TSS@E3 – Hands-on: Sonic Boom Shattered Crystal

Boom-3DS-20For a second opinion, please head over to SEGAbits to check out Shigs’s thoughts.

It’s felt like years since I’ve played a new handheld Sonic title that I’ve really enjoyed. Sonic Colors, Generations and Lost World have all had stages I’ve liked, but as a complete package none of them seem to be able to reach the level of the Sonic Rush titles. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal is going to change that trend, if my time with the E3 demo is any indication.

Shattered Crystal brings some really interesting ideas to the table. Instead of focusing on the typical multilayered super-fast platforming Sonic is known for, Shattered Crystal’s primary focus is exploration, with some brief speed areas in between large, expansive, almost labyrinthine areas. These stages are huge. As I was playing I constantly tried to go off the beaten path to find every nook and cranny, which often resulted in me uncovering small hidden areas. Sometimes however, I found myself on a completely new path that took me further into the game. The exploration is facilitated by the diverse cast of Sonic characters at your disposal in the game.

At the start of the game you will only have access to Sonic, with Knuckles, Tails and Sticks being made available later on. Each of these characters have their own moves that allow them to access specific parts of a given stage: Sonic can blast through these large blue blocks that block certain areas, Tails can glide on air currents that allow him to access high places and get over gaps, Knuckles can dig through specially marked areas to get around walls and access hidden areas, and Sticks can hit faraway switches with her boomerang. Between these different abilities you can solve a variety of simple environmental puzzles and explore an expansive level design that is the very antithesis of “hold right to win”. Doing that here will rarely get you anywhere, except maybe dead.

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Compared to The Rise of Lyric, Shattered Crystal is much closer to a typical Sonic experience. All of the characters have a homing attack, are able to boost anywhere in the game, there are loop-de-loops, booster pads and checkpoint posts, and the overall game just feels a lot more familiar. That isn’t to say there aren’t some serious differences though. Much like the Wii U game, lives have been removed and rings now act as a life bar. It’s now possible to switch between characters on the fly, allowing you to easily choose the right character to bypass certain obstacles. Though this game feels more familiar, it is still quite distinctive in its own right.

Really, for all intents and purposes, this should be an amazing Sonic game, because it tries to correct so many complaints people have with Sonic’s side scrolling handheld affairs. In addition to being extremely non-linear, pitfalls are easy to spot in the opening stage and the game rarely moves with any serious speed. Even with the boost button the game never approaches the speed of the Rush games, which could often move too fast. So what’s my problem with this game?Unfortunately, it’s the level design and the interface.

Both the level map and character selection share the touchscreen, and players have to switch between them in order to access the different functions. In the demo, which starts with all the characters unlocked, this was a problem. In order to move smoothly through a level you need constant access to all four characters so you can quickly switch to them on the fly, but in order to make your way around the complex level design without getting lost you need access to the map screen. This game isn’t slow and methodical like other Metroidvania type games: there is constant movement and action here, and this game is at its best when you’re able to move through stages seamlessly. This interface results in awkward pacing and frustrating stop and go gameplay.

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When I first played the demo I preferred to keep the lower screen on the character selection screen, but I quickly found myself becoming lost and going in circles to the point where I was growing increasingly frustrated. So I switched to the map screen and thought my problems were solved….until I began to run into a constant flow of obstacles that required different characters, a few of which I didn’t realize were there until it was too late, causing me to fall to a lower area and forcing me to make my way back up. So I found myself constant having to switch between screens twice with many of the obstacles I encountered in order to ensure I always had access to the map screen and didn’t become lost again.

As an experiment, on the final day of E3 I attempted to run through the demo with just Sonic as my character. Since Sonic is the only character available at the start of the game, I thought that perhaps I might be able to blast through the whole demo as Sonic and enjoy a more seemless experience. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a Sonic only path, so it seems that all of the characters will be needed to traverse through at least some stages in the game.

As a huge fan of Metroid, I would love to see a Sonic game like this actually work. The most painful part about this is that I feel it almost does. I feel like there is a great game here, hidden behind a frustrating interface that makes exploration and puzzle solving more of a chore then it should be. Interface aside, there are so many parts of this game that work! The level design feels like it could yield endless possibilities and I found myself constantly torn between which way I should go since I wanted to see as much as I could in the small amount of time I would have with it. I love that feeling, and the great thing is that after three playthroughs I know I haven’t seen everything in that one single stage.

The rivals race with Sticks is also a lot of fun. It’s probably the closest this game comes go traditional Sonic, with loads of ramps, loops, Mobius strips and straight-aways. You can go nuts with the boost button here, and let me tell you that in terms of physics this is probably the best handheld Sonic has felt in a long time. The characters feel like they have weight again, rather than hollow plastic action figures come to life. It feels like momentum kind of means something here, too. Finally, there’s also a 3D tube level, which adds a nice bit of behind the back 3d excitement to the proceedings. It’s nothing spectacular, but it was fun.

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After five years worth of E3s, there are three things that can usually be fixed between the demo and the final product: interface, controls, and minor graphical issues like frame rate and texture pop-in. These demos are always examples and works in progress, and I’ve seen these issues be fixed before. This game’s two major problems are its interface and framerate (which fell well below 30 frames for a sizeable portion of the demo), so this game could certainly still be a lot of fun. Personally, I’d like to see the character screen either integrated with the map screen, or mapped to the d-pad like it is on the Wii U version. I found myself preferring to control the game with the analog stick, since the game feels like it was made to work well with analog control. Alternatively, character selection icons could be relegated to one side of the map screen, so they can be accessed quickly there.

Provided Sanzaru finds a solution to this issue, this could be one of the best side scrolling Sonic games in years. If they don’t, this may unfortunately continue the string of mediocre handheld titles that the Sonic series has been left with since they were tied into the console releases. Either way, we’ll find out when the game is released in November.

25 Comments

  1. Hawaiian shirt Shadow rival race confirmed! I hope his tape is black tape! That’d be soooooo COOL!
    I hope Silver is playable too, he should wear a giant clock around his neck, that way you can tell he’s a time traveler.

  2. That bit about the lower screen sounds like the frustration would REALLY build up while playing. Hope they can fix it soon, even if they have to sacrifice their map icon…

  3. Interesting review, I really hope this game doesn’t suck, but also I think Sega should start doing independent Sonic handheld games again, the Sonic Rush titltes were great and had their own story and identity, also I think the quality of Dimp’s games began to diminish when they were forced to make handheld games based on the console ones.

  4. “The rivals race with Marine is also a lot of fun.”
    You mean Sticks? Marine’s not in the game.

  5. You know, frankly, I’m sick of all the calls for Sonic games to include more exploration for the sake of exploration – Yes, nobody wants a completely linear experience, but the thing that non-linear games have that Sonic doesn’t is a focus for that exploration. Genuine puzzles that play to the characters strengths and abilities (in Sonic’s case, characters generally have no interesting puzzle-related strengths, so you get shitty switch and block puzzles at best – Hello Sonic Boom), and upgrades upgrades upgrades.

    Metroidvania works not SIMPLY because it’s non-linear, but because you have a genuine reason to explore stages: finding new weapons, abilities, and upgrades, many of which are necessary to proceed (and then become natural parts of your repertoire that allow you to deal with the increasing challenges ahead), on top of brilliantly layered level design that utilizes backtracking and problem solving. The Adventure games touched on the upgrades part of this, but only in the absolute barest of ways.

    The classic series DID happen to have a more exploratory feel (that people often cite in these discussions) for two reasons: incredibly detailed and labyrinthine maps that required extensive study in order to find the fastest routes (playing to Sonic’s literal only strength), and in later entries, the one-chance chaos rings that allowed access to bonus stages. Hunting these down was a necessity to obtain the chaos emeralds, either for the sake of unlocking super/hyper forms as early as possible (hint hint: new abilities that evolve the gameplay and potentially make it more exciting), unlocking the game’s awesome final stage, or simply for the rewarding sake of 100% game completion. There was a real reason to explore, and something of value to discover beyond dragging out the gameplay with mundane puzzles just so it feels longer in comparison to the more linear nature of boost-centric games. This is the epitome of “padding”. Layered level design loses much of it’s purpose and appeal without something meaningful to reward the curious.

    Lost World tried and failed to accomplish this task, by giving you no real reward for exploration apart from useless egg pods (you can unlock virtually every level without even trying, besides the fact that the freed animal pay gates was a stupid idea to begin with) and extra lives. Scouring the level only to find a couple of unneeded ring caches really doesn’t make the experience any more fun than blasting through it quickly. It isn’t rewarding, and it’s frankly a waste of level design space.

    I’m not seeing much different from either version of Sonic Boom. Playing as other characters should be fun and exciting not because we’re all fantards who just want to wiggle our joysticks at a specific character model, but because each of their abilities create a uniquely interesting experience. Knuckles abilities in S3K dramatically affected how you could approach levels and shortcuts, despite being fundamentally similar to the rest of the cast. Making the characters largely the same, and merely forcing you to switch between them to break through arbitrary barrier checkpoints makes their inclusion somewhat pointless. The 3DS version of Boom, while more familiar, seems to be slowing Sonic down for no other reason than to slow him down. Interrupting the natural flow of gameplay by forcing you to break blocks or hit switches is no different than the fast paced obstacle courses of the boost games, it’s just SLOWER. That is the only difference I’m seeing between this and a normal Sonic game. There’s no REAL exploration here, and there never will be unless the next time Sega decides to “shake up” the franchise, they actually do something new instead of just slowing him down and turning him into an even MORE generic platforming mascot.

    1. I’m not sure how exactly I could put what I potentially desire into words. I know that I absolutely loved the hubs in Unleashed. I know that I liked how the Adventure games and Heroes’ stages felt when it came to how they managed to feel open.

      And I know that I really did not like how Colors and Generations handled their stages when it came to them in comparison. And I didn’t even entertain the idea that Lost World tried this. It didn’t feel like a game that was trying to do anything more so just throw a bunch of things in there and see what stuck to the wall.

      1. I’m still waiting for Sonic to star in his very own Super Mario 64. I’ve been waiting for that since 1996. Sonic Adventure approached this, but ultimately fell short. The potential is there though.

        I love the linear boost gameplay style, but I am still waiting for an open world Sonic platformer that feels like an utter delight to explore.

        1. I completely agree with you there. Mario 64 managed to capture the essence of previous Mario games, making a successful transition into 3D (while at the same time, revolutionizing gaming). Adventure had some great ideas and was a fantastic game at the time (although, it has aged horribly in comparison to a game like Mario 64), but it wasn’t able to capture the essence of what made the Genesis games great. I love Mario because I can almost always expect (at the very least) a solid gaming experience that feels like a Mario game. It may be Mario Kart, Mario & Luigi, Paper Mario, New SMB or Galaxy; it doesn’t matter the genre, there’s always a sense of familiarity and high quality where you can tell the developers put effort into the game. In Sonic’s case, his diversity is his biggest strength and weakness. There hasn’t been consistency in Sonic since the Genesis days (although, Unleashed, Colors & Generations started to get back to that), nearly every game feels completely different; there really hasn’t been a focused approach taken for more than 2 Sonic games in a row. The Adventure series had Sonic in the “real world” with various types of gameplay; Heroes had team-based, combat oriented gameplay set in environments similar to the Genesis games; 06 was, well, 06; Unleashed established it as a seperate world filled with stylized humans and multiple types of gameplay again; and finally Colors & Generations had that sense of familiarity, solid and consistent gameplay that felt missing to me in most of the previous games. And then Lost World somewhat threw it away by adding in yet another new play style (that wasn’t fully realized, or nearly as polished as it should’ve been) with characters like the Deadly Six that really don’t fit the other Sonic characters. On the other hand, regardless of quality, the Sonic series has never grown stale and people haven’t really lost interest due to how different each game is (give Sonic Team credit for how much they experiment). You can get so many different experiences from the Sonic series, some really good and some really bad (depending on the person). And there’s a wide variety of characters that are unfortunately underused (Metal Sonic for years, and great characters like Nack, Bean and Bark), or never given the chance to realize their full potential due to story, writting, dialogue, etc (Silver, Deadly Six, etc).
          So I’m REALLY hoping Sonic finally can capture what made the Genesis games great in a 3D game, like Mario 64 did for Mario. Unfortunately right now, Boom for Wii U appears to be a mix of Ratchet & Clank, Sonic Heroes and the Werehog levels of Unleashed. I’m open to change (regardless of the fact the main reason I’ve stuck with Sonic has been the character design, style, etc that is majorly absent in Boom), but I’m not really seeing this as a game that would hold my interest over other Wii U games. If they can pull this off, it has the potential of being great and could possibly benefit Sonic Team to take notes from BRB. At this point though, we just have to wait and see what type of reviews it gets, and what each of our personal opinions are of the game once we all get our hands on it this November.

    2. I’ll only agree with you on ONE THING: There doesn’t seem to be much incentive to explore in either Lost World or the demo for Boom. Just a catch of rings (which I guess is useful if you’re low on health, but isn’t really much of a benefit in the long run) and special robot parts (used for what again?), which may be more important in the full game, but still don’t seem to be real attention-getters or game-changers as super forms or unlockable characters. Again, I absolutely HATE making judgments based upon anything pre-release, as these demos are still works in progress, but from what we’re seeing so far, it seems to be the basic idea of what they want the experience to be. The Wii U looks far more promising in my opinion, while the 3DS version….ehhhhhh? I mean, I could see myself buying it and completing it once, but then after that it would just be used as a way to kill some time.

      As for the speed, I don’t generally see these games as an attempt to slow Sonic down, at least, not in a direct sense. In Lost World, they slowed him down so they could “make platforming easier”. That, in essence, was slowing him down for the sake of slowing him down. In Boom, they have his speed vary because they have differing styles of gameplay to diversify the game, so for some sections he can’t be too fast too much of the time. That’s not slowing down for the sake of slowing down, that’s slowing down for the sake of fitting everything else in. Now granted, they could have solved this problem by making the other parts speedier, but I see that as a direction they’ll probably head in later on down the line for future games, once they have a better idea of what they’re playing with and who the fans are. To me, the Wii U seems to have a closer idea of how Sonic’s speed works in that department, and tries to have all of it’s differing gameplay styles separated into different slices, like a pie. The 3DS version seems to sort of cram all of that diversity into one section and kind of comes off as a pie that got sat on. Not to mention those interface issues.

      I think that they could have done a terrific job with what they have (who knows, maybe they still will), but I do agree that certain aspects that dominate a lot of the game such as exploration should be given much more of an incentive. Giving out the challenge of collecting Red Rings only to have the reward be a trophy while previous games have unlocked a super state do NOT count as a suitable reward, as it does nothing to expand the value of the gameplay (hint hint, Sonic 4 Ep. II). Hopefully the “meat” of the explore=reward formula will be much more fleshed out in the home release, and hopefully that interface will be improved for the 3DS.

      I still think that this Sonic Boom movement holds much potential, but much like the contemporary Sonic franchise, it still has a few hurdles to tackle before it can realize all of that potential. As always, I hope SEGA and all it’s affiliates can make that happen. Still getting the games, still watching the show, still somewhat hyped, but still somewhat cautious.

      1. For the record, Hero, I’m not necessarily talking about Sonic’s top speed. I’m talking about interrupting the pacing and flow of the game with generic and unexciting puzzles just for the sake of padding out the gameplay. I feel like this “new direction” is not bringing anything new or exciting to the table, but merely an artificial attempt at making the game feel longer by putting the focus on gameplay that can’t be rushed through as easily.

        My comment was specifically directed at the 3DS version, and this review’s observations about the alternate characters’ only real purpose being to break through specific barriers. This is not innovative gameplay (or even FUN gameplay) and it’s a wasted opportunity to create something actually worthwhile or to make each character truly interesting or unique.

        I have a whole different list of gripes about the Wii U version, but they’re not quite as relevant to my initial comment, although I still wonder just how well the “open world” aspect is going to work for that version, considering what little we’ve seen. If it’s mostly just hunting around for switches and generic enerbeam puzzles, it doesn’t exactly look very exciting.

        1. Whatever, still wanted to voice what I thought. I have to admit though, the pace does seem to be inconsistent. I really hope it just serves as a tutorial level and every other level feels much more balanced. But time will tell.

          The 3DS version is the only one I have the most doubts about. The Wii U version looks strange but still promising to me. Due to my tastes, I think I’ll be fairly entertained by the Wii U version. Whether I’ll love the game or not has yet to be determined, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have a decently fun time with it. I still look forward to the next faster paced Sonic, but at least slowdown in this game won’t be as boring for me.

          Like I said, I’m still interested and a tad bit excited, but I’m still going to be reasonably cautious, seeing as how huge of an experiment this whole thing is.

  6. I’m currently writing my hands on for Segabits. I liked it a fair amount more than Alex.

  7. You state that all characters are unlocked in the demo but later say Sonic is the only character available?

    Very good run down thou! I can’t think of a single comparable game .. it almost sounds like a 2D Sonic Heroes where you have no choice but to switch up characters

  8. No. In the full game, only Sonic is playable at first and then you unlock the characters as the game progresses. This lets you return to older levels to discover new secret areas. In the demo, all the characters were unlocked at once.

  9. I love how you don’t have such an issue as the rest of the people talking about Boom. I could’ve called them a nasty name, but they don’t even deserve it. 😛

    Anyhow. You were honest, and god, that’s all I needed. I’m actually pretty good at dealing with frustrating transition, as I have plenty of games like that, and to be frank, as long as I enjoy the game, get over the little flaws, cause every game has some, big or small, I’m gonna get my money out of it.
    Lost World 3DS, I’m glad that wasn’t MY money. I like that game in it’s own way, but I maybe only enjoy 3 levels (Speedy ones) because the rest were attempted to be like the exploration levels of Boom, but they screwed up SO BAD that it just ruins it. Boom has a little bit of everything, not to mention the personalities we lost AGES ago, and that’s why I’m looking forward to it so much. Anybody who thinks otherwise is either blind, or a donkey.

  10. I think the 3DS version is better than Wii U version because of Big Red button make bad Sonic Boom game on Wii U version after all is beautiful HD Graphic! Also is like Sonic Unleashed over again to defeat a lot bad guys than the 3DS Version is awesome game & fun about for Sonic Boom is speed acton adventure or racing your rival to the goal.

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