I didn’t care for Shattered Crystal back at E3 2014. Between the maze-like level design and clunky character switching, the game left me frustrated by the end of my 20+ minute play through of a single level of the game. My opinion of the game improved somewhat when it was finally released, but many of the issues I had with it remained. If Fire & Ice’s E3 demo is any indication, Sanzaru has learned a lot from their last game’s mistakes.
For one, the level design is no longer maze-like. Instead, the stages are laid out much more horizontally, like a typical Sonic game. Unlike a typical Sonic game, however, the stages often have places that fork in another direction, enticing the adventurous to explore less-trodden paths. Sometimes these paths are just alternate routes to other places in the stage, but they can also lead to hidden collectibles and even challenge rooms. Of course, it’s also possible to just blast through the stage and ignore the alternate routes. Your choice.
The level design improvements go beyond the layouts, though. The usage of character switching has also been improved. In Shattered Crystal, some stages forced players to switch between several different characters to get through them. I personally felt this messed with the flow of the game, since I found it difficult to quickly switch between characters on the fly, forcing me to constantly stop whenever an area of a stage called for a different character. Fire & Ice seems to fix this issue by simply making certain stages focused on certain characters.
Glacial Forest, for instance, is a Sonic-centric stage, with all of the obstacles geared towards him. Another stage was geared mostly towards Tails, with wind generators he could fly on being the main obstacle of the level. One of the last stages of the game was geared primarily towards Amy, filled with stone obstacles that had to be knocked down with her hammer. That isn’t to say you won’t be switching between characters mid-stage, however.
The Tails stage, for instance, had an optional path that could only be accessed by Amy. But what’s important about this piece of the stage’s design, was that it came at a place where it felt naturally to stop for a second, since it was an optional explorative path. Still, in spite of all these improvements, the game has taken one step back in this area: characters can no longer be instantly selected on the d-pad. Instead, the d-pad brings up a tiny sub menu that you must scroll through to select a character. This is likely due to the fact that there are now five playable characters, and a minor quibble that works perfectly fine with how these stages are designed.
The last big improvement lies with the titular fire & ice mechanics. When I first tried the demo, I thought this element added a needless complication to traversal. But eventually, I got to a challenge room that focused heavily on this mechanic and it just kind of clicked with me. The melting and freezing of water walls and platforms that fill the game’s stages gives them a certain kind of flow, much like what springs, boost pads and enemy placement do in other Sonic games. Switching between the two elements quickly is required to get through the stages effectively and pulling it off successfully feels great. While it might seem like a gimmick at first, this mechanic feels like a natural addition to the Sonic formula.
So the 2D stages are a lot of fun, but they won’t be the only kinds of stages available in the game. The sub levels, racing stages, and on-rails stages from Shattered Crystal will return in Fire & Ice, plus new shmup and boss battle levels. You’ll need to check out Jason’s preview for details on the sub levels, but I can tell you that the other level types carried over from Shattered Crystal boast improvements. The racing stage was much like the ones from the previous game, but with one big change: they are now played with robots, which can be upgraded over the course of the game to improve the machine’s speed and strength. The demo had two playable machines, Sonicbot and the show’s own Burnbot. My race was short, but very intense, as I raced Burnbot around the track and managed to come from behind to score a victory by a nose on the final lap.
The on-rails stage was also similar to the ones from Shattered Crystal, except now you run through a combination of ice caves and volcanoes with ice obstacles and water platforms respectively. Just like in the side scrolling stages, the Fire & Ice additions adds to the level’s flow and gives the player a little more to do than just running, jumping, and dodging obstacles.
As far as the new additions go, the shooting stage wasn’t anything special or unique as far as shmups go, but it played well and offered some fun. In the stage I played, I had to guide Tails’ sub around whirlpools, shoot icebergs, and gather pink gems in order to refill my health. Fire & Ice’s final big improvement looks to be its boss battle stages. The demo had one on display, Unga Bunga, a massive tiki-themed robot that takes up two screens ala Sonic Rush.
The battle has you automatically tag teaming between Sonic and Amy in order to overcome the boss’s different attacks. To defeat the boss, you need to hit the top of its head three times, which isn’t as simple as it sounds. In order to even get up there you need to attack the bosses hands, melt through ice blocks that’ll crush you against the side of the screen, raise a pillar with Amy’s hammer, and freeze some platforms in order to get to the top of the screen and finally land a hit. It’s a huge boss battle that utilizes each of the game’s mechanics intelligently, and it is a heckuva lot of fun.
The demo has done a lot to douse my skepticism of the game. Even in the initial impressions I put up Tuesday night, I wasn’t sure if I’d like it. But now that I’ve spent a lot of time with it, I’m genuinely looking forward to playing the final product. This game falls into a weird place between Shattered Crystal and other traditional Sonic games. It feels like a strange mixture of Sonic’s 2D titles, Sonic’s 3D titles, and Shattered Crystal, all thrown into a blender and used to create an experience that is both familiar and unique, without being off-putting. In the end, I can only come up with one complaint: with all the different abilities, moves, and characters, the game isn’t as easy to pick up and play as most of Sonic games. It is a far cry from the old “built to be played with one button” Sonic games from the Genesis days, and it does take a few minutes to get a handle of all the different characters and abilities. But once you do, at least in this demo, it all becomes very natural and fun.
If the game is as fun as the demo, Sonic fans are in for a very fun portable adventure when the game releases exclusively on 3DS on September 27.