Sonic the Hedgehog and the third dimension have a very love-hate relationship with each other. When everything clicks, Sonic’s 3D outings offer some of the most fast-paced, fun, and frenetic gameplay around, but Sonic has also been known to star in some real stinkers (Sonic ‘06 and the more recent Sonic Boom both come to mind). Sonic Forces stoops nowhere near as low as those games at any point in its 5-10 hour playtime, but several problems, ranging from easy to overlook to rather major, keep it from achieving the greatness of Sonic’s best games.
We’ll start with the story, or what story there is anyway. Now, the Sonic series has rarely, if ever, been praised for its riveting plotlines, (In fact, the truth is largely the opposite). However, the tale presented in Sonic Forces is in a totally different league of absurdity. Eggman is back, and back with a vengeance. Such a vengeance, it turns out, that he has now militarily taken over the entire world. The game even opens with Eggman’s new creation, known as “Infinite”, beating Sonic silly. In fact, for the first part of the game, the Blue Blur is even presumed dead. This dark tone resonates throughout the entire game, and rather than being off-putting, as it so easily could have been, I actually found it ironically funny and charming. Something about these cute and cuddly characters talking about resolve against impossible odds and the horrors of war is just so wrong it’s right. Besides, after all is said and done, the plot ends up just being yet another “Eggman is bad and we must stop him” plot. The story also only shows up in short (and skippable) cutscenes spliced in between levels, so players should be able to ignore it easily enough if they aren’t as bewitched by its “unique qualities” as I was.
Graphically, the game fares off very well. It has been fairly well publicised at this point that the Nintendo Switch seems to have gotten the short end of the stick with Sega’s latest venture. The frame rate, for example, is capped at 30fps here against the PS4 and Xbox One’s 60, and other settings such as depth of field and resolution have been toned down a bit. Ultimately though, the game still looks great, even with these limitations in place. Environments are very kinetic, full of dynamic moving set pieces and dense background and foreground details. Character models, level geometry, and animations are all up to snuff as well and it all blends together to make a very crisp, clean package on any platform you choose. The audio side of things is, unfortunately, much more of a mixed bag. Though there are several themes that stick out as memorable, most of them simply fade into the background and a select few are just downright irritating.
It is in the gameplay, however, where Sonic Forces simply starts to unravel, and it’s a real shame too, as there are fleeting glimpses of a fantastic game in here. Players will control three different characters (Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic, and a player created Avatar character) throughout the course of the game's 30+ stages, each with different gimmicks and changes to the same base gameplay. The problem then, is that sometimes these characters fail to properly differentiate themselves from one another, and even when they do, they each come with their own unique issues.
Let’s tackle Modern Sonic First. Sonic Forces marks the return of what fans have dubbed the “boost formula”, featured here for the first time since 2011’s Sonic Generations. However, this feels less like a return to form for the series, and more like a first attempt. Sonic has a distinct, transfer truck-like latency to his control that simply wasn’t there in previous “boost formula” games. It leaves us to wonder why Sonic Team wouldn’t have just recycled the exact same control physics from Generations, though I’m sure they had their reasons. A deeper problem lies in the jumping physics though. Every now and then, the high octane action is slowed down in favor of some slower, platform focused segments. The only issue is that you almost never know whether Sonic will get more vertical height or horizontal distance from his jump, leading to either overshooting or undershooting jumps seemingly at random.
This issue with jump physics applies across the board in Sonic Forces, and makes precise platforming as any of the three characters an exercise in not only patience, but also frustration. And the problem is only magnified in the Classic Sonic sections, which stand as the worst part of the game bar-none. Restricted to only 2D side-scrolling, Classic Sonic is far too sluggish and heavy-feeling to pull off even the most rudimentary of jumps with any kind of consistency or confidence.
This leaves the Avatar, which Sega has publicized as Forces’ main marketing point. Giving credit where it’s due, the idea of creating your own character is charming, if a bit novel, and it is handled surprisingly well here. There are hundreds of different custom items to use on your avatar leading to literally thousands of different combinations. Gameplay integration is also seamless, as your character appears in game exactly as he/she does in the editor, and is even smoothly integrated into cutscenes. The Avatar gameplay also fares off the best, surprising as that may be. The introduction of the Wispon, a device which can take on a variety of different powers and abilities, gives the avatar a more dynamic way of not only combatting enemies, but traversing environments as well. Because of this, the Avatar levels end up having the most diverse and interesting designs the game has to offer, injecting some much needed variety into a game that can become stale all too easily.
This leads to the main complaint I have against this game, the level design. What keeps this game from reaching the heights of a game such as, say, Sonic Generations, is that most of the stages on offer here fall into two categories; levels that can be completed on auto-pilot, and levels that are flat-out bad. Though there are two or three standouts, the hard truth is that most of this game is bland, uninspired, or, in rare cases, simply abysmal in its design. Straight lines full of enemies that amount to nothing more than boost fodder, platforming sections full of comically tiny platforms over one-hit kill pits, and nearly unavoidable hazards are unfortunately all too common in Sonic Forces, forever cementing it as a game that simply doesn’t have a chance of attaining the greatness of other, much better designed sonic offerings.
It’s all such a shame. The boost gameplay has been so successful in the past, and many fan’s eyes lit up at the announcement of Sonic Team revisiting the concept after a six year hiatus. However, when all is said and done, Sonic Forces is a game that shows potential, but simply lacks the ability to pull it all together into a great, (or sometimes even fun), experience. Sonic Forces is not fundamentally broken, but it is deeply, deeply flawed. The occasional glimpses of a fantastic game that show themselves from time to time may be enough to win over the most die-hard of fans, but for the rest of us, it may be too early to declare that the Blue Blur is truly back. Oh well, there’s always next time.