From its opening stage, Sonic Forces displays a number of issues that are emblematic of the journey ahead: Its insistent tutorial messages interrupt your initial sprint down a winding road, the cinematic transition sequences that take you from one path the next that renders you an observer, not an active participant, and right as you're about to settle into the glee of your mad dash forward, the stage ends. In this 3D Sonic game, developer Sonic Team attempts to iterate upon the formula of games like Sonic Generations and Sonic Colors, but it falls short due to frustrating design choices and inconsistent level design. Even its most entertaining moments come with caveats.
The game's story once again sees Sonic getting involved in a battle against Dr. Eggman--this time over the fate of the world. The conniving scientist recruits the expertise of a powerful entity known as Infinite, who he uses to make short work of the blue hedgehog. Six months pass and Dr. Eggman has nearly taken over the entire planet, leaving Sonic and his friends in a tough position. To combat the threat, a ragtag group of freedom fighters consisting of Sonic, a younger version of himself, most of his supporting cast, and a new character you personally create and customize--simply named "the Rookie"--come together.
At first, Sonic Forces' emphasis on story seems like a refreshing shift from the predominantly simple plot lines of recent games in the series. However, even though the heightened stakes provide an interesting power shift, they never culminate into anything interesting or impactful. It's only in Sonic Forces' levity where it manages to be somewhat entertaining, turning to puns or brief comedic situations to elicit a snicker, but all too infrequently.
Throughout your adventure, you'll switch back and forth between playing as either Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic, or your custom character. Both Classic and Modern Sonic play similarly to their past iterations, with some minor additions: Modern Sonic has a double-jump and Classic Sonic comes equipped with Sonic Mania's Drop Dash ability; both are welcome tools that better distinguish the two hedgehogs. But the biggest addition to the formula is your custom character, who sports special weapons called Wispons that grant unique offensive and movement abilities. For example, the Drill Wispon allows you to quickly charge through foes or ride up and down walls. All three characters play distinctly from one another, and there are fleeting thrills to be had in plowing through minions with a speed boost or using a homing attack on a series of flying robots to quickly clear a path towards the finish line. However, the excitement of these high speed escapades are held back by clunky platforming and unwieldy movement.
During platforming and speed sequences, you frequently plummet down bottomless pits due to how abruptly your character builds up speed before a jump or how a road's bumpers aren't made clear. While death is to be expected, the level design repeatedly miscommunicates the placement of oncoming hazards and the timing required to avoid them. Admittedly, practice means you inevitably develop the reflexes demanded of you over time, but even with experience, the game's inconsistencies mean you'll often end up stuck on a ramp mid-run or make a double-jump that simply doesn't flow the way you want. Sonic Forces' sense of control is erratic and unreliable, resulting in a wealth of unintentional deaths and bizarre collisions with environmental hazards.
Sonic Forces' level design does little to accommodate your need for speed. Although Modern Sonic and your custom character have abilities that encourage you to push forward at a blistering pace, it's often smarter to slow down. Telegraphing the right time to go fast has always been a major design issue in the series, but it's magnified here, where obstacles and platforming sequences that require slower, more methodical movements aren't as explicitly signposted as they should be. Classic Sonic's strictly side-scrolling stages fair better in this regard, but only by a little. The game does a poor job of teaching you the flow of its design, instead relying on multiple frustrating and unfair deaths to educate you on the intricacies of a stage's pacing.
There's a pervading sense of monotony across Sonic Forces' seven unremarkable worlds. Nearly all the obstacles you encounter are rehashes of concepts and mechanics from previous games; lane-based level design, grind rails, speed boost sections, and side-scrolling platforming sequences all make a return. A set-piece sometimes breaks up the pace, but these encounters usually boil down to simplistic quick-time events that make you feel passive to the action happening on-screen. Multiple routes or lanes in a stage create the illusion of branching paths, but they're so brief that they feel more like quick diversions than actual alternate pathways. It doesn't help that stages are also incredibly short, typically clocking in at two-and-a-half minutes. With cutscenes before and after each stage, you can't help but wish there was a little more ground to cover before reaching the finish line.
Your custom character's Wispons add some variety to the mechanics, but even those are limited, as there are only a couple that offer practical benefits. For instance, the Lightning Wispon allows you to zip through a line of rings, often leading you to alternate routes in a stage. Out of the seven Wispons available, you're likely to stick to using one or two, as there's rarely any incentive to experiment once you've grown accustomed to how a couple work.
In terms of performance, Sonic Forces runs smoothly at 60 frames per second on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. The Switch version, however, runs at 30 frames per second and suffers from a downgrade in visuals comparatively while docked or undocked. While tolerable, the higher frame rate of the other versions gives them a significant bump over the game's performance on Switch.
It'd be fair to write Sonic Forces off as another weak entry in the series. It's numerous shortcomings make for an uneven, often frustrating gameplay experience. However, knowledge of its various flaws can make for a smoother second run through. In replaying for S-ranks it's possible to use your accumulated knowledge of a stage's hazards and its most illogical pitfalls to better your experiences. It was rewarding and enjoyable to go back to older stages to take the most efficient routes, knowing precisely when to increase Sonic's speed to earn faster times. That said, acquiring S-ranks and completing challenges isn't entirely difficult, which makes the endeavor of replaying stages short lived, especially considering how brief stages can be. And speed running or not, Sonic Forces' ill-designed stages and poor handling are still major obstacles that detract from your time spent playing.
For years the Sonic series has come up short in its 3D games. It wasn't until Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations that the series was able to grasp a semblance of quality that could change the perception of the series as a whole for the better. Sonic Forces ultimately fails to advance the mechanics of previously successful 3D Sonic games, or present them in their best light. A mediocre platformer at best, Sonic Forces manages to do nothing more than reinforce long held stereotypes against Sega's beloved blue blur.