SEGA have clearly tried very hard to refine the whole Sonic experience and Sonic Lost World certainly brings the 3D games closer to playing and looking like the 2D outings. Technically the direction this game takes should work really well, but there's so much that's still left unrefined that the game as a whole is too often a real chore to play.
Sonic's latest adventure starts off promisingly. Dr "EGGMAN" Robotnik kidnaps some helpless animals again, and Sonic ends up landing on a strange floating world as a consequence of trying to get them back. The mysterious setting allows Sonic Lost World to break free from the confines of the recent games, and as such, things are even more surreal than usual. The art direction is unashamedly wacky, and the game boasts Mario Galaxy-esque gravity based game play which wouldn't normally be explainable if Sonic were still on Earth.
The game plays similarly to Sonic's stages in the Adventure series, but with the camera style of the more recent games (Unleashed, Colours and Generations). The game also adds some interesting features to the mix which spice up the action and feel surprisingly natural.
First off, the boost manoeuvre is now gone. Instead, Sonic has been equipped with parkour moves. What's parkour you say? Well, it's summed up as the ability to climb, vault, wall jump and wall run. This means Sonic is much better at making his way through the games various stages as instead of having to laboriously jump over things repeatedly, Sonic can just climb up them if they're small enough and continue running so long as the [ZR] button is held. It also means that you can choose to take different paths and access secret areas if you master these abilities. It's not all optional though, as many stages require you to use these skills, though they are easy enough to grasp for what's required.
Secondly, Sonic now only runs at full speed if [ZR] is held whilst pushing the left stick. If the button isn't held, Sonic will move at a slight jog instead, which makes some platforming sections a lot easier and gives you greater control. Whilst this sounds odd, it feels great. As well as this, holding [ZR] on the spot breaks Sonic out in his classic Super-Peel Out - a standing version of his old Spin-Dash move which also returns and is activated with the [ZL] button instead and works in the same way as the original games.
The game makes use of the Wii U's features and allows you to swap items you've collected (like a shield or 10-Ring box) with people in the MiiVerse, which can then be used in game to help you in times of need. Some items also use the gyro-sensors or the touch screen on the gamepad, though the latter does feel unnecessary and tacked-on. As with most Wii U games, you can also solely play on the Gamepad too, which for me felt better for the 2D stages.
As mentioned earlier, the games art direction is great. SEGA have gone back to the roots of the series and everything looks like it was ripped straight from the cartridges of the classic games. There's chequered hills, loop-de-loops, mystic caves full of various patterned shapes, snowy mountains, glistening beaches, and even fiery volcanic streams. Everything is crisps and vibrant, and the makers have really gone out of their way to ensure that everything is pixel perfect. There are some fantastic lighting and transparency effects, and the textures and polygon count are particularly high- there's a scene where a giant Caterkiller enemy bursts from the ground , and every segment of its body is perfectly round and shiny. The whole games looks amazing, that's for sure.
The same applies to the soundtrack, which is one of the best soundtracks in a Sonic game since the Mega Drive entries. SEGA have gone to great lengths to ensure the music is catchy, and the tunes sit right in the background matching the onscreen locations as they should. The sound effects are also pretty retro, and many recent generic sounds have been replaced with ones from the classic games giving you a greater feeling that you're really playing a Sonic game. The voice acting is great too.
Whilst it sounds all too good to be true so far, that's because it is. Sonic Lost World may have a great story, brilliant sound and music and nice new features, but it suffers from an overall lack of coherence in the game play department.
It's all good and well Sonic The Hedgehog having new ways to traverse the environments, but when the environments after the first Zone comprise of continuous bottomless pits mixed with badly placed enemies and confusing level design, everything good added to the game almost completely goes out of the window. Players are expected to have lightning reflexes and a masterful understanding of the physics of the game prior to encountering such situations before they arise and as such, deaths are frequent.
Because Sonic Lost World mixes 2D and 3D game play, it's a completely different kettle of fish when trying to angle jumps in either plane due to the camera changes. Not only that, but physics change in different environments (for example, Sonic jumps longer distances when on rails, and twirls in a locked direction on ice when jumping), something that you'll only realise after the game throws you head on in to a difficult section with no warning about what is about to happen.
In fact, Sonic Lost World fails to warn you about pretty much everything.
There's a level that's completely comprised of dodging missiles whilst riding the wind through the air. As I reached the mini boss of the level, it started firing missiles which I then instinctively dodged, only to be killed by the enemy's advancement instead. It took four deaths to realise that Sonic was actually required to fly in to the rockets and somehow knock them back at the boss. It's not like Sonic games haven't done this before, but when they have, it's always been as Super Sonic and furthermore invincible so there's some obvious indicator that it's what you're meant to do.
There's another later level that starts off by beckoning you to run in to a boost pad, which then launches you off the side of the level in to a bottomless pit right at the very beginning of the stage. Again, there's no indication of what you're meant to do until you've already died, and the camera angle completely obscures your view of the deadly pit because it's so close to the ground. There are a tonne of examples where these sort of things happen, and it's just completely unacceptable. Some obstacles even insta-kill you if you have rings, which makes the game all the more frustrating, and these aren't obvious things like being crushed to death, these are minor obstacles like mine carts with bombs in them which in any other Sonic game would just spill your rings all over the place.
Oh, but It doesn't stop there though. There are quite a number of other 'unpleasantries' in the game which induce feelings of rage and despair. For one, the homing attack is semi-broken. There are times when it flashes up for Sonic to hit an enemy and pressing the action button instead flips Sonic in mid-air, often times landing him on the enemy, or in a death pit.
The wall-running system is also unrefined. When you can actually get Sonic to wall run in the 3D stages, you'll have trouble mastering it because there's no practise areas beforehand. In 2D it's much simpler, though Sonic often clips on to walls and sticks to them when you don't want him to, sometimes with negative consequences.
Sonic also controls oddly when jumping which is more than noticeable in the tricky platforming sections of the 2D areas. Over-jumped a pit? Well, you can't just press back to make him curve inward as he quickly twitches in the opposite direction, meaning that you'll often die by either overshooting or undershooting a platform, sometimes both in the very same jump. Also, at least half of the Wisp power-ups (which for some reason returned in this game without explanation) are extremely hard to control and the explanations that are given for them make little to no sense. Again, because the game never lets you practise using power-ups, you'll be stuck trying to figure out the buttons midway over a deadly pit or when trying to obtain an item or collectible.
Lastly, some stages consist purely of what I would call mini games which feel like little more than boring ways to flesh out the length of the game. There's an incredibly disheartening level where Sonic is stuck inside a giant snowball and has to roll around Super Monkey Ball style. Whilst it sounds cool, it lasts an entire level and forces narrow ledges at you combined with difficult to avoid enemies en-masse.
Despite all this though, when the game flows, it flows really well! With such great positives and such disappointing negatives, Sonic Lost World is a game that becomes easy to like, but impossible to love. The first levels of every Zone are a joy, and some of the 2D stages are truly awesome. For the majority of the time the controls work really well and the whole parkour system is refreshing and intuitive. Before I bought the game, I was secretly worried that pressing a button to run would feel weird and defeat the whole point of playing a Sonic game, but it's actually really well executed.
There's a nice little two-player race mode and a co-op mode where another player uses a remote controlled vehicle to assist Sonic. An online ranked Time Attack system is present too, which seems popular on the MiiVerse. In fact, there's so many little touches in the game that would make veterans happy, from the way Sonics' feet twirl when sprinting to the inclusion of bonus stages once again that show that this game is a solid effort by SEGA... and that's where the real problem lies.
The flaws of this game are so obvious it becomes difficult to swallow that the team behind it didn't realise this and adjust the level design and difficulty to make the game both fairer and more fun to play before release. The fact that check points in later levels are few and far between and that the 'lives system' still even exists only to frustrate players shows that the people who design the games still can't fully grasp what makes a good game. There's a difference between challenging and unfair, and it's worrying that over 20 main games later, Sonics' creators still haven't mastered this, worrying more so when the previous two games designs were so excellent.
If you're a persistent and forgiving person who is happy to play half a game based on trial and error and thus repeat the same sections of various levels again and again, then Sonic Lost World is for you. If you really like Sonic or platforming games, you may be willing to give this game a try. It's certainly not a bad game, and it's one of the cheaper Wii U games out there, but at the time of writing, Super Mario 3D World is on the horizon which might be a fairer and less anger-inducing game to play.