Much like the speedy blue hedgehog that serves as its title character, Sega's upcoming Sonic and the Secret Rings has made a zippy run to release. We got our first look at the game at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo where the promising game debuted among the varied crop of new software for Nintendo's funky new platform. In keeping with the unique vibe that ran through all of the Wii software, the game used the Wii Remote to control Sonic as he sped through levels. Though we've had the chance to see the title on and off since its debut, we haven't gotten a proper look at the game. But, with its release fast approaching, Sega popped by recently to show us a near-final version of the game to give us an idea of just how it has turned out.
In many ways, Sonic and the Secret Rings offers a retro Sonic experience. Whereas the spiny hero's past few adventures have forced him to share the spotlight with various faces from the Sonic universe, Sonic and the Secret Rings takes a back-to-basics approach. The blue blur will be the only character you'll control throughout the whole adventure. Although the game goes back to its roots by keeping the spotlight on Sonic, its story takes a pretty radical departure from the standard setup. The narrative finds our hero visited by a female genie named Shahra who has a "Princess Leia moment" and pleads for his help. It seems her 'hood, the world of the Arabian Nights storybook, is having a really rough time. An evil genie named Erazor Djinn is looking to wipe Shahra's world out, one story at a time.
Never one to turn down a damsel in distress, Sonic offers his services and heads off with Shahra to take care of business. Unfortunately, his first encounter with Erazor goes pretty poorly, and he winds up getting shot in the chest with a fire arrow that is slowing burning out, like a fuse. Erazor tells the hedgehog that the only way he'll remove the arrow is if Sonic travels into the world of the Arabian Nights and collects the seven secret world rings. While helping a villain isn't typically Sonic's style, the spirited hedgehog doesn't have much in the way of a choice because his life will be "forfeit" if he doesn't bring the rings back before the arrow's fire burns out. (D'oh!)
So, with his life on the rapidly burning line, Sonic heads off to do what he does best, collect rings. Fortunately, Shahra comes along for the ride to lend a hand, which is the least she can do, considering she got him in the mess in the first place. While this story may sound like it takes Sonic far and away from the familiar crew he's run with in his previous games, you'll actually come across a number of individuals in the Arabian Nights world who are pretty close doppelgangers to Knuckles, Dr. Eggman, and others.
Once you hop into the game, you'll find that, in keeping with its storybook theme, its levels are broken into multipart chapters that feature different challenges, which open up as you progress. The first level is the Lost Prologue level, which essentially functions as the game's tutorial. Shahra will show you the ropes on Sonic's various abilities in short chapters. Though you'll play through eight short chapters initially to get the basics of controlling Sonic down, you'll actually return to the prologue a few times once you get further into the game as Sonic gains new skills.
We were able to try out a handful of different levels, set in unique areas that reimagined many signature Sonic locales with an Arabian Nights twist. All told, we checked out six levels: Lost Prologue, Sand Oasis, Dinosaur Jungle, Evil Foundry, Levitated Ruin, and Pirate Storm. As we mentioned earlier, Lost Prologue is a tutorial actually set on the pages of the storybook. The level is functional and just features a path where you'll test out Sonic's abilities. Sand Oasis is the now-familiar desert area, which eases you into the action. Dinosaur Jungle is a fanciful level that finds you tearing through a lush jungle populated with, you guessed it, dinosaurs. Evil Foundry showcased a more industrial area that was a bit out of the Arabian Nights norm and closer to the traditional look of a Sonic level. Levitated Ruin kept closer to the storybook theme but married it with the scarier elements of the sky levels from the Sonic Adventure games. Wind plays a huge factor in progressing, and you'll need to use the environment to block for you. Finally, the Pirate Storm level was an insane mix of racing and platforming set against the backdrop of an ocean wracked by a storm. You'll play through each level a number of times and try to meet various mission requirements (you'll find 100 missions in all to go through).
The gameplay in Sonic and the Secret Rings seems fairly simple at first blush. The game is essentially on rails and takes you through what appears to be a set path in each locale. You'll simply "steer" Sonic to avoid the odd obstacle in your way or jump if needed. You'll hold the Wii Remote sideways, in much the same fashion as Excitetruck, to control the adventurous hedgehog. The game's basic controls have you tilting from side to side to move Sonic as he runs forward automatically and pressing the 2 button to make him jump or slide. Tilting the remote fully backward causes him to backtrack if needed. But, before you think that the game offers some variation on Sonic R's simplistic gameplay, think again. Sonic and the Secret Rings makes some smart choices to ensure there's a modest amount of depth to keep things interesting. Sonic's patented homing attack can be performed by flicking the controller forward when an onscreen icon cycles from red to green when Sonic's in the air.
In addition to these core elements, Sonic will earn experience that will allow him to gain new skills to enhance his abilities (you'll find 100 skills to choose from). The skills can be housed in special rings Sonic can equip. Besides passive extras, like starting with five rings, the skills include special moves that rely on a "soul gauge" you'll fill by collecting specific orbs. We checked out two: a speed break, which shoots Sonic forward with a quick speed burst accompanied by a sonic boom that takes out enemies, and a time break, which is essentially a bullet time effect.
In addition to Sonic's own moves, we saw several gameplay elements come into play that are expected parts of Sonic's moves, such as grinding and bumpers that launch him in the air. A new wrinkle in the experience is flying pots you need to get airborne by pumping the Wii Remote. The combination of all of the above, as well as the presence of hidden paths and assorted collectibles you'll have to find and earn to unlock content, actually make for a good amount of stuff to do for an on-rails experience.
In addition to the single-player game, Sonic and the Secret Rings also features a party mode that supports up to four players. The fast-paced mode features a collection of 40 minigames (some of which you'll unlock by playing through the single-player game). Players will be able to choose one of several characters, several of which you'll have to unlock. The games include parasol diving, cart-racing skydiving, and vegetable skewering to name a few. Each game features pick-up-and-play mechanics that are in the Wario Ware vein of accessibility.
Sonic's visuals have come together nicely since we first saw the game. The two main levels we were familiar with, Sand Oasis and Dinosaur Jungle, featured added polish while the new areas showcased an equally sharp look and impressively fanciful designs. The game's controlled presentation allows the visuals to get an extra special bit of love resulting in smooth performance, a lush color palette, and inventive design that's interesting. Most importantly, the almost out-of-control sense of speed is always appreciated in a Sonic experience.
The audio in the game is well in line with the Sonic formula that's been in play for years but features some Middle Eastern touches in keeping with its theme. The voice is a touch on the underwhelming side, but thankfully, you can toggle several variations that include subtitles and a Japanese voice. The music is the now-expected mix of questionable rock and bouncy tunes--all with a Middle Eastern flare. The mix works well enough, although if you're not a fan of '80s rock, you may have some issues with a few tracks.
Based on what we played, Sonic and the Secret Rings is looking like a fun entry in the Sonic series. Though that may not be hard, considering how low the bar got moved with Sonic's recent Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 outing, we'll still take a polished rail game over something busted. Our sampling of levels and minigames showed much promise for the final game but, as always, we're curious to see how the experience holds up in the long haul. Still, the game makes a nice first impression and appears to recapture some of the charm lost in Sonic's most recent adventure. Sonic fans will want to keep their eyes peeled for Sonic and the Secret Rings when it ships for the Wii later this month.