Freemium. A word almost associated with fear to many nowadays. You hear the horror stories everywhere – a kid downloads a little free app, next thing you know their parent’s bank accounts are emptied and they have 500 coins of in-game currency to spend. It’s becoming so bad that Apple themselves need to offer consumers the ability to block these purchases from happening, and even market against them. It’s an undeniably profitable market, one which Sonic has dabbled in before.
If you recall, Sonic has three original titles for mobile devices. Sonic Jump and Sonic Jump Fever, where Sonic must use platforms to climb to the top of levels riddled with badniks and other obstacles, and Sonic Dash, and endless runner where you dodge obstacles and collect as many rings as you can. The latter game is pretty infamous for its microtransactions at this point. Red Rings are the premium currency which gets you second tries, new characters and other goodies which doesn’t come cheap, and you can one or two a day through normal gameplay. It gets addicting swiftly, but can often become frustrating, and nowadays is littered with ads which consistently interrupt whenever you’re on a menu.
This is why, upon Sonic Runners’ initial announcement, I had very low interest in whatever the title had to offer. Despite it being developed by Sonic Team themselves, I wasn’t interested in being hounded continually by adverts, told there’s a new sale on for premium currency or losing my progress in a level because of almost impossible to avoid obstacles. If anything, I assumed it could be an easy time killer for whenever the next major Sonic Team game comes around.
But yet, I find myself thinking that this is the best Sonic game that’s been released since 2011’s Sonic Generations. And I’m not sure how to feel about that.
Sonic Runners is essentially a classic Sonic game on rails. Your character runs continually on a 2D plane with your only control option being to tap the screen which performs a jump. Rings and different coloured score gems help to guide when your character should jump and when to use their unique abilities, and levels are littered with power-ups to help your runs, such as Invincibility, Shield and Combo Bonus. Drill, Laser and Asteroid Wisps also return providing quick and easy ways to cover distance or collect items. Laser is especially fantastic, letting you move quickly and tap to suck in all nearby score gems and rings.
Multiple taps activate a character’s special ability – Sonic (Speed) can triple jump which helps in a pinch, Tails (Fly) can gain a great height by either holding down the jump or pressing multiple times, and Knuckles (Power) can dash forward with a punch destroying rocks and powerful enemies, then jump once more following it. Each character class has a designated zone designed to put these abilities to best use, with levels which compliment the abilities. Windy Hill for Speed, Silent Forest/Sky Road for Fly and Lava Mountain for Power. Because of this, there’s no reason to use any other characters in these stages which quickly leads to a lack in variety, which I’ll come to.
There’s a great sense of speed and flow while you play Runners, no matter which character class you’re using. Since rings and score gems help guide your movements it’s all about timing your jumps right and trusting that you’ll make it, which can be very satisfying when it comes to complex areas. At the end of each “section” you’ll have a mini face off against Dr. Eggman where you can bag a ton of rings for a short amount of time, and once he flies off the game speeds up further. This also accompanies increasingly difficult hazards to avoid and jumps to make, creating a difficulty progression that feels fair. Once you reach max speed you’ll stop gaining rings, making the tension of perfectly executing all your jumps even greater. Though there are times when I feel there’s the occasional cheap death or obstacle, it largely feels fair and down to the player’s skill.
There’s an issue when it comes to this however. Since each level section contains its own obstacles and challenges, they quickly become familiar at lower levels, but higher level ones still remain a mystery because of the time it takes to get to them, the actual pace of the area and the increased difficulty. So if you’re to lose on max speed run and get sent back, you’ll have to go through all the previous areas with the same designs and obstacles you’ve already beaten before to take another crack at getting your high score, which quickly becomes repetitive. But this all comes down to the design of the game itself. Rather than having a general feeling of progression, Runners is designed to be played in short bursts to see how far you can get and beat your high score. It’s undeniably fun, just don’t expect to be bored for a few hours and be able to play the game without ever becoming exhausted with it. It certainly lacks variety for long play sessions.
One of the most pleasant surprises with Runners is how much it lacks the lifeblood of its other freemium companions. I’m yet to encounter a single advertisement outside of their own in game promotions (note however, this is a soft launch, so this could just be an early day thing) and I’ve barely been hounded to purchase premium currency, if at all. On top of this, premium currency (Red Rings) isn’t that difficult to come across either, since you’re able to bag a decent amount just by playing through the story alone. This currency goes toward saving yourself in runs or taking a shot at the premium roulette, which can grant you companions to help give you boosts. While these are helpful they’re not necessary, so it’s up to you to decide how conservative you want to be with your Red Rings. Even normal rings themselves are used as currency to level up your characters to make power ups and Wisps last longer, and they come in generous amounts.
The thing that will drive you the most to play Sonic Runners will be beating your high score, and trying to be head of your division leaderboard. There’s a story within the game, but it’s better left unspoken of. Story could even be a word too generous – the plot essentially revolves around Sonic, Tails and Knuckles solving the problems of animals and defeating Eggman at the end of each episode. There are plenty of these episodes, sure, but they do very little to engage you and cutscenes quickly become tedious (don’t worry, you can skip them). It’s nothing special and won’t encourage you to keep playing, and it isn’t helped by the pretty poor writing to boot. You’ll stick around for that burst of fun you’ll get from the gameplay itself.
And that’s what makes Sonic Runners so good. It’s all about the gameplay, and it’s great. Every time I go to pick it up, I know that it’s going to be a blast. You could almost say it’s a modern, bitesized interpretation of those side-scrolling Sonic games we know and love. It’s fast, frantic, addictive and just downright fun. The production values feel high and the visuals look lovely, with Lost World’s simple, cartoony art style adapting to mobile very well, and Ohtani provides some great catchy tunes to boot. Despite its lack of variety and monotonous story it’s probably the most overall enjoyable Sonic game since Generations and paints a positive picture as to whatever Sonic Team is working on next.
SECOND OPINION: HOGFATHER
Let’s start with the terrible things shall we?
- The fact I can’t play this offline is ridiculous.
- The Amy Rose unlock is completely ridiculous.
- The music is pretty bad, no really it is, compare it to the original games and you’ll realise how poor it is.
What are you left with? An utterly fantastic little game that everybody should be playing. Sonic Runners is the best Sonic game in years, boy how sad is that? Since Generations, the best Sonic game is a free to play, on rails mobile game which has barely a plot to it… is this a sign of how bad the last 2 years have been? Or that this game is genuinely good?
The answer is probably somewhere in between, Runners is a high production cost free to play mobile game, but it is a free to play mobile game so if you’re expecting high console production costs, think again, turn your expectations down to mobile game.
Now that isn’t to say it’s bad, it’s not, but your expectations might be a tad high. For example, the game has tons of episodes, but these episodes are so basic, odds are you’ll be touching the ‘skip’ button after the first 8, why not; they’re all pretty much the same. “Oh no, Eggman has kidnapped/built a factory near my house, let’s go do something!” You then play a stage; if you score high enough odds are you’ll be taken to the boss fight, which is a very simple affair and that’s it, episode done.
It’s simple, not bad, but simple.
The strength of the title comes from the layout of each stage, it does branching paths really well, and the balance between challenge and reward is very well thought out and executed almost perfectly.
There will however be things people don’t like, Sonic can’t go into a spin dash on demand, but he does it automatically if you build up huge speed, normally resulting in a score or ring bonus. Most of the wisp powers feel like a punishment than a help.
Some people may have some issues adjusting to the new rules, Sonic can triple jump now and you can jump anywhere on a Catterkiller, going against nearly 25 years of gameplay. However, that said, Runners is fun, in fact it’s very fun, I almost wanted it to be terrible in case someone in charge says “This is how we do it from now on.” because whilst it’s a fun little game, I still want my console Sonic.
I could go into the technical reasons as to why Runners works so well, but all you really need to know, is that Sonic Runners is the best Sonic game in years which is genially fun despite the simple nature, don’t be put off by the words “Free to play” or “mobile” or that terrible tutorial, It’s actually an enjoyable experience.
Please don’t ruin it by suddenly adding adverts or some other restriction. Just please get rid of that online requirement and the let us unlock Amy Rose in a sensible manner and you might have a serious contender for mobile GOTY.
It’s fun and enjoyable, give it a try.
- The fun and addictive gameplay, reminiscent of days gone by.
- The high production values, reflected in the graphics, gameplay and music.
- Despite being freemium, is surprisingly generous and not littered with ads… for now.
- The lack of variety.
- Occasional cheap obstacles.
- The “story”.
Sonic Runners is out now in Japan and Canada for Free, and is available on iOS and Android. There is currently no announced release date for the US or Europe.
This game was played on an iPhone 5C. Performance will vary depending on your device.
EDIT 24/6: Due to the ever evolving nature of mobile games, and the fact Runners has altered quite a bit since our initial review here, we’ve decided to re-evaluate this piece as an “Initial Impressions”. While it may have stood true for the game’s soft launch release, we no longer feel it accurately reflects the current version of Sonic Runners.