty and make exploration that bit more enjoyable.

The fun continues in White Park Zone too, a brilliant snow-meets-carnival level with some great set-pieces. It’s also here that you come face to face with Metal Sonic in arguably the best boss fight of the game – with an amazing tune pumping in the background, you chase down your robotic foe across the rollercoaster rails and take him down. Genuinely, it’s thrilling, and it’s moments like this where Sonic 4: Episode II really shines.

Unfortunately, that’s where the enjoyment ends and frustration begins to creep in.

The third zone, Oil Desert, is – on the first playthrough at least – a royal pain in the backside. Next to the unique and bright Sylvania Castle and White Park, it’s a drab affair, seeing Sonic run through an oil refinery of all places. There’s some painfully bad level design on display and an over-reliance on forcing the Tails combos on the player results in some cheap moments where a single mistake (and often one that you can’t see coming) will see you plummeting into a bottomless pit.

The only thing going for Oil Desert Zone is its slight originality, though even that’s debatable. But compared to the zones that follow it, it’s basically brand new. Sky Fortress and Death Egg mk.II are essentially ripped straight out of Sonic 2 design-wise, complete with a Sky Chase act at the start, and it feels like such a waste of potential. The game started out with a glimmer of creativity, but alas, it fades as fast as it appears. That’s what makes Episode II such a disappointment. It comes within touching distance of brilliance, but falters before it can get there. Ironically, it’s a bit like one of the many moments you’ll experience where you’re just about to reach a ledge, but Tails runs out of breath and down you go, falling towards certain doom instead.

The bosses are yet another example of this. The battle with Metal Sonic in White Park aside, all of the bosses in this game quickly become a test of patience – not necessarily because they’re hard (although a couple are rather testing), but because they drag out for far too long. Every time you lose a life you have to sit through the intro to the boss fight and it can take up to a minute before you can actually hit the damn thing, and particularly with the final boss, you can spend ages making your way to getting the last blow… only to die and have to sit through it all again. Prepare to rage hard on quite a few occasions. The special stages are a similar experience, with the last couple in particular being absolutely brutal. Thankfully, there’s a retry button so you don’t have to keep beating a stage with 50 rings over and over again.

All in all, Episode II is better than Episode I from a technical standpoint, but it somehow lacks some of the charm of its predecessor. It gets so many things right – the graphics, the physics, the originality – and yet gets so many things wrong – the poor level design, the over-use of combo moves, the rehashing in later zones. It’s worth playing through for the few moments where it truly stands out (and also if you have Episode I you get the bonus Episode Metal, a short but decent collection of additional levels), but apart from that this is yet another instalment that doesn’t quite deserve the title of Sonic the Hedgehog 4.

And what’s really annoying is that, for brief moments, it seemed so close this time.

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