Sonic 4: Episode 2 has got a tough, uphill road to climb. While critics loved the first Sonic HD game in 2-D, many fans were outraged by its poor physics, unoriginal levels with cheesy gimmicks and uninspired boss fights. Add to that, the far superior gameplay of Sonic Generations and many gamers may already be dismissing this next chapter while critics who praised the first game are already looking at this second chapter with a more discerning eye.
This is a shame because Episode 2 is an improvement over its predecessor in almost every way imaginable. It’s a testament to the fact that both Sonic Team and Sega are listening to their fans. From much better physics, larger and more original levels to great boss fights. It’s almost better in every single aspect. Did I say “almost”? Read on for greater detail in my thoughts on the game. Also, stay tuned for a second opinion later on.
First off, the graphics are absolutely gorgeous. No flat 2-D background with a cell-shaded hedgehog who sticks out a bit too much. Instead, we get quality models of Sonic and his kindred kitsune, Tails running in full moving polygonal backgrounds at 60 fps. It’s gorgeous and puts similar 2-D/3-D titles (like NSMB) to shame. In fact, I gotta say I personally prefer this even over Sonic Generations visuals which, while gorgeous, can be too highly detailed for its own good and you can easily lose the little blue blur when running at a fuzzy 30 fps in that detailed world. I’m not saying it’s better. I’m just saying I personally prefer it. I also really love how they did cutscenes in a very similar style to Sonic 3. Only with these HD graphics, the characters are much more expressive without having to say a word.
One of the many complaints about Episode 1 was its complete lack of originality. Both its levels and bosses were either inspired or stolen from previous Sonic games. There’s definitely not much of this in this new chapter. While some zones have some mild inspirations (like Oil Desserts’ mix of Oil Ocean and Sandopolis) most of the levels have an fairly original theme and some new badniks to go with it. The only zone to be copied from a previous game (Sky Fortress) has the decency to share a very similar name to its Sonic 2 original, Wing Fortress. In fact while some people may balk at this, the new elements in Sky Fortress work so well I believe this zone is actually better than the original 16-bit version it’s based on. Yea. I went there. The new zones tend to be bigger, more complex and a bit more challenging than in Episode 1 and don’t rely on as many cheesy gimmicks.
That said, I will say Episode 1 still has something that Episode 2 is missing. Pace and flow. One of the reasons I love Sonic games is the pacing. Running at full speed while jumping from platform to platform while being bounced around like a pinball and exploring a large, open level. Despite its many flaws, Episode 1 at least had that fast-paced flow going for it. Episode 2 seems to be lacking in that aspect a little bit. There are constant stops to use your new abilities with Tails or to do slower, more traditional platforming. Hell, the first two zones are half land, half water! That’s got to be a first for the series. Maybe you can chalk that up to being later levels if you count all the episodes as a whole but that’s still an odd way to start a new chapter. Also, those levels that do give you more emphasis on speed tend to be the worst case of “hold right to win” I’ve ever seen. I’m mainly talking about White Park Act 2 which in my opinion is the weakest level in the whole game. Also, with Sonic constantly using his new abilities with Tails, I barely used the spindash through the entire game. That just feels weird. I’m not saying these levels are poor. Most of them are really fun. They are larger and more challenging with a heavier emphasis on exploration like Sonic 3 had, but at the sacrifice of flow and pacing. But then again, I’m someone who preferred Sonic 2 over 3 and Knuckles. Overall the new level designs are better and do more right than wrong. I just wish I could speed through them quicker.
One thing Episode 2 does really well is the bosses. While Episode 1 just re-used old Eggman bosses and added a new trick to them, Episode 2 lets DIMPS do what it does best with giant bosses that you have to maneuver around and take much longer to kill. My favorite being a giant robot made of scrap metal that drops crates on you as you climb to attack its weak spot. As a great bonus, half the bosses are Metal Sonic himself fighting off Sonic and Tails with all new attacks.
Speaking of Sonics’ digital doppelganger, he gets his own chapter in this game with 4 levels taken directly from Episode 1. That is, if you had purchased Episode 1 on the same console as Episode 2 (sorry Wii owners). Not only does it do a great job connecting Sonic 4 with Sonic C.D., it takes 4 levels from the previous zones and really toughens them up with new layouts and about three times as many Badniks than previous all while adding Episode two’s physics. It’s a great, if not short bonus that I hope you don’t miss out on.
As far as music goes, it’s a mixed bag. It seems Jun Senoue added a few more instruments on his Genesis synth and it makes some of the tunes very melodic. There are tracks from Sylvania Castle and Sky Fortress that are very upbeat and fun. Metal’s opening cutscene uses a great mix of “Sonic Boom” and “You can do anything” in chiptune. The music tends to fit its level’s surroundings fairly well, but at the same time, there’s something lost in several of the compositions. They just feel….”there” as if they were just placeholders. It’s unmemorable and perhaps his weakest compositions since Sonic 3-D Blast. I almost prefer the compositions in Episode 1 more despite their poor accompaniment. At least I can remember the melodies.
Now, you probably want to know how the Tails and Sonic team powers work out. Well, they’re a mixed bag as well. They’re very easy to use. Just tap the tag button while in the air or on the ground and Tails will team up with you in a few different ways. Call him in the air, and he’ll fly you for a short period before running out of breath. If you call him underwater, he’ll act as a sub and swim you anywhere pretty fast (which is very important to avoid the freezing seals). Finally, if you call him with your feet on the ground, Sonic and Tails turn into a 69’er of doom! A rolling ball that will smash any obstacle in its way and climb walls with ease. He’s great for catching Sonic if he falls off a platform or finding a new ways to battle bosses. That and Tails doesn’t lose rings in the special zones!
However, he also cheapens the game a bit. Because you can call him to fly at any time, he can easily send Sonic over very tricky platform sections. Some levels are designed for that, but there’s still other that practically let you fly over the level. Also Sonic and Tails in ball form break the physics pretty bad as they can climb a wall at any speed and can also make some obstacles too easy. Then, there’s this item box you’ll rarely find in certain levels that lets them do a team blast ALA Sonic heroes while you mash on the jump button for extra rings. It’s so out of nowhere and doesn’t really add anything to the game.
There’s also the introduction of now popular Red Rings from Sonic Colors and Generations. These rings give you a reason to explore the levels further to collect them all. Sadly, once you do, it doesn’t introduce anything new. Just gives you an achievement/trophy. Same kinda goes for collecting the Chaos emeralds in the special stages. Once you get all seven, you get an achievement and can transform into Super Sonic…..with Sonic 4-1 physics! UGH! Also, collecting all the emeralds does not change the inconclusive ending in any way outside of removing “Try again”. Okay, so Metal Sonic has Episode 2 physics but Super Sonic does not? Collecting all the emeralds doesn’t add anything to the ending? Am I still in the beta?
Then there’s co-op. A mess of a mode where you and a friend play as either Sonic or Tails and go through the acts together. Both of you must share the same screen and if you lag behind, it jumps you back over to your friend in a spinning ball. It’s hard when one player is slower than the other and it’s very easy to grief someone. While I don’t care for it myself, I know a lot of my friends are loving it so give it a try anyway. I recommend this mode only with friends if you don’t want to constantly get trolled.
Now, I know what you’re saying. “Jason! I’m getting sick of this giant wall of text! Get to the physics!” Okay then. Physics are a huge leap from the first game. Gone is the unrolling, the slow walking, the wall standing and “stop-dead when letting your finger off the D-Pad”. This is much closer to the Genesis physics while still retaining Sonic 4’s homing attack and jump dash. It’s like a hybrid of both physics. Sonic goes from a stop to a full run in about 2-3 seconds. Roll off a steep enough hill and you’ll keep on rolling faster and faster. The beginning of Sylvania Castle Act 2 is the best example of that. Rolling is the best it’s been since the Genesis days and much better than we got in Generations. Let go of the D-Pad while running or jumping and he’ll slow down. Not drop to a dead stop. At times, it really made me forget I was playing a modern Sonic game and harkened me back to the Genesis days. You really can’t deny that Sega listened this time.
While it has its fair share of problems, Sonic 4: Episode 2 is a huge leap from its predecessor in terms of quality. Better physics, better levels, better bosses and a bigger challenge. While Episode 2 is still not quite worthy of the Sonic 4 title, it might be worth being in the same company as Sonic 1 and 2. If you hated Sonic 4-1 with a passion, this game will probably not change your mind. However, if you liked it just remotely, this one is well worth the $15 price tag. If Episode 3 does happen and continues to improve upon the quality that Episode 2 has then maybe, just maybe, it might be worthy of the title Sonic 4 “as you’ve truly imagined it”. Well, 2/3rds anyway.