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TSS @ SAGE'23: Sonic Tests His Skills in Sonic Test Labs


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Michael4Numbers’ Sonic Test Labs demo is a promising, tough-as-nails game feels like a combination of Unleashed and Adventure game play, with a healthy heaping of momentum and a dash of Jet Set Radio sprinkled in for good measure. It is built around the premise of a facility, sponsored by GUN capturing Sonic and running him through test labs to “study” how to best deal with him. Going by how he is in the game, Sonic seems to be cool with this.

At its core, Test Labs is effectively Sonic’s Adventure game play on steroids. It’s significantly faster, with much more focus on momentum, way less automation, and a trick button ripped straight out of the Rush games. To accommodate this speed and momentum, levels are much larger, with wider and longer tracks, massive slopes, and lots of branching path that either give you traversal options, or a faster, more platform-heavy way to get you through an area.  Really, in terms of level design, a lot of it doesn’t feel so different from some of the more complex areas of the 3D boost games, Unleashed included, except with a focus on momentum instead of boosting.

Of course, with this increase in speed and level complexity, players also have significantly reduced margin for error. It is very easy to die in this game. In the first level, death pits are everywhere, and just a slight miscalculation of your speed or slight delay in pushing the homing or light speed dash buttons will spell your doom many dozens of times. The game’s reliance on momentum also means that it’s very easy to simply approach an area too fast to reasonably avoid death. I died a lot when I first started playing this demo. While I’d say most of my deaths could be avoided, not all of them felt fair. The homing attack targeting reticle occasionally doesn’t appear, enemies will occasionally damage you during a homing chain, and the wall-mounted booster pads are something that’s virtually guaranteed to kill you on your first try, since you need to move Sonic into the second pad manually, with no opportunity to home in on it. I would like to see future builds adjust these .

Perhaps the worst offender in this game is the machine gun turret that starts targeting you in the middle of the first level, which feels borderline RNG. There is simply no reliable way to avoid being hit by this thing beyond either hoping it fires while it doesn’t have you in its line of sight, or if you kill your own momentum and simply wait behind the walls until its safe to move. In a game where the challenges and obstacles are primarily things you can reliably practice at navigating, this obstacle feels uniquely out of place, and I would not mind seeing it nixed in a future build, or at least adjusted to punish players for moving too slow.

Unfair murder turret aside though, Sonic Test Labs’ most egregious challenges aren’t too much worse than what you’d expect to see in any of the more difficult Sonic games, and the well placed check points and lack of lives make the unavoidable deaths easier to stomach. After about a half hour, I wasn’t just beating Test Labs, I was crushing it, and it’s easily one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had in a Sonic game. The game has an absolutely excellent sense of flow once you’ve had some time to practice the layouts. I felt exhilarated as I started jumping from platform to platform, nailing light speed dashes and smashing barrels into enemies all while constantly performing tricks and keeping up my momentum through the whole thing. After every playthrough I felt the drive to do better, to perfect my run and figure out how to finally avoid the areas that stop me in my tracks.

As tight as the design is for the first stage, I’ll admit the second one doesn’t quite do it for me. While it features far fewer death pits, the level design is also a little more simplistic, and missing your chance to make it to the level’s upper paths can leave you just running down a straight road or underneath a bridge with little to do for a little too long. The automated sequence near the start where you can shoot yourself in the air and potentially home in on robots and do a trick through the middle of a helicopter also doesn’t really seem to work reliably.

Sonic Test Labs also has a great atmosphere and superb sense of style that seems to be at least loosely inspired by Jet Set Radio. This gives it a very distinctive look amongst Sonic fan games. The demo’s soundtrack is also quite solid!

Sonic Test Labs is a superb effort, and a SAGE entry I highly recommend for anyone who’s after a 3D Sonic game with a little more challenge. This project will be one to watch, folks! Here’s hoping this SAGE won’t be its last! You can download it here.

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Hiya! I'm the level designer for Spoil Rig Zone for this game! Just wanted to say thanks for playing our game and taking the time to give such a thorough and thoughtful review! The reception and feedback on this game has been way better than I ever expected. <3

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