This whole Sonic Boom business has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, hasn’t it? Announced in February alongside the CG cartoon of the same name, the third and final entries in Sonic’s Nintendo exclusivity deal – Rise of Lyric for Wii U and Shattered Crystal for 3DS – were the source of much speculation and debate. Not only did it signal the start of a whole new branch of the franchise, one where the convoluted mistakes of the past could be wiped clean and start afresh, but the games were being handled by a whole new development studio. Sonic Team, for better or worse, were taking a back seat this time to Big Red Button and Sanzaru Games – both newcomers to the series – which meant we could expect a brand new take on the characters we all know and love… and boy oh boy, a brand new take is certainly what we got.
There’s no use in beating around the bush. By now, we’ve all heard the horror stories surrounding these titles. The same old tired demo being wheeled out again and again at trade events, SEGA’s apparent disinterest in the project following the initial reveal, plenty of behind the scenes drama on the game’s production… and of course, those rather dubious review scores. It’s fair to say that you probably won’t be going into either Sonic Boom game with particularly high expectations – but are they really as bad as everyone makes out?
For those of you who want to stop reading now, the short answer is: yes. Well, mostly.
Let’s get the elephant out of the room and start by dealing with Rise of Lyric. This is a game that promised so much, and yet delivers on hardly any of its potential. From the start, we were told to look forward to this exciting new world, a place full of mystery and beauty – but what we end up with is a dull, bland landscape comprised of barren hub worlds with hardly any life whatsoever (aside from a sprinkling of NPCs who are ever so anti-social at first), all presented in glorious PS2 era graphics. Place this next to Sonic Lost World’s smooth visuals and 60 frames per second and you’d never guess that Rise of Lyric is running on Nintendo’s HD powered Wii U. Some of the textures are so bad that you’ll physically cringe, and the whole thing chugs along at an unsteady clip, breaking up the pace of an already slow experience. Dare to play it in co-op mode and the whole presentation plummets even further down the quality scale.
Indeed, the entire game is a bit of a technical mess. On top of the framerate and graphical hiccups, there’s also the plethora of glitches that you can stumble across, ranging from the infamous Knuckles infinite jump to characters getting stuck in the wall with no way to escape. I kid you not, in the very first seconds of booting up my copy, there was a glitch in the opening credits where the “whoosh” sound effect from the SEGA logo got stuck on a constant loop. When a game is so poorly put together that it breaks down before even the title screen has appeared and you’ve had a chance to make any input whatsoever, you know you’re in for a rough time.
All of this would be made tolerable though if the gameplay was up to snuff – which, simply, it isn’t. Sonic has been stripped of his trademark speed in favour of generic platforming and exploration, only getting the chance to stretch his legs in Sonic Dash style speed sections that are clunky and awkward to navigate. When you’re not aimlessly wandering around the empty environments, mashing Sonic’s spin dash to replicate the smallest sensation of going fast, you’ll be engaging in combat with a series of multicoloured robots in battles that are either a total pushover or quickly descend into disarray, with attacks and rings flying across the screen in every direction. Nothing about these fights is stimulating or exciting, it’s just a case of spamming the attack buttons enough times while dodging enemy fire. Considering the lack of combos and tiny range of enemy designs, it gets real old, real fast, even when using different characters and their limited number of special abilities. It’s not a sentence you’ll hear very often but… the Werehog, this ain’t.
Not everything about Rise of Lyric is terrible though. There’s a few genuinely cool set pieces and the voice actors are on top form throughout – but even these positives are hampered by setbacks. For every moment of cinematic spectacle, there’s one where you’re awkwardly piloting a boat or a submarine, and the characters just do not know when to shut up. If I had a penny for every time Sonic and his friends expressed their love for bounce pads and rings, I’d have enough money to go out and buy a much better game.
Rise of Lyric isn’t the worst game ever made, but it rightfully deserves the bad reputation it’s garnered. It’s an uninspired, unfinished, unpolished title from beginning to end and by no means the triumphant return to a more adventure-driven style of Sonic game that it was hoped it might be.
Unfortunately, Sonic Boom doesn’t fare much better on the 3DS either. Shattered Crystal is, on the whole, a better experience than its Wii U big brother – for a start, it doesn’t feel rushed and runs relatively smoothly – but it’s swamped by poor design choices that drag the quality down to nothing more than average. Undeniably, it’s a speedier affair, and it actually feels like a typical Sonic game in places – particularly in the game’s Rival Races, there’s a real sense of momentum and rhythm that you’ll want to keep going by hitting the necessary springs and boost pads. Visually it’s quite impressive too, including a handful of animated CG cutscenes that look better than anything even Rise of Lyric has to offer.
What, again, is Sonic Boom’s problem is that in trying to break away from Sonic tradition and be its own thing, it stands in complete opposition to what makes the series so beloved in the first place. On your initial run of the first few stages, you might not notice an issue. Sure, the stages are a bit more Metroid-esque and there’s places to explore, but you’re able to blast through to the finish without much problem at all. That’s all well and good, but soon enough the game pulls a Sonic Unleashed and locks away later levels behind arbitrary requirements. Specifically, you’ll need to collect enough Badges, which you earn (surprise surprise) by searching through each stage and finding all of the hidden blueprints and crystal shards (and by all, I do mean all). What started out as a jolly romp through Shattered Crystal’s world now screeches to a halt as you painstakingly look around every part of the map – often large in size and labyrinthine in design – to find those elusive pick-ups that you missed first time around. This wouldn’t be a problem if unlocking later levels didn’t require near-perfection, as you’ll find yourself one too many a time opening up the path to a new stage, only to have to turn back away from it because you’re one Badge short of being able to play it. In total you’ll need 30 of the game’s 34 Badges to access the final boss, which is no simple feat unless you’ve hunted high and low along the way.
Aside from beating the game, there’s no major incentive to collect everything either – nabbing all of the Badges merely opens up one of the most ridiculous bonuses in Sonic history, and earning Tokens (by beating stages in a set time limit and with a certain number of rings, or through StreetPass or working out with Knuckles… yes, you did read that last bit correctly) only allows you to unlock display models of the various characters and items. They’re cool to look at, but beyond aesthetics, they serve no purpose at all.
In summary then, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Sonic Boom hasn’t got off to the best of starts in any respect, aside from the cartoon itself. Rise of Lyric and Shattered Crystal are both difficult games to recommend – the former especially – and their focus on slow-paced exploration just doesn’t match up well with the normal Sonic ethos. While the attempt to spark new life into the ailing franchise and reinvigorate the characters is admirable, ultimately it’s all rather backfired. So far, Boom is superfluous at best, and a dreadful stain on the blue blur’s reputation at worst.
There may still be some hope for this sub-series in the future, but as it stands, Sonic Boom is little more than a Sonic bomb.