Note: This review qualifies as mostly ‘spoiler free’, but it does contain information on stages, gameplay elements.
It’s odd to think it’s been so long since the last major Sonic the Hedgehog release from Sonic Team. In fact, it’s just over six years since the release of Sonic Generations for the 20th anniversary. I’m sure there were raised eyebrows as the 25th anniversary came and went without an A-list title, but perhaps the majority let this pass as the fandom became gripped amidst ‘Sonic Mania’.
Reviewer: Adam ‘T-Bird’ Tuff
A year-and-a-half down the line, and after much hype and hearsay, Sonic Forces has finally landed on consoles worldwide. Since writing my thoughts about the game back in May the fandom has further polarised, with gameplay footage trickling into the public domain, appearing at times underwhelming or just downright unusual. Naturally after such a long wait, eager fans are optimistic for the next key Sonic instalment.
Sonic Forces sees Morio Kishimoto take on the mantle of Director once more (with Shun Nakamura, Director of the ill-received Sonic 2006 returning as producer), and a writing team including Ken Pontac and Warren Graff of Happy Tree Friends fame. It is instantly apparent from promotional material that Nakamura may have intended to take Sonic Forces back to a darker storyline as he did with ’06, setting the scene with Sonic’s defeat and capture at the hands of Eggman and his new ally, Infinite. After Modern Sonic’s incarceration, the “Rookie” (an avatar character created by the player) enters into the ranks of Sonic’s friends to fight for the freedom of all animal-kind.
Launching into a 3D Green Hill Zone, you instantly notice that the game’s environments are extremely pretty. On several occasions I felt compelled to come to a full stop just to admire the vistas and the workmanship that has gone into creating such lush stages – an element that doesn’t realty seem to falter throughout the entire game, and very much embellishes the cinematic feeling many of the stages have. While the stage names and themes often feel heavily contrived or uninspired (Casino Forest for example), they are at least glorious to look at.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for the eyes to wander. Your attention is drawn away from the visual elements of the game and on to the protagonist… and more specifically, his ability to move. Moments after pushing up to go forward, Sonic’s motion simply does not feel right. It’s cliché to talk about momentum in Sonic titles these days, but in Forces, something is seriously amiss. Modern Sonic, as well as his classic counterpart, has seen his inertia heavily revised from ‘analog’ to something akin to a gear system. Your choices of speed seem to be either frustratingly slow, a touch-too-fast for platform hopping, and ‘break-neck hyperspeed’. The latter can be fun when utilised in the proper areas, but these always seem constrained to narrow corridors inhabited by armies of clueless enemies – try to boost around anywhere else and Sonic will often fling himself into the abyss. The former two gears make any intricate platform navigation clumsy, and the primary cause of death throughout my playthrough of the game was a failure to clear relatively small leaps over bottomless pits.
The ‘new’ gameplay element of the Avatar seems also seems to suffer a similar symptom, and feels even more cumbersome than either incarnation of Sonic. There is little in the way of interesting platforming here, with each stage essentially a brief chain of side-scrolling 2D and 3D sections (which can be navigated by holding down the weapon trigger and pushing right), broken up by periodical quick-time events to wake the player up. The enemy AI offers little in the way of resistance, occupying one of two states of either of some pre-programmed pattern, or simply standing on the spot, unperturbed by even the player’s proximity.
As I mentioned back in May’s “The Spin” article, the inclusion of the Avatar character in the game feels bizarre – an apparent move by Sonic Team to satisfy the legions of DeviantArtists in the fandom. The player can in fact generate a reasonably intricate custom character from one of seven species, and as such I chose to resurrect a green hedgehog created within the margins of my primary school workbooks to the best of my memory, complete with upturned spikes and rocker getup.
There is a fun element to periodically changing the Avatar’s clothing between stages, upgrading appearances to include more outrageous items and clothing. However, the experience grows tiresome after two or three changes, with most newly-unlocked items constituting re-colours or re-skins of fatigues already unlocked (and for some ungodly reason, the option to equip your character with Crocs). There will undoubtedly be a deluge of screenshots in the coming weeks and months, depicting the monstrosities the character creator will allow players to create. On the face of it however, a lot of younger players will get satisfaction from seeing their own creation fighting alongside their hero, making Forces the closest thing to an interactive Sonic fanfiction.
The stages in which Modern Sonic is paired with the Avatar are wholly uninteresting, with the single difference between these and their separate stages being a “duel boost” prompt in which, following a fist bump (cringe), the duo hurtle headlong through the stage (and enemies) to the game’s pop-punk main theme, Fist Bump (double cringe).
On the subject of music, the soundtrack to the game has its highs and lows. Fist Bump itself feels like a tired reprisal of previous themes such as Endless Possibilities or His World, complete with extremely cheesy and bland lyrics. The Avatar stages are set against vocal songs, some of which constitute the more memorable elements of the soundtrack; I particularly like the theme to Aqua Road, which (like much of the avatar stage themes) channels the Drum & Bass genre, albeit with a contemporary sound that feels like it would be more at home in a video game some five years ago. The “Vs. Metal Sonic” theme reprises a classic track from the US Sonic CD soundtrack, and again is probably one of the few tracks fans will go back to and listen to.
The jewel in the crown of the Forces soundtrack is the nu-metally theme of Infinite, which again will undoubtedly solidify itself as a fan favourite among angsty teenagers (and the thirty-somethings with their musical feet still firmly fixed in the early noughties). Apart from these few exceptions, the rest of the soundtrack falls into a bracket of either fairly generic orchestral manoeuvres stereotypical of swathes of movie and game scores (well performed are not particularly memorable), or some attempt at creating a retro vibe for classic Sonic stages by drawing elements from the 16-bit soundchip. It’s not an awful soundtrack by any stretch, but it is far from Ohtani-san’s finest work.
The final nail in the coffin for Sonic Forces is the storyline. Of course, the narrative in Sonic games has hardly ever been Chaucer, but it is an element that many Sonic fans who have grown up with modern titles come to expect; even if it constitutes something somewhat formulaic it at least adds some small element of character progression. The Forces storyline is however crepe-paper thin and unintelligible at times, peppered with the odd cut-scene but mostly told through dialogue screens in and around stages. Some scenes are even explained via a black screen with white text, in a lazy attempt to plug gaps in the tale.
There are multiple occasions in the story where, given the circumstances, the character’s demeanour seems incredibly nonchalant. Explanations for the inclusion of Sonic’s past nemeses are downright disappointing, and will no doubt leave a lot of fans who were craving for a backstory asking, “is that it?” Infinite himself is yet another cookie-cutter “ultimate” villain, and the climactic battle with him is wholly humdrum. The final few battles in the game fall into being tests of memory rather than those of skill, and in one case I found that I had selected the incorrect Wispon weapon for a stage, the platforms offering only refills for another that I had not equipped (nor was there any indication to). The addition of Classic Sonic to Forces contributes basically nothing to plot – included purely for side scrolling 2D stages and possibly to entice old school Sonic fans into purchasing the game.
Overall, Sonic Forces is a below average outing at best, with fundamental selling points of the game feeling like afterthoughts introduced mid-development – the avatar being the prime example. Regardless of new gimmicks, the use of classic stages has now far exceeded any state of tolerable fatigue, with a complete lack of any originality on nearly every front. I find it frustrating that yet again, backward steps have been made in gameplay mechanics, which once again have taken a back seat, sacrificed for aesthetics and polish. I’m sure that regardless of its subpar gameplay, there will be fans who will like Forces for its stylisation, fanservice and cutscenes in which they live out fantasies of their fan characters saving the day alongside Sonic. Although Sonic fans will undoubtedly be this game’s greatest advocates, they will also constitute it’s greatest critics.
While some will think a comparison of Sonic Forces to Sonic Mania is an unfair one, I must make it because there is one very notable disparity. Both titles have their flaws, sure, but regardless, Sonic Mania still feels like a labour of love driven to success by a team with vision and purpose, and the same fire that saw Yuji Naka et al. create a world-class series in the 1990s. The current Sonic Team, on the other hand, comes across as unfocused – something akin to a chef trying to satisfy a restaurant full of angry customers. I think it’s long past time for the Sonic Team to go back to the drawing board and consider what the menu to their metaphorical restaurant was supposed to comprise – to identify what it was they aspired to create in the first place, and let the natural development process create something original and inspired.
It shouldn’t be Forced.
SECOND OPINION: DREADKNUX
Who would have thought that Sonic’s most visually impressive and canonically ambitious outing yet would also end up being one of his most tedious? In trying for an epic storyline, Sonic Team has fallen into the same trap it made with Sonic 2006 and over-egged the execution of a potentially interesting plot concept. The cutscenes are naff, Infinite is boring and the whole thing plays out like a bad anime.
Watching the story unfold is a total cringefest, but playing the game is just as bad. Uninspired level design consisting of straight lines that can be completed in seconds with minimal player engagement, with any attempts at casual, slower play rewarded with shockingly poor controls and frustrating physics. Classic Sonic feels like a lead ball, Modern Sonic slips around uncontrollably and Avatar’s stop-start Wispon gameplay is a total chore. Add to that one of the worst Sonic soundtracks this side of Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood and you have a surprising hot mess that makes you wonder what Sonic Team has been doing these last four years.
Kids will enjoy it, but anyone looking for a 3D analogue to Sonic 3 & Knuckles’ epic and atmospheric experience will simply find a corny, adolescent yawn-fest that plays terribly and sounds even worse. Mediocre.
This review of Sonic Forces was based on a review copy of the XBox One version of the game, supplied by SEGA of Europe.
Correction: The first iteration of the review incorrectly stated Shun Nakamura as Director instead of Morio Kishimoto.