Without a doubt, Sonic the Hedgehog has been making something of a comeback in recent years. After falling to his lowest point in the mid-2000s, SEGA’s blue mascot has slowly but surely been climbing his way back onto the pedestal he proudly stood upon in his early days. Sonic Colours propelled him into relevance once more, while the time-travelling anniversary adventure of Sonic Generations cemented his newfound return to form. The question is – with a brand new gameplay style to show off, does the Nintendo-exclusive Sonic Lost World see the hedgehog grab the edge of success with a well-executed parkour move? Or does it buck the trend and see him stumble, falling back down towards the depths of mediocrity from whence he came?
For the very few of you out there who are unfamiliar with the game’s premise, it sees Sonic and Tails chasing Eggman onto a mysterious world called the Lost Hex where they encounter a villainous group of indigenous Zeti known as the Deadly Six. These new enemies are initially under Eggman’s control but, after an unfortunate series of events, they rebel against their master and threaten all of Sonic’s world. Cue one of the most unlikely team-ups in gaming history, and the stage is set to rise up against these dangerous foes. It’s certainly a new twist on the usual Sonic story, and it’s one that is pulled off much more effectively than the plots of the previous two main series entries. The characterisation is excellent, the humour is much more consistent, and it gets genuinely quite dark in places. It never reaches Shadow the Hedgehog levels of apocalyptic, but there’s a definite mix of light-hearted moments and much deeper storytelling. Couple this with arguably the best vocal performances seen in a Sonic game to date – Roger Craig Smith and Mike Pollock being particularly on top form – and you’ve got yourself a collection of cutscenes that you’ll actively want to sit through rather than hit the skip button to rush straight into the next level. It’s by no means a perfect tale, with plenty of extra detail they could have added in to flesh out certain aspects, but it’s still a noticeable step in the right direction.
In fact, the presentation all round is something to behold. The visuals throughout the game are bright and colourful, and most importantly they look stunning coming out of Nintendo’s new high definition console at a solid 60 frames per second. There’s definitely a more simplistic art style on show here compared to the rich detail of Unleashed and Generations (as well as some clear inspiration from another gaming icon when it comes to the level tropes) but on this occasion less can be said to be more. Lost World is perhaps the closest a 3D Sonic game has ever felt to being like the classic titles, helped in part by the fact that more or less every enemy you’ll encounter is a familiar face – Motobugs, Buzzbombers, and a plethora of vintage badniks from Sonic’s 16-bit outings all put in an appearance to get in the hedgehog’s way. The Deadly Six are the only real recurring newcomers, and they suitably step up to the mark as the game’s antagonists, bringing with them not only personality but also a deep sense of menace. Forget Black Doom and Dark Gaia, these are hands down the best villains to have graced the series for a long time, and it’s quite refreshing to face off with something that isn’t a robot or a mech suit, even if their boss battles are not always as creative as they could have been.
What of the game’s music, I hear you ask? Well, Sonic Lost World’s soundtrack is nothing short of amazing. There’s a vast range of styles to match the various level themes, many of which will surely become instant favourites among the fandom. Whether it’s the jovially orchestrated main theme “Wonder World”, the fast-paced Windy Hill Zone 1, or the painfully catchy Deadly Six theme, there’s something here for everyone. Say what you want about the rest of the game, but in typical Sonic fashion, the music is more than up to par. If you haven’t already got the “Without Boundaries” OST on pre-order, you’ll surely be tempted after spending some time on Lost Hex.
So – eye-catching visuals, check. Top-notch soundtrack, check. All we need now is for the game itself to be up to snuff, and there’s certainly plenty to do in Lost World, featuring an untold amount of variety for a Sonic game. There’s wide open 3D areas, classic 2D platforming, auto-running sections, and even a couple of rail-grinding stages that are reminiscent of Donkey Kong Country’s minecart levels. But it’s with good reason that we’re five paragraphs in and I’m only just touching on the gameplay now, and that’s because to put it simply, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. After three games that have heavily emphasised Sonic’s intense speed, SEGA have slammed on the brakes and slowed the hedgehog down immensely – which, for all intents and purposes, is a good thing. The new tiered speed works well to balance the need for both precision platforming and fast gameplay, and the parkour system adds a whole new level of depth to the series once you get the hang of it. It’s hard to imagine going back to an older Sonic title now and not being able to gracefully climb up ledges or bounce back and forth between wall runs. There’s a lot of potential to be had from this new style, and I for one hope we see it again in the future.
One way in which the game does trip up on itself though is that it does such a poor job of teaching some of these new mechanics to you. If you’re someone who has been following the game and knows all about the controls, you’ll be down with the basics by the end of the first world. For complete newcomers or casual players though, I can foresee the game being overly complicated purely because there’s a distant lack of a tutorial at the beginning. The game would have benefitted greatly from an explanatory opening stage showcasing the different speeds, the more strategic combat, and the all-new parkour moves. Sure, hint icons can be found along the way but the actual text they provide appears on the GamePad screen, meaning it’s out of your line of sight and therefore rendering it worthless. It’s possible that you could play through the game without ever realising there’s a run button, though people who do struggle through in this manner will surely grow tired of Sonic’s apparent slowness long before reaching the credits. It’s frustrating to see the game inflict problems like this on itself, as they need not exist and would have been easy to fix.
The lack of signposting extends into other parts of the game, too. As annoying as Omochao has been in previous titles with his constant advice on how to play, you’ll wish he’d pipe up once or twice to provide a hint about what to do next (even if it’s terribly cryptic). There were at least two boss battles that took far longer than they needed to because it’s not made clear what the game expects you to do. Take one instance where a boss chases after you – the natural reaction is, of course, to get away from it. Doing so actually leads you to a dead end and inevitable doom, and it’s only after much trial and error that you figure out what you’re actually supposed to do. The solutions seem stupidly simple afterwards, and admittedly the game does introduce the mechanics in an extremely subtle manner, but unless you pick up on them first time round you’re going to struggle over and over again until you’ll want to throw your Wii U GamePad across the room (though don’t, of course – those things are expensive!).
This leads me onto another area where the game falters – its uneven difficulty. The first half of the game has a real sense of joy and wonder as you get to grips with Sonic’s new skills and journey through some exciting environments (Tropical Coast is especially brilliant, even if it does appear to imitate Super Mario Galaxy a little too much – though if you’re going to copy something, copy the best!). Once you hit the halfway mark however, things start to get a bit awry. Gimmicky levels become tests of patience while later levels throw cheap death after cheap death at you. Funnily enough, this likely wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for the game being so stingy with lives. Against all known Sonic lore, collecting 100 rings no longer grants you an extra life, and the 1-Ups that are scattered around are few and far between. Seeing the Game Over screen is a distinct likelihood (if not inevitability), and having to restart entire 5-10 minute stages purely because you’ve fallen one too many times at the final hurdle is something that grows old fast. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to see a Sonic game with a bit of challenge for a change, but if ever there’s been a case for scrapping the lives system in platformers, it’s Sonic Lost World.
The Wisps are also a controversial feature. Yes, those crazy alien critters from Sonic Colours are back, though they’re rather lacking the sparkle they initially had in 2010. It’s not that the Wisps are bad in concept, but their implementation in Lost World is absolutely baffling. At best, they feel pointless and add hardly anything to the game as a whole, and at worst, they are a right royal pain thanks to the GamePad control schemes that have been forced upon them. No doubt in an effort to showcase the Wii U’s capabilities, dodgy gyro and touch controls are required to use the majority of these powers, which either function imprecisely or completely interrupt the flow of the game. Only a couple of Wisp powers – such as Laser and Drill – retain their traditional button-based control schemes (not that the game ever tells you this) and it should come as no surprise that these are the most fun and most useful of the lot, but their short screen time hardly makes the inclusion worth it. With practice, there are some small intricacies you can discover to master the other Wisp controls, but it’s yet another unnecessary and user-unfriendly learning curve that the game could do without.
Despite all of these glaring issues though, and as much as I’ve wanted to tear my hair out as a result of some questionable design choices, I’ve still come away from my experience with Sonic Lost World feeling generally positive. The reason for this is, primarily, because of the sheer promise for the future that’s on display here. If I’ve come across as negative in this review, it’s only because of how agonisingly close Lost World comes to being something truly remarkable, and how much I wanted it to go that extra mile. The presentation is superb, the majority of the levels are entertaining, and you’ll never be doing the same thing for long. Sonic’s new gameplay style really does have the potential to be moulded into something great – it’s just a shame that a few annoying problems hamper it this time around and prevent it from reaching those lofty heights already. But, on the flipside – when it’s good, it’s really good.
The game’s heart is undoubtedly in the right place, and it so clearly tries its best to be the definitive 3D Sonic experience – yet, as much as it does right, it’s hard to shake the feeling of it being so near yet so far. As it stands, Sonic Lost World is a decent effort that places the blue blur halfway up the proverbial pedestal of success. Whether he spin dashes his way up to grab the top, or whether he slips back down to the very bottom, is something that remains to be seen. The ball’s in your court, SEGA.
+ Consistently excellent presentation throughout
+ One of the best Sonic soundtracks to date
+ The first half of the game is full of promise
– Uneven difficulty spikes plague the later levels
– Severe lack of hints and signposting
– Wisps feel out of place and poorly implemented
Second Opinion by Shadzter:
Sonic Lost World is a refreshing change of direction for the Sonic series following Unleashed, Colours and Generations. The new gameplay style gives you more control over Sonic’s speed than ever and the new parkour moves keep the pace going. The soundtrack is another impressive addition to the series and the scenery is beautiful and filled with colour. But with all of these good things said, the game has some downsides.
While the first few worlds are pretty fun, the later levels have some steep difficulty curves, which aren’t helped by a lack of hints and tutorial at the start of the game. Some of these later levels can be extremely frustrating due to poor level design and the lack of lives obtainable. The Wisps return in Lost World, but do nothing but add to the frustration with poorly implemented GamePad controls. Overall, Sonic Lost World is a good game, but has a lot of missed potential.
Sonic Lost World is out now in Europe and on 29th October in the US. Stay tuned for a review of the 3DS version in the near future!