‘Sonic 4: Episode II’ – Great Race or Major Drag?
Rant About Reply to the Average Sonic Game Review: You can always tell when a reviewer hasn’t played any of the original Sonic the Hedgehog games in fifteen years. There’s a strange notion that always works its way into those reviews: that Sonic the Hedgehog has always been about one thing and one thing only—”unadulterated speed.” Complaints that follow after that observation are usually things like, “This game keeps putting obstacles in your way [sometimes called 'questionable level design choices' by these reviewers] that force you to stop, thus killing the fun.” When you find such a review, the first thing you need to do is stop reading it or watching it because it’s a definite that whoever wrote it had no idea what they were talking about.
And to those reviewers themselves, if any should find their way here, play Sonic the Hedgehog again. Tell me how long it takes you to get to Marble Hill Zone and then tell me how far you can run in that—the second Zone of the first installment in the series—before you hit an obstacle that forces you to stop and control your speed. Then tell me whether Sonic games are about holding down right on the controller for your “unadulterated speed” or a smarter play on that speed mixed with platforming. Also, tell me how Running Right: The Video Game would actually work and how you’d sell it.
The Review Itself: It feels certain that Sonic Generations turned a few lights on upstairs at SEGA; no doubt many people who had previously been content to weasel fans out of their money with messes like Sonic and the Black Knight suddenly realized that there was much, much more money to be made from doing the Fastest Thing Alive justice. The result, in my mind, was a bunch of suits at SEGA finally greenlighting Episode II by throwing sacks of money at the team responsible for Episode I and ordering them to “do the Fastest Thing Alive justice.”
Because, at the very least, that’s what we got here. Through and through, Episode II is a very solid Sonic the Hedgehog game that goes right back to Sonic’s first installments and provides an experience very, very (lovingly) reminiscent of them. It’s also a good, fun sequel—a definite improvement over Episode 1 in just about every way. There are, unfortunately, elements that really hold it back.
What It Does Right
Hands Down the Best 2D Sonic Graphics - From the get-go, anyone with eyes could see that Episode II really delivers on the graphics. Actually playing the game only serves to highlight that point, and it becomes clear that the graphics here probably even surpass the 2D portions of Generations. Don’t quote me on it, but with dynamic lighting effects (sunlight will actually pass through rings realistically), rich textures, bright colors, and backgrounds that are overall complex and lively but never overly distracting, I can admit that I was a lot more impressed by Episode II’s graphics than I have been by any 2D Sonic experience in a long time.
The Return of Metal Sonic (and the Silent, Cinematic Exchanges of Sonic CD and Sonic 3 & Knuckles) - As a series fan, I’m naturally pleased by the return of Genesis / Super Nintendo era silent cinematics. I’m sure these featured in Episode I in some way I’m forgetting, but it’s nice to get a lot of it ending the Zones and padding the story in Episode II, creating dialog and personality for all of the characters without any of them speaking. Considering the average result of voice acting in any game, and considering that there isn’t enough story here to require more than nods and waves, it feels like the best choice, a solid source of nostalgia, and a definite boon for the game.
Really Great, Imaginative Gameplay - Despite popular belief, Sonic the Hedgehog has always been about controlling your speed; you use it when you can and when it helps, but there are lots of times when you have to slow down and pick your way past an obstacle or around a tough enemy.
Episode II is based on that concept, but obstacles here are more imaginative than they have been for some time. From perspective changes to enemies that can close off your route of progression if you don’t make it past them quickly enough, the ideas here are surprisingly fresh and fun.
And the new team moves, activated by hitting the ‘X’ button, although initially forgettable and at times forced, ultimately result in some pretty spectacular saves in co-op mode (either character can jump and hit ‘X’ to call their partner over from the depths of whatever pit). And in the case of the ability to fly for a short duration whenever you want, the moves also bring something new and welcome to the single player campaign instead of hampering it.
Sweet, Completely New and Interesting Boss Battles - For a long time fan, one of the best things about Episode II was its endeavor to give us new bosses for every Zone. If you were hoping once again for a bunch of rehashes on old Robotnik battles, you won’t get them here (a point SEGA actually makes at the very end of the first Zone).
Aside from just being new though, most bosses are also wildly creative; one pits Sonic against a boss in a setting completely new for such an encounter, and the last boss is almost so inventive and mind-blowing that it’ll make your nose bleed. While there is the definite dud that seems a bit like something from Sonic CD (not the inevitable race against Metal Sonic [which was absolutely awesome]) you can expect to be engaged here instead of made to simply go through all too familiar motions once again.
What It Does Wrong
Co-op Could Use Some Fine Tuning - Although I enjoy the exploits involved in co-op as it is (it’s incredibly easy to keep someone from dying, even when they fall in a pit), the single screen dynamic of it ultimately left us scratching our heads. While I can see why they would lock two players onto one screen in a Sonic game (the reason being we would separate and it would be absolutely impossible to find each other again), the screen lock is ultimately reminiscent of the franchise’s darkest hour (Knuckles Chaotix) and the biggest problem with co-op play. While sharing rings and lives may add to the mess for you, my major gripe is that I couldn’t get lost and do my own thing. I would’ve been content with the option to turn off screen lock (and I suppose team moves unless we’re close to each other). It would have made the game more difficult in a lot of ways but also far, far less awkward. And in the end, it would’ve played as a welcome, alternate mode (because how would a Versus mode, in the style of Sonic 2, not fit in here?).
Suffice it to say, if you were really looking forward to the co-op, you might want to check out a demo first.
Some of the Worst Sonic Music I’ve Ever Heard - Although I definitely didn’t hate the entire soundtrack (there are a few tunes in here that I absolutely loved) a good portion of them were bad enough that they pop into my mind on occasion when I think about Episode II’s music (the way good, catchy tunes are supposed to). In particular, White Park: Act I actually made me shout “Oh my God,” into my headset, to which Darth Healthcare’s reply was, “Yeeeeeah.”
Non-Skippable Cinematics - Although the bosses are great, somehow, no one decided to make their intros skippable. In some cases, this doesn’t mean anything. In others, it means waiting a full minute for an intro you’ve seen a ton of times (we are talking about later bosses) before you get to the actual fighting. This is further hampered by a lack of boss checkpoints, meaning that if you die near the end of the second to last boss battle (in particular) you’re in for another minute or two of waiting through cinematics before engaging in another 10 minute long attempt at victory. Considering that it seems like industry standard to cut boss intros after the first try, these pace-destroying, soul-leeching moments really leave you wondering what minds made the wrong call.
The Final Word
While there are more pros here than cons for me, I’m still somehow unsure how to rate this game. I did enjoy it a lot, but I was sure I knew exactly how I would enjoy it via co-op and I was wrong. The game will last you several hours (more if you’re out for collectibles) but I’m more eager to get back to Minecraft than tour the Acts again looking for Red Star Rings.
So, why? If I liked so much about it, why am I so indifferent to it?
In the end, it boils down to the last Zone. Definitely the best moment in the entire experience for me, it took about 2 seconds for it to blow my mind.
Unfortunately, it was only one Act long.
I was also looking forward to Episode Metal, which was nice, only it only lasted a full 15 minutes.
If you already love Sonic the Hedgehog, this game will be worth the price.
If not, just know that the awe is almost completely balanced by the “Aw man!”