I found it hard to write this review. Not because I didn’t know what to say, but because I wasn’t sure how I was going to say it. Hashimoto-san and company have worked very hard on the latest Sonic adventure. It’s clear to see when you take a peek at the screenshots, or learn about the Hedgehog Engine, or hear about how they spent countless months designing Sonic stages that cover hundreds of virtual miles. Sonic Team haven’t scrimped here, they had something to prove after Sonic 06 that they can create a well-produced, non-glitchy game. And they have. Based on the effort put in, I’d give them as many Thumbs Up as humanely possible.
As well produced as Sonic Unleashed is, however, it can’t escape the fact that it’s concept, ideas and design are flawed. I’ll get this out of the way quickly – Sonic Unleashed is not an awesome game. Neither is it a crap game. It’s a greatly made game, built on poor ideas, lingering annoyingly between good and bad in the ‘average’ department. Now, when you consider the pile of munk that Sonic 06 was, this is nothing but a good thing. But it’s still disheartening for a Sonic fan to see their favourite franchise – that was once the greatest platformer ever – settle for ‘average’.
This is why it was hard to write this review – because it’s difficult to point out this game’s flaws without sounding like I really hate the game. That’s not the case at all, there’s a lot to love about Sonic Unleashed. But to see a franchise fall so far and then settle for second best after all this effort is depressing stuff. So treat the following as a positive critique rather than an almighty pasting. Sort of like DeviantArt, without the teenage bitching. Or something.
You’ve got to give credit to someone who can perform illusions to the masses. Despite the overall perception that Sonic Unleashed is a brave new direction, it is in actual fact the exact same thing we’ve seen over the last ten years. The adventure hubs, humans, silly nether-realm creatures from another galaxy/dimension/physical space that Dr. Eggman tries to abuse the power of, and the fact that Sonic has once again taken a back seat to a different kind of gameplay mechanic that nobody really asked for in the first place.
Sonic (and consequently Super Sonic), upon attacking the Eggman fleet in a snazzy cutscene, gets lured into a trap that uses the Chaos Emeralds’ power to split the planet into fragments. This was meant to awaken today’s ‘eeeeevil’ beast of the month, Dark Gaia, but the ploy was enacted prematurely, leaving the creature to leave its essence around the globe instead. A convenient side-effect for Eggman is that Sonic’s turned into a Werehog with all this Dark Gaia energy fused within him. When the new look Sonic crash lands on the planet’s surface, he befriends a flying animal with an infatuation for chocolate, and the latest episode in the Sonic Adventure series begins.
This would be interesting, but we’ve been there, done that, bought the T-Shirt. It’s a well-thought out premise, don’t get me wrong, it’s just not a very good one. Playing this game is like experiencing a B-Movie to Sonic Adventure’s Hollywood production – or for a more appropriate example, a modern day Crash Bandicoot game like Crash of the Titans (ugh) compared to one of the Naughty Dog classics. It just doesn’t feel right.
Most annoyingly, our Sonic 06 review clearly said that the hedgehog needed a change, so this isn’t exactly a great start to a supposedly fresh new approach. We’ve had enough of humans and monsters now, can we get back to what works – animals, badniks and a more ‘Mobius’-y planet – please?
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Down
FAVOURITE SCENE: Anything involving Eggman – particularly the ‘Sandwich’ and ‘Eggmanland’ scene.
That said, you can’t get a more gorgeous game than Sonic Unleashed. It’s a real treat for the eyes. The stages are incredibly detailed, with so much background in the Sonic stages as you whizz past that it’s hard not to go ‘wow’ at least once during play. The Sonic stages in particular are done with a lot of flair and showboating, as the dynamic camera pans round to a 2D view and back to behind the blue blur seamlessly. Seeing Sonic shoot back and forth from one depth level of the screen to another is breathtaking.
The cutscenes are also very well done, although to be honest you could have gotten rid of all of them save for the ones featuring Chip (heavily) and Eggman. The story is very meh, don’t-care, but seeing Chip’s random humour and Eggman’s traditional gloating is something that gets you every time. Sonic Unleashed very wisely ditched the uber, hardcore ‘serious’ stuff of Sonic 06 and went for a more lighter theme. The result is an atmosphere not seen since Sonic Adventure, a game that can appeal to all ages and audiences.
Continents are cartoony versions of their real-life counterparts – Apotos being Greece, Spagonia being Italy, etc. It’s closer to a representation of Earth than any Sonic game before it, but the surroundings suit the style of the game very well, and Sonic doesn’t appear out of place too much in a human world such as this. I can’t say that seeing humans again is much of an exciting prospect, but at least they take on a light-hearted, Studio Ghibli-esque appearance. It’s worth exploring the whole game just to see how close to real life these places are, and how well they’re created – but I have to say, Eggmanland is clearly the best stage in the entire game in terms of design.
I would have liked to have seen more imaginitive badniks though – one of the biggest crimes of the last few years is Eggman using Generic ‘Serious’ Robot #1 instead of animal-based robots that reside in their relative zone. The best looking enemy I saw were little beetle creatures that explode or stick to you, losing you rings. Despite that, the animation on both enemies and characters are awesome – throwing Egg Flames as Werehog only to see them get up and do pirouettes is amazing stuff. More imagination though please, Sonic Team.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Up
FAVOURITE BIT: Seeing Sonic zip in and out of the screen at high speed during stages.
We’re not left with a rock soundtrack this time! As much of a metalhead as I am, Jun and Runblebee’s overly fret-happy fingers were starting to get a little bit ridiculous. Instead, we’re treated to something of a more varied offering, with a nice orchestral-style piece as the title’s main theme. The Sonic stages are pretty pumping and happy-inducing, while Werehog’s sombre but upbeat night music gets you going for the next fight ahead.
There are some gems in here too, adding to the light-hearted, happy-go-lucky atmosphere that Sonic is best known for. If you get an ‘E’ Rank, the level complete jingle turns into an out-of-tune band playing you out, while Sonic slumps off saying “Can I start over?”. There’s various throwbacks to older games, whether intentional or not, too – Mazuri’s Daytime theme is a remix of the Sonic 1 8-bit Credits screen, while Adabat’s Daytime stage includes a sample that you can also hear in ‘Back In Time’ in Sonic R.
The Werehog fighting is jazzed up nicely, with each encounter prompting a change in soundtrack to a more funky beat. It’s a good thing, as it really extinguishes any serious undertones battling Dark Gaia creatures may have, and you may find yourself even going ‘aw, that’s cute’ to some of the smaller luminous beasts. Good work, guys.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Up
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Chun-Nan Daytime Stage, Spagonia Daytime Stage.
Sonic Unleashed has some of the worst level progression I’ve seen, thanks to some skilful confusion in the ‘Adventure’ gameplay. Just like Sonic Adventure when it was new and bearable, or Sonic 06 when it was a plain drag, the blue blur has to navigate various hubs inbetween levels which help progress the story. The towns aren’t actually that bad – it’s nice to have a potter about and they’re well designed areas – but constantly hopping from one to another, frustratingly trying to figure out where to go next, is never fun.
The game gives you vague hints by way of Tails or Professor Pickle on which continent to go next, and it will take you ages to access the world map screen, let alone figure it out. Instead of a classic Act 1/Act 2/Boss situation, you’re sporadically going from Apotos’ Sonic Stage to Apotos’ Werehog stage, to Mazuri Werehog to Spagonia Werehog back to Mazuri as Sonic to Chun-Nan as Sonic… it’s completely uncoordinated and messy. Not to mention that half the time you have to talk to a particular person to progress the story, but you seldom know who that person is, so you’ve got to walk around talking to everyone. Not exactly a good use of my time when I could be speeding around loops.
Factor in that you have to collect enough Sun and Moon medals in each stage, hub or city to even access the next level means that on occasion you’ll find yourself going over past stages when you simply want to move on. Replaying the stages is great fun, mind you, but nobody likes being denied level progression in favour of medal grinding. By the way, because I know you’ll have a problem with it (it bothered me for about an hour and a half), the Wall Jump accessory you need is in Spagonia’s daytime Level Select arena. It’s to the right as you enter.
For the Sonic stages, Sonic Team seem to have mixed Sonic Rush and Sonic and the Secret Rings together, which was a bit of dubious idea in the first place. The result? Playable. Certainly enjoyable once you get used to it. Smashing the X button to ram yourself through a pile of enemies is a real rush, and being able to drift properly (when you’re actually able to do it without dying) is a great accomplishment. There are a few awesome platforming gimmicks to break up the action too – Chun-Nan being my favourite with the rotating platforms and the firecrackers going off makes for a feast for the eyes and a real treat for the gaming hand.
But the stages aren’t a patch on Sonic Adventure, which are shorter and more free-roaming than Sonic Unleashed. The problem comes down to peripheral vision and inertia. Sonic Unleashed has none of the former, due to an excession of the latter. As a result, you’re not able to see obstacles and bottomless pits in time to react – unless of course, you know it’s there in the first place, which goes against the point of having a completely accessible game from the outset. The game is meant for you to go fast, so even when you’re walking slow it’s like you’re lightly jogging, making you eager to just spam the boost button and ignore exploration altogether.
The levels don’t have much exploration regardless, besides hunting for the odd Sun and Moon medal, but that’s inconsequential to the stage design really. It does the Sonic Heroes trick of creating the illusion that there are multiple paths, when in reality these paths amount to a grind rail slightly above/going back into the screen and doing a loop before coming back to the main path again.
There’s no real deviation from the single path, and because of the Sonic and the Secret Rings/2D nature of the game, the stages are narrower than a Size 0 model. Each level has one or two platforming bits to keep you busy, but it’s not enough to truly make it a memorable playing experience – you’ll find yourself mostly holding down X while remembering when to press B to slide or watching inately for the next QTE to appear. This is fun once you’ve played it a few times as it makes you feel like a pro, but it’s such a drop in what Sonic fans should expect. Sonic the Hedgehog was never a memory game, if I… er, remember correctly.
There are also a few minor niggles too, such as the fact that when you die, the timer doesn’t reset itself to the time marked when you passed the last checkpoint (meaning a crappy time when you do finish), having the mid-air boost that’s more trouble than it’s worth (I have never found a use for it and when I try to use the homing attack Sonic decides to mid-air boost off the level) and that, while having a different button for the homing attack is pretty handy, a fourth one for the light speed dash is a bit excessive.
Then you have the Werehog. Which, as a matter of fact, isn’t too bad to play! You get to have a sort of love-hate relationship with Sonic’s alter-ego – at first you wonder why the hell this thing is in the game at all. Then you play a bit more and you start to warm to him. Shortly after, the appeal wears off and fifteen minutes into a stage you’re still pummelling bad guys, only this time you don’t really care and just want to get to the end of the stage. An hour of Sonic-playing later and the process repeats itself.
It’s not a bad concept by any means, it’s just an average one, executed in a particularly beige way that would only really capture your attention for longer than ten minutes if you’re a hardcore fan of Dynamite Cop (anyone?). When you reach that point, you don’t even recognise you’re playing a Sonic game anymore, or even as a Werehog. Just a furry thing that runs around hitting things, spamming the Y button as you go because it destroys enemies the quickest.
And that would make a great new franchise altogether, but just like Silver’s mind-box-lifting thing, it just doesn’t resonate with what makes a great Sonic game. Of course you’ve also got the countless cheap deaths by waves and waves and waves (etc) of baddies, bottomless pits, camera angles and repetitive attack grinds to consider here, but I’ll let you enjoy that side of things for yourself.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Down (for what it’s worth, the Sonic stages would have – only just – gotten a Thumbs Up)
FAVOURITE PART: Playing as Sonic. Please let us play as Sonic. Don’t want to collect Sun Medals anymore…
There’s a good wealth of things to do once you’ve whizzed through the story in Sonic Unleashed. Among the hidden treasures in each stage and city are records, art books and videos that get added to your little Library in Spagonia, and there are shops where you can purchase souvenirs and food with your rings to either max your level or give to Chip to eat. There’s even a little travelling merchant called Wentos who has a Chao puppet that gives off a significantly Italian accent. ‘Chao-Chao!’ Wentos is awesome. Get rid of all the humans, keep Eggman and Wentos and you’ve got yourselves a deal, Sonic Team.
When you’re bored of giving the Professor trinkets from around the world, you can replay levels to work on your experience gauges. And the levels are very replayable, particularly the Sonic stages, despite their flaws. I spent the best part of two hours practicing Apotos and loving every second of it. You can also find hot dog stalls that offer you special challenges, which range from ring-collecting to time-attacking to enemy-destruction.
You can find a lot of replay value in this game, and the gameplay does actually gets better as you learn the levels. It’s a game that grows on you, and if you have the time to overcome the problems in the design and ideas executed here, you’ll find a Sonic game with plenty of value. Just be sure to slog through the World Map in the story mode and then you’ll really appreciate the good bits.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Up
FAVOURITE TIME-WASTER: Taking on those Chili Dog challenges. Damn you, Level 3 Time Trial, I will SMASH YOU!
+ The lush and awesome graphics.
+ Watching Sonic from all sorts of different angles as he goes in and out of the screen.
+ Replaying the stages once you learn their layout.
+ Playing the Werehog for a few minutes for a brief change of pace.
– The confusing story mode, and ploughing through meaningless tasks just to get to a Sonic stage.
– The Werehog stages; either too long, too repetitive, too many cheap deaths or just plain boring.
– Holding X to win most Sonic stages. Until you fall down a pit.
– QTE’s. I mean, really?
– That you seem to be fighting the game until you learn the level design.