Developer: Sonic Team
Platform: Nintendo Switch (eShop)
Release Date: 7th of November, 2017 (EU & NA) & 9th of November, 2017 (JP)
Sonic the Hedgehog is awesome. A shocking opening statement, I know. It seems like every review of a Sonic game these days is required by law to start with some lengthy diatribe about how crappy Sonic has been in recent years, or even how the series was Never Really Good™, but I for one disagree. Sure there have been a few stinkers, but Colors was good (perhaps even great), Generations was awesome (some might even say outstanding), and Mania was – you guessed it – AMAZING! Yet here we are on the eve of the latest Sonic release, and somehow the discussion around Forces has been strangely negative. Well dear reader, let me be the first to inform you that Sonic Forces is not a trainwreck, or a mediocre game, or even an average one. It’s a fun, fast, and flashy platformer that isn’t as ambitious as previous titles, but does a decent job of providing yet another high-speed adventure that will sate the hedgehog’s less discerning fanbase.
This time around, Dr. Eggman has taken over 99 percent of the world with only a small band of freedom fighters holding out for the resistance. Sonic has been defeated and is being tortured on a secret base thousands of miles away from civilization, Tails has lost all hope and abandoned his friends, and Knuckles and Silver are forced to take charge of what few defenders remain. It all sounds very dark, but ultimately it’s still the same lighthearted story we’ve come to expect. The second Sonic is inevitably rescued, he’s right back to cracking jokes and yukking it up with his pals despite supposedly being in solitary confinement for six months. Some may find the mood whiplash a bit off-putting, but after the groanworthy Saturday morning cartoon writing of the last few Sonic games (the nickname “Baldy McNosehair” mercifully does not make a reappearance in Forces) I’ll gladly take a more serious attempt at a plot.
That’s not to say the story doesn’t have its issues. The main villain Infinite is a delightfully edgy character who spends every minute onscreen brooding and threatening to destroy Sonic and friends, but is unceremoniously tossed aside near the end of the game with no explanation. Four iconic returning villains are featured as Infinite’s henchmen, yet you only fight two of them in boss battles with the other two being swiftly defeated in cut-scenes. There’s also just a general sense that things jump around a little too much. For example, the game opens with Eggman saying he’s finally got a winning plan to rule the world, then you play as Sonic running through a landscape that Eggman’s mostly taken over despite no indication that time has passed, then after a brief cut-scene it’s explained through text that it’s now 6 months later and Eggman controls everything. Show, don’t tell, Sonic Team!
But enough about that – what you really want to know about is the gameplay, right? Well, Sonic Forces is not the straight sequel to Generations fans may have been expecting, with the most notable change to Modern Sonic’s Boost formula being how much more linear and automated everything has become. Seasoned Sonic veterans will notice a marked decrease in difficulty and complexity compared to previous games, particularly in the 3D sections, with a larger focus on cinematic moments and mid-level quick time events. It strikes me as a game aimed towards the casual Sonic fan, one who can enjoy the simple pleasure of boosting through a horde of exploding robots and not care that they’re essentially on rails during the whole thing. Still, it’s not as though alternate paths are gone completely, and as always the online leaderboards are proof that even the simplest of levels require strategy and skill if you want to get the best times. Classic Sonic also makes his return from Generations, and his gameplay remains mostly unchanged. His instant spindash has been replaced with the Drop Dash from Sonic Mania, and it’s a change for the better that gives his stages a smoother flow than before. While he’s still not remotely close to being a 1:1 recreation of Genesis gameplay and his stages aren’t as epic as the multi-layered zones of Mania, Classic Sonic’s levels were some of my favorite parts of the game as they offer the most variety in what routes you can take.
With the hedgehogs out of the way, we come to the most controversial of additions: the Avatar. Yes, you get to make your own furry friend and wear all kinds of bizarre costumes, and playing dress up with your custom character just as ridiculously entertaining as you might expect. What’s surprising is that out of all the alternate playstyles Sonic Team has introduced to their 3D Sonic titles, the Avatar is arguably the least offensive. He (or she) has his own control style and momentum that takes some getting used to, but once you’ve got a handle on it the gameplay is pretty similar to Modern Sonic’s combination of 2D and 3D platforming. The main difference is that instead of a boost, the Avatar uses Wispons – weapons based on the various Wisps from Sonic Colors. Each Wispon has its own attack and special ability, and they can offer different paths through the stage based on which one you choose. For example, the Burst Wispon shoots a massive blast of flame and lets you perform successive jumps over large gaps, while the Lightning Wispon whips through enemies and allows you to use the Light Speed Dash to soar over half the stage. Bonus abilities can also be unlocked for your Wispons, such as faster rail grinding or the ability to instantly accelerate from a stomp. There’s a lot of variety to be found based on which Wispon you use, and the Drill, in particular is sure to be a speedrunner favorite due to its blazing fast attack speed.
Lastly there’s the tag team gameplay, which sees Modern Sonic teaming up with your Avatar in stages consisting solely of 3D sections. It essentially lets you use the powers of both characters at the same time, as you automatically switch to Sonic when using the boost, and to the Avatar when using a Wispon. Sadly there are only four of these stages, and two of those four are a boss battle in disguise and a Terminal Velocity-esque autorunner level. With so many fans clamoring for a Modern Sonic game focused entirely around 3D stages with no 2D segments, it’s a bit disappointing that these are used so sparingly.
One thing that’s shared between all the stages is their rather short length, and I mean short. It’s not uncommon for any given stage to last between one to two minutes on your first playthrough. This instantly felt jarring coming off of the previous games where levels were usually a fair bit longer, but it quickly becomes evident that Sonic Team has designed Forces to be a very fast-paced game. There are no pesky sun and moon medals to gate your progress like in Unleashed, no boring challenge missions that must be completed like in Generations, no blatant filler Acts that recycle level geometry to pad out the experience like in Colors. In Forces you play through a quick stage, watch a cut-scene or two, and then you’re whisked off to the next one. It’s a real breath of fresh air to finally experience a 3D Sonic game that doesn’t feel obligated to keep you from playing more of what you want with some annoying gimmick.
One aspect that’s unquestionably great is the music – rarely do Sonic games ever disappoint in that regard, but Forces really nails it. From Classic Sonic’s crunchy retro beats to Modern Sonic’s synth-guitar fusion to the Avatar’s lyrical techno tunes, there’s hardly a bad song in the bunch. The visuals on the other hand, are a mixed bag – due to the nature of the story quite a bit of the game is spent in desolate industrial environments and grim mechanical facilities, but when the vast majority of Sonic games are hyper-colorful romps through technicolor wonderlands I’m willing to give Sonic Team a pass for trying something different. Plus, when the game wants to wow the player it doesn’t hold back, with rail grinding around asteroids and running through a Mirror’s Edge-esque city as Infinite constantly flips gravity being just a few of the game’s highlights. It does bear mentioning that the Switch version runs at 30 FPS compared to the 60 FPS found on other platforms, so you’ll have to make the decision as to whether you prefer portability or better graphics.
In terms of content, there are 30 main stages, with 7 of those being boss battles. You’ll likely complete the campaign in a few hours, but as with all Sonic titles, much of the fun comes from replaying stages to get a better time and find hidden secrets. Each non-boss stage has the traditional five Red Rings to collect, as well as five Number Rings and five Silver Moon Rings that are obtained in a similar fashion. Secret and Extra stages can be unlocked after meeting certain conditions, which consist entirely of 2D Modern Sonic and Avatar levels themed around a specific gimmick such as rotating laser cannons or bomb blocks. The free Episode Shadow DLC stars Shadow the Hedgehog and adds an extra three levels serving as a prequel to the main game, plus the ability to replay Modern Sonic levels as the edgy hedgy himself. For the true completionists, there are even tons of missions to complete that unlock more gear for your avatar, ranging from the simple (“Boost in a Modern Sonic stage”) to the challenging (“Complete Stage 3 in 60 seconds”). Rest assured, you’re getting a fair amount of bang for your buck here.
Honestly, I loved Sonic Forces. Sure, it has its problems – the stages end a little too quickly, the story doesn’t quite reach its potential, they could have taken more risks with the level design – and let’s be honest, you already know if you’re going to hate this. If you unironically use the term “boost to win” and pray every night that Sega will hire the Sonic Utopia developers to create the next 3D entry, just close the review right now and accept that this is not the game for you. For everyone else, Forces’ frenetic gameplay and fantastic soundtrack cement its status as a worthy successor to its predecessors.
Serving as a sort of hybrid between the gameplay of Colors and Generations, Sonic Forces offers up quality platforming at a budget price.