Sonic 4 Episode 1 Review
The decline of Sonic in videogames is one that pretty much anyone should know about by now. The third dimension was the approaching car that crashed into the Hedgehog, so to speak, and for years fans had to put up with a loudmouthed and irritating character with somehow more irritating support characters in games that were borderline unplayable. The developers had forgotten why Sonic the Hedgehog was even popular in the first place, simply choosing to let the thing die in the middle of the road while they pumped its blood out and argued over which kidney was healthier to harvest. A lifeline was provided in the Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush games which managed to pull it back on track, reducing the amount of characters in the game and bringing it back to clever platforming, great level design and speed. However, this was all ruined by further pointless milking titles, culminating in that whole Werehog thing which was as much of a tumour for the Sonic franchise as it was in the brains of every single bloody person who decided to greenlight the idea.
Fanboys decided enough was enough, and something had to be done. No more 3D, we want Sonic back to his former 2D side-scrolling platforming ways. No more irritating support characters, no more talking, cutscenes, faux-open worlds or broken camera angles ruining platforming. “We want Sonic 4!”, they cried, and Sega answered their cry. Of course, as soon as this happened, Sonic fanboys left and right were bitching horrendously about simply everything they could, to the point where whole fansites closed down. “But, his eyes are green! His legs are too long! It doesn’t look right! The running animations are all wrong! He has a homing attack and it’s going to ruin the entire game! His eyes are green! Oh my god there’s a mine-cart level, let’s bitch about it and claim it’s going to kill the entire game! It’s coming in four parts? What a ripoff! HIS EYES ARE GREEN! We don’t want Sonic 4!”
With nothing but screenshots causing more backlash and hate than Josef Fritzl’s Underground Fun, there was simply no way that Sega was going to please its fans. Even if they did concede and change things so that the fans would be more receptive to the game, it simply gained them even more ire for some strange reason. However, now the game is actually out for PlayStation Network, iPhone, Wiiware and Xbox Live Arcade, how does it rank up? Does it deserve all the hate and ire from the fans, or is it a game that truly deserves the title of Sonic 4 and appeals to fans and newcomers alike?
Straight from the start, Sega did what they could to make the game pay attention to its retro-roots with the classic “SEGA!” chant at the beginning follows with Sonic wagging his finger at you. Classic sounds follow in the gameplay, with most of the old sounds popping up to properly put you into the feel of it, and it immediately took me back to countless hours of my youth wasted playing Sonic 1 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Even the Zones and boss fights are heavily based on Zones and battles of yore, helping ease you back into the mantle by giving you a bunch of familiar surroundings to enjoy yourself in. The controls are simple; you use the left control stick to move Sonic, and you use A or B to jump, and press it again when he’s airborne to use a homing attack.
The Homing Attack is a pretty tricky thing to address due to the fact that many people felt that its inclusion would horribly simplify the game, that it’d remove the challenge of dispatching enemies, would be tacked on and that the level design, gameplay and difficulty would all be compromised by including it. As it goes, I mostly felt that the game actually gained a much better nuance due to the attack’s inclusion. What happens is that when Sonic jumps, a target will show up and lock on to the closest enemy, box or spring, and pressing the jump button again will cause Sonic to charge into the target, either destroying it or bouncing off it. Successfully doing so will allow you to use another attack, allowing you to chain enemy or spring combos for big points or speed. However, get the timing wrong or use it without a target and Sonic will just kind of flop from the air and it becomes a hindrance if you over-rely on it. While it’s not as easy as it sounds, because it’s all a matter of timing and a failure to get it right can sometimes be disastrous, it also takes very little time to get the timing right which ultimately removes the challenge but gives you a much greater sense of flow which, depending on your outlook, makes for much greater satisfaction in the gameplay. Eventually this comes as naturally as jumping and, thanks to the level designs having alternative routes which can be accessed by its use, also means that it feels like a genuine addition, rather than one tacked on for the sake of it. However, it’s not all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for it as in most cases it turns Boss battles into an absolute joke. Jumping into them then homing attacking straight after means that they can sometimes take half the time they used to and, in those particular battles, means you can beat them in less than thirty seconds so it’s clear that those bosses should probably have been scaled accordingly. Otherwise, the homing attack is a welcome addition that serves only to bolster the gameplay, rather than bollock it.
When starting up the game, Splash Hill Zone serves as a perfect reintroduction to the series with amazing level design that rewards not only clever platforming, but exploration and speed. In other words, everything the old games stood for. It showed heavily that a lot of love and time went into the Zone and also allows so much variety in your gameplay that you feel actively encouraged to push the boundaries and test your limits. This is exacerbated in the Time Attack mode wherein you have one life and the goal is to reach the end of the stage as fast as you can. Sadly you don’t really gain anything other than progress towards a couple of achievements if that’s your thing, or potential bragging rights and rivalries against friends, but the mode is a fun way to approach the levels differently and feels amazing in the game’s first Zone. Your entire time in the Splash Hill Zone is basically retro gaming bliss and some amazing fun that made me want to claim the game had outshone its predecessors from the outset.
Then the rest of the game happened.
One way I could choose to describe what seems to happen to the rest of the game after the pure bliss that is the beginning is if, shortly after the invention of sliced bread, the inventor then decided to cut slices in the bread with a hammer. The gameplay is completely and fundamentally sound, works like a dream most of the time and when it flows it feels like how Sonic used to be, but you could have the most amazing shooting mechanics in a game and it’ll all be wasted if your game takes place entirely inside Acme Box Factory. As much as the gameplay needs to be what sells your game and makes it great, you need the level design to back it up and compliment it. A game with fantastic gameplay and the level designs to back it up makes a fantastic game. A game with fantastic gameplay and level designs which act as a detriment to the game and detract from the gameplay’s quality is a wasted opportunity. Sadly, Sonic Four Episode One is the latter.
The level design does very little to help any first time players, and the later stages are filled with pitfalls, cheap enemy placement and a need to have had previous experience with the game, which’ll anger you as it comes across as the game punishing you for no reason. Do you remember all those countless hours spent in psychic school learning to predict the future and knowing what’s about to happen to you? Well, if you’re like everyone else and not gifted with that ability and you also have the disadvantage of not having personally worked on the game, then the first time playing is going to be a punishing experience. In future, anyone learning about games will be pointed to Sonic 4 Episode 1 as the main example of how you botch potentially great levels with needless gimmicks, cheap enemies and a denial of speed or the chance for the gameplay to shine through.
While Sonic games aren’t all about the speed, that speed is supposed to feel like a bonus for progressing through the levels error-free and helps everything click into place. It’s your reward for being good at the game and the way the game then flows helps it to become such a memorable experience. While it isn’t essential to the experience, it becomes an incentive to keep trying harder, like dessert after a tasty meal. Later in the game, wanting such a treat met with the cold slap of disappointment until the point I couldn’t feel my face anymore.
With cannons you won’t know where to fire, having to light torches in areas you’ve never been before with enemies popping up to break your flow and an ever-advancing wall of doom being amongst the gameplay gimmicks that ruin the later acts, I struggle to think of another game that’s so purposely and needlessly unfair to people playing through their first time. Some acts become so unfair to the player that I wondered whether they’d even want to play them through a second time and, when repeating later stages again, I often felt a lot of scorn for the first play through and actually found that playing through a few times didn’t always help as much as expected.
Another example of the inherent awkwardness is a section where you have to rotate a pool exactly as the developers wanted you to do it or you’ll be stabbed by barely visible spikes a clear few centimetres away from you. Or drown. The only way to find out how you do it is by dieing enough times to figure it out yourself. Granted, I didn’t expect the game to be a cakewalk but I didn’t expect it to walk all over the cake, either. The levels can be filled with frustrating elements that don’t innovate but only annoy, or design choices that simply baffle you. The Lost Labyrinth boss battle restarts from the beginning if you fail, but before fighting the boss, you’re expected to run through the same first minute or two every time before the battle where the walls will randomly close in. Again, there’s no way of knowing the safe way to proceed without having died repeatedly to find out. Mad Gear Zone Act Three is a race against a wall about to crush you, with pitfalls, traps and paths ahead and there’s no way of knowing how to take it properly yet your punishment for making a single wrong move is Sonic being crushed enough times to make you give up and spend the night helping your dad beat Arkham Asylum instead.
The levels at times demand a level of precision which the controls and physics are sometimes unable to give you. Take the example I just gave, even when you know what you’re doing on that level, you can still mess up so easily because the game will decide that instead of spin dashing, you want to crouch and then jump, or because Sonic won’t jump precisely when you want him to you’ll find yourself entering into a homing attack off the stage. Even if you are precise with the admittedly rare control gaffes, the level can still kill you anyway because the designers are still pissed you took their mothers out for a nice seafood dinner and then never called them again. These aren’t the only examples I can think of, and indeed I had to cut out extra examples to avoid it becoming a laundry list of every moment I felt scorned or let down after such a promising beginning.
By no means are all of the acts after Splash Hill Zone bad. For example, Casino Street Act Two has some of the greatest and most inventive level design, with Sonic running across a deck of cards being one of the most memorable parts of the game until the level ruins it with sections where you have to jump across randomly flipping cards. The mine cart section they cut down due to fan backlash was another, albeit too brief, highlight of my experience. When it comes down to it, the number of blunderingly stupid decisions taken with later acts far outweigh the brilliant ideas. The first Zone was such an amazing experience to me that it was disappointing to know that most of the later levels squander what amazing gameplay they have with pointless additions that only detract.
It isn’t just that playing through saps you of all your lives and becomes difficult to play because you have to ration your lives either, because extra lives are so easy to gain that even giving you the concept of a finite amount of lives just ends up being a complete and utter joke. Simply playing the second act of the Casino Nights Zone can give you more than ten lives on an average run-through and the game gives you an achievement for getting more than ninety-nine lives overall. It just makes the concept of extra lives completely laughable and pointless, especially when it’s something that could have easily been addressed by making lives rarer or worth more and not just a generic token. It also serves to exacerbate the issue of the level designs because while it doesn’t make you feel like you’re punished too harshly, the abundance of lives just makes you more frustrated than anything else. It cements home the image that the levels are cheap rather than challenging, and ruins your enjoyment because it makes it all seem so worthless and will serve to ultimately annoy you.
I mentioned not too long ago that at one point I got so aggravated with the game that I went off to go and do something else. It’s something that eventually happened more than once when the frustration with the game became too much to handle. A case of me not being good enough? Possibly so, but Sonic 4 rarely has that fine balance of challenge where upon death you feel inclined to continue and persevere, and instead mostly has a difficulty level wherein the challenge feels artificial and stops being fun. If the game does start to annoy you like it did me, don’t try to tackle it all at once. Go through a couple of levels, then if you become too annoyed, go back to any previous acts, time attacks or special zones you enjoyed for some catharsis, or just do something else and take some regular breaks in your gameplay.
A lot of the game’s replay value also comes from trying to acquire all of the Chaos Emeralds. Catching them all allows you to unlock Super Sonic after collecting a certain amount of rings in each act and then pressing the X or Y button. Special Stages are a load of fun, and actually get that efficient balance of fun and difficulty. In each special stage, Sonic is consistently falling, and you have to rotate the stage to allow Sonic to collect enough rings to proceed to each part, avoid the bumpers or the exclamation marks which’ll eject you out of the stage and race towards and collect the Chaos Emerald before the time runs out. The later stages have a challenge because the difficulty shift feels more natural and more often than not comes down to the player making mistakes and striving to improve rather than being messed over by outside factors. I ended up spending a lot of time trying to attain perfect runs through the levels as well as gathering the fifty rings necessary to unlock the special stages to get the Chaos Emeralds instead of completing the game.
Not that the end of the game is particularly amazing or anything. It’s the typical “just face slightly harder versions of every boss you’ve faced so far at once” followed by a tense battle with a giant robot. It’s a lacklustre end to the episode considering and, while it contains a healthy level of challenge, you can’t help but feel disappointed by the ending and wish there was just a bit more to it. I guess it’s a disadvantage of being the end of the first of four episodes, but there’s more than just completing the game with a few challenging achievements encouraging you to do the time attacks and special stages. There are enough serviceable achievements, which will cause a fair bit of grinding to max out, if you’re into that sort of thing.
For anyone looking for an entrance into the Sonic series with this game, it’d be hard to recommend. It’d be harder still to recommend with the steep 1200 MS entry fee. Is it worth it for Sonic fans, and is it a worthy sequel to the original Sonic the Hedgehog series? The groundwork is there, absolutely, but I think it’s a question that can be best answered when later episodes are released and we are given a better sense of the full game. It could just be that the first episode was filled with stuff not good enough for later instalments and that they could avoid all of the problems this episode subjects you to. There’s simply no way to judge that until they come out and it’d be a big faux-pas to judge Episode 1 more optimistically in the hopes later episodes will be a bigger improvement and way more worth your time and attention.Pros
- Back to basics gameplay works wonders.
- The game looks consistently shiny and beautiful with some amazing effects.
- Simplistic controls mean the game is easy to get into and the homing attack is a welcome addition that fits in perfectly.
- Sonic at speed and in full flow feels like an amazing bonus.
- Splash Hill Zone is an amazing introduction which showcases the gameplay at its purest.
- Some amazing highlights that are sadly too brief.
- A lot of replay value keeps you coming back for more.
- The groundwork for some amazing future episodes.
- Special Stages have a great balance of fun and challenge.
- Feels like a great tribute and a welcome return to the original Sonic the Hedgehog series.
- Music isn't exactly memorable, I found I had to put it on mute a couple times to avoid a potential headache.
- Level designs later on are filled with frustrating gimmicks and poor design choices.
- Game tries to break and kill the flow way too often.
- Cheap enemy placements and an assumption you're psychic makes the challenge artificial rather than natural.
- Having a finite amount of lives is laughably ludicrous.
- Seems to actively punish you the first few times you attempt a level.
- Difficulty tends to frustrate rather than keep you coming back for more.
- Can be beaten in an afternoon.
- Lacklustre ending leaves you feeling slightly hollow.
- Might be hard to swallow at 1200 points.
Imagine this scenario: You're eating one of Markuz's incredibly delicious steak pies. It's filled with tons of meat and gravy, covered in vegetables and a rich pastry. It's filling and delicious and comes with awesome potatoes. However, for some unknown reason he's also filled the pie with tiny invisible mousetraps that won't activate until they're already inside your mouth. There's no way of knowing how many of the invisible bastards he's put in there until you eat it, yet without them the pie is an amazing culinary experience; one you want to savour and can't help wanting to fall in love with. Each snap further dulls your taste buds, draws a little blood and numbs the feeling in your tongue and smothers the taste of the meal.
Afterwards you're not going to remember how the pastry lightly flaked, how delicious and tender the meat was inside, and how crumbly those potatoes were; you're going to remember those mousetraps repeatedly snapping down on your tongue, causing you pain and ruining the dinner. You won't remember it as a gorgeous meal created by a great chef, only as something you looked forward to and were left with a bruised and bleeding tongue for the privilege.
Now imagine how you'd describe the experience if someone else wanted to know if that pie was worth eating, and you have exactly the same problem I do right now with Sonic Four: Episode One. Considering everything I've told you, what would your answer be?
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