Sonic 4 finally finds its voice, but is it one worth listening to
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 was a lot of things. It was Sega’s episodic New Super Mario Bros. – an attempt to retrofit new concepts in to an old framework, as a means to tap in to a nostalgic vein for those old enough to remember. Instead, Episode 1 confirmed what many die-hard Sonic fans had perhaps assumed all along: that nobody in a position of importance within Sega remembered what originally defined the Sonic franchise back in the early 90’s. Sonic 4 Episode 1 was not only a chance to wind the hype machine, but to whip it in to such a frenzy that there was no way the decidedly lukewarm digital download could hope to fulfill its lofty promises. A lot of critics didn’t get it – they’d more than likely written the Sonic franchise off years ago, and after having seen something halfway resembling a playable game, declared it a success. Episode 1 was definitely not a bad game, but it certainly wasn’t a good one, either – I myself had compared it to a poor celebrity impersonator; it sort of had the look down, but it never quite nailed the performance. Given that it was simply “Episode 1” of what could be many, what would become of “Episode 2”? Would they seize the opportunity to make a something that was more faithful to the games it was paying tribute to, or were they content with another sub-par Sonic Rush in masquerade?
Sonic 4: Episode 2 sets out to divorce itself from Episode 1’s legacy of being a “retro throwback”. Eschewing a number of Sonic’s more cut-and-dry level tropes, Episode 2 tries to play by its own tune, mixing and matching elements of past Sonic games with new concepts and a more detailed visual presentation. The end result is something that feels less like the ugly, confused baby of Sonic Rush and Sonic 1 and more like its own game – though perhaps comparisons towards the Sonic Advance games on the Gameboy Advance have become more apt. Sonic 4: Episode 1 was more like a square peg forced in to a round hole, but Episode 2 flows together much more smoothly, making it feel like a cohesive product with its own unique voice.
This is primarily due to the reintroduction of Tails, Sonic’s faithful sidekick, who accompanies the blue blur through this leg of the adventure. Tails reprises his role of being a few steps behind Sonic at any given time, but more than that, he represents a suite of new abilities that have been tightly woven in to the fabric of Episode 2: Tag Actions. By combining their strengths, Sonic and Tails can use the power of friendship to access new areas and bowl through enemies. Using Tails is deeply ingrained in much of the level design, and there are quite a few areas that can only be accessed by using a tag action to reach them. In a way, it’s the best of both worlds – you retain exclusive control of Sonic, but you also gain access to some of Tails’ unique special abilities. Unfortunately, for however cool that idea is, this is still a game co-developed by Dimps, the same guys responsible for all of the aforementioned Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush games. In addition to twitchy, react-or-die level design (which should be expected by now from these guys), there are serious limitations on how Tails can be used that go far beyond previous games that featured him, and worse yet, levels are specifically made to spotlight these limitations as much as possible. Dimps was born out of former SNK employees, a company known for making games like Metal Slug, and this legacy of arcade-style, quarter-munching difficulty has always managed to seep through in to their Sonic games at the most inopportune times. Much like Episode 1, Episode 2 falls prey to unexpected and dramatic spikes in difficulty, and most of them center around prolonged sections where you’re expected to use Tails to pilot Sonic across vast bottomless pits. If you do not deliberately and carefully meter out Tails’ flight ability with near-perfect precision, expect to throw dozens of lives away in these areas.
If those were the only sticking points with regards to difficulty, that would be acceptable, but where Episode 2 truly frustrates is in its tedious boss encounters. Boss fights in Episode 1 were simple affairs: frequently starting out as riffs on bosses from existing Sonic games and then branching out in to their own unique attack patterns. They were easy, derivative and largely not worth mentioning – outside of the tedious and frustrating final boss, which vastly overstayed its welcome. All of the boss encounters in Episode 2 follow down a similar track, often with three entirely different attack phases depending on how damaged they are. While this can be a good thing, as battles are constantly evolving, it also means that all boss encounters in Sonic 4: Episode 2 are intentionally structured to take as long as many of the levels in the game. And while levels frequently have checkpoints to ensure that you don’t lose much progress if you die, you’re not so lucky when it comes to these boss encounters. I frequently found myself getting deep in to a boss only to be killed by a new attack pattern and having to start the entire fight over from the beginning, losing 3-4 minutes in the process. It’s only made worse given the fact that each boss has a protracted introduction sequence, forcing you to wait around while things get started. Watching a scrap metal robot spend over 30 seconds assembling itself during the Oil Desert Boss is cool the first time, but by the 3rd or 4th viewing, you’re going to be begging for a way to skip to the part where you bop it on the head eight times.
It all comes back to that moment you seem to run in to a lot in Sonic games, where the game is wasting your time out of fear that it could be criticized for being too short. That was certainly the case with Episode 1 – at its $15 launch price, it felt absolutely anemic next to similarly priced, considerably more involved games like Shadow Complex (or even existing re-releases of the 16-bit Sonic games). In the year and a half since release, Episode 1 has had a permanent reduction to $10, making it a little easier to swallow. Episode 2, on the other hand, is once again debuting at $15, bringing with it some additional content to make it feel a little more worth its price. Most notably is the game’s 2 player co-op mode, with each player taking control of Sonic and Tails separately, both online or off. As is usually the case, even the worst games are made noticeably more fun when shared with a friend, and playing Episode 2 with a buddy can be a blast. Particularly memorable is how the game handles Sky Fortress Zone with two players, requiring a level of cooperative coordination that you rarely see in videogames. Unfortunately, even this mode has its own share of shortcomings, as regardless of whether or not you’re on a couch together or across a continent, the camera fights to keep both players on the same screen at all times. And despite it being offered with Tails’ debut appearance nearly 20 years ago, there are no head-to-head competitive modes – it’s co-op or bust.
For owners of both episodes, you’re afforded access to “Episode Metal”, intended to be Episode 2’s Sonic & Knuckles-style lock-on feature. Episode Metal affords you the ability to play Episode 1 stages like Splash Hill Zone as Metal Sonic, using Episode 2’s improved controls, as well as serving to fill in the blanks between Metal’s defeat at the end of Sonic CD and his reappearance in Sonic 4. Episode Metal is a pale shadow of the lock-on feature it’s trying to emulate, playing like a hastily-edited, half-finished rom hack more than anything else. But ultimately you have to look at it as something they probably didn’t have to include, and in that context it’s a decent enough distraction for the ten or so minutes it lasts – though I can’t help but wish there was more to it, as it’s interesting to see how much Episode 2’s differences in control effect Episode 1’s content.
Not that Episode 2 is a dramatic improvement control-wise over Episode 1, mind you. Between Sonic 4 and Sonic Generations, it’s clear that somebody at Sonic Team is still dedicated to reinventing the wheel rather than build from what was already proven successful two decades ago. The good news is that Episode 2 corrects enough of what was wrong with Episode 1’s controls that any remaining inaccuracies in physics will probably only matter to sticklers and perfectionists. It’s still not what you would call “fixed”, but it’s not broken enough to really matter anymore. The bad news is that while Episode 1 was a game where you played through classic Sonic levels using controls that were not designed to handle them, Episode 2 is almost the polar opposite: despite improvements to the way Sonic controls, level design offers few reasons to care – especially once you stumble in to the game’s many (and by now, typical) autopilot sequences.
But what hasn’t changed is the music – or, I guess, technically it has changed, but not in the way you would want it to. As stated in my Episode 1 review, even the worst Sonic games are typically known for having some of the best videogame music the industry has to offer. That most certainly was not the case when it came to Episode 1’s strained, faux-retro soundtrack. Episode 2 doubles down on the grating sawtooth wave synths, pushing the soundtrack further away from its roots and more towards the buzzing chiptunes that defined platforms like the Commodore 64 or ZX Spectrum. Though its compositions may be more technically complex, its melodies and themes are significantly more repetitive, and unless you stop and really listen carefully, it feels like each song only lasts a few seconds before looping in to eternity. Little of the music is enjoyable enough for this to be considered a good thing, especially for as much as you’re going to be hearing it. Sonic 4 continues to be not Jun Senoue’s finest hour.
There was a time when the Dimps Sonic games were considered to be the only games in this franchise worth playing. Unfortunately, that era was nearly a decade ago – and Sonic 4: Episode 2 still falls prey to a number of the same old cheap, frustrating bad habits that dragged its predecessor down. In spite of this, the improvements it makes to the way Sonic handles are most definitely welcome – or they would be, if the level design felt more like it benefited from the upgrades. Despite featuring some extended content, Episode 2 still struggles to justify its $15 price tag, and given the presence of a “Downloadable Content” menu option, it’s not hard to imagine we’ll be paying even more for features that probably should have been included with the game from the start. But make no mistake, Sonic 4: Episode 2 still comes out ahead of Episode 1 as a better game… it just still has a way to go before it can truly live up to the 16-bit legacy it is so desperately trying to continue.