Platforms: Switch (reviewed), Xbox One, PS4, PC
Sonic Team… what went wrong? When did you forget how to make Sonic games? Sonic Forces should have been great! You had a decent skeleton of a plot, some great ideas for mechanics, and a new character creation hook that was bound to suck in anyone who has a DeviantArt account. But you forgot some key things such as functionality, polish, replay value, and fun!
No One Wanted a Serious Sonic
Dr. Eggman is back and he has turned the Phantom Ruby (the MacGuffin from Sonic Mania) into a weird masked fox robot called Infinite. Using Infinite’s power, he conjures up replicas of Sonic’s greatest enemies: Chaos, Shadow, Metal Sonic, and… Zavok from Sonic: Lost World. Using this evil army he quickly takes over the world and it’s up to Sonic, Classic Sonic, and an original character created by you to form a resistance and save the day.
It’s essentially the same old Sonic schtick, but the recently released Super Mario Odyssey proved that the same old schtick works so long as you don’t take yourself too seriously. Sonic Forces, on the other hand, takes itself way too seriously. Characters constantly tell you how your army is facing off against Eggman’s forces, taking casualties, and securing strategic objectives. Unfortunately, you never get to see this happen. Instead, you are spoon-fed exposition about off-screen battles as you make your way through stock platforming levels.
Sometimes the game doesn’t even show you stuff that’s happening in the level you are playing! There is one level where you are supposed to be disabling the defenses of one of Eggman’s bases. You make your way through the base, but you never actually disable anything. Knuckles just calls you on your communicator and says “you did it!” right before you hit the goal.
Moments that should have been really cool lose their impact because they just aren't enjoyable to play. At one point Sonic is sucked into “null space,” a void where literally nothing exists. Eggman gloats, saying Sonic will never escape, and everyone is worried that they will never see him again. Then you do a quick-time event composed of mashing a single button as fast as you can, and you escape. The whole exchange takes less than a minute and is never spoken about again.
It’s impossible to take any threat in the game seriously when half of the threats aren’t shown or played out. You don’t even fight half of the bosses you see in the intro scene. Shadow and Chaos are just sort of forgotten about, and even Zavok spends all his time on top of a bee mech instead of fighting you directly.
Then there’s the problem of tone. Every so often a nugget of truly witty script writing shines through, like when Modern Sonic says its “been generations” since he saw Classic Sonic. The problem is Sonic Forces doesn’t want to be funny. The Sonic Boom cartoon proved that Sonic is at its best when it’s self-aware, yet Sonic Forces is so attached to its dark and gritty image it keeps smothering any attempt as humor. As a result, these small moments of wit just pull you out of a plot that it was already hard to get immersed in. Sonic Team should have just gone with full humor or, even better, let the plot fade into the background and let the gameplay speak for itself.
Three Types of Gameplay that Barely Make a Game
The three main characters break up the game into three distinct gameplay types. Classic Sonic is by far the most fun. He controls exactly like Sonic did in Sonic Mania, drop-dash and all. It’s heavily implied that he actually IS the Sonic from Sonic Mania, transported to this darker edgier world after his final battle with Eggman and the Hard-boiled Heavies.
There is so much to enjoy in Classic Sonic stages, from the classic sound effects that accompany all of your moves, to classic power-ups like the shield and speed shoes, to the rockin 16-bit Genesis sound-chip remixes that play in the background. If you enjoy classic 2D Sonic you will enjoy these stages…for the most part.
Yet this experience is marred by flaws that Sonic Mania simply didn’t have. The camera is pulled out way too far, making it hard to tell where Sonic is on screen. This is only further complicated by the busy backgrounds which hide your position behind explosions and bloom. It’s hard to tell which threats are cosmetic and which are real, which leads to some cheap deaths. Most annoyingly, there is something seriously wrong with collision detection. There were plenty of times when it looked like I was going to make a jump only to fall through the edge of a platform, and other times when it looked like I was going to clear an obstacle only to slam into an invisible wall and fall right into it.
Modern Sonic sports the same “boost gameplay” that he’s become known for, and this too can be fun. Slamming your way through enemies while nimbly dodging obstacles is a blast in early stages. However, it gets worse and worse as the game goes on. In later stages the game removes stage edges, like some sort of sadistic recreation of Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road. If you boost at any point you will immediately run off the edge and die. Your only option is to not boost in a gameplay format where the only source of fun is boosting!
So, what do we have left? In this case, platforming, but platforming with Modern Sonic is a chore. There is no sound cue when he jumps like the iconic “bloop” sound of Classic Sonic. In fact, there is barely visual confirmation of a jump at all, so it’s hard to tell when you are in the air. Modern Sonic’s jumps are shallow and while he has a double jump, it’s even shallower. If you mash the jump button you’ll double jump, immediately cutting off your jump height and usually causing you to fall into a pit. He has little traction and moves the fastest of all three characters, making it nearly impossible to land on small platforms. It’s just not fun, and I have no idea why so many Modern Sonic stages are focused on platforming when Classic Sonic is clearly better built for that sort of gameplay.
Your custom character provides the most unique gameplay experience. They have a grappling hook, a special “wispon” which gives them a unique attack, and special racial abilities depending on what animal species you choose. The sheer amount of options allows for multiple routes through every custom character stage. You can use the lightning wispon’s light speed dash to cross chasms by zipping along ring paths, or the burst wispon’s multi-jump to reach high platforms. Some wispons are even geared toward boss fights, granting you invincibility or dealing a ton of damage.
This gameplay style is a solid enough experience without many flaws, but it also doesn’t have a lot of good points either. Many stages will force you to stop and go through enemy gauntlets reminiscent of the action stages in Sonic Boom. This wouldn’t be a horrible idea, except all the enemies in these gauntlets are pushovers that can be defeated by mashing the attack button. In fact, you have a higher risk of randomly falling off the side of the battle arena than dying from enemy attacks. In the end, they are little more than roadblocks in a game franchise that is all about keeping up your momentum.
Your custom character runs slower than Sonic but jumps higher, making them more fit for platforming. These are the best parts of custom character stages, as you can use your customized loadout to tackle platforming challenges in unique ways. Unfortunately, there is always a “best” way to go about it. If you enter a stage and find a ton of lightning wisp energy scattered around, don’t even bother continuing if you don’t have the lightning wispon equipped. Just exit the stage, change your loadout, and try again, otherwise you will be in for some frustration.
To mitigate this frustration, you can bring a rental hero into any custom character stage. These are other characters that other players have created that you can switch to any time. Having two loadouts means you can bring your favorite wispon and a wispon that is useful for the stage at the same time. Unfortunately, your choices in rental heroes are randomized, so you aren’t guaranteed to find someone who has the right wispon equipped. This leads to a lot of rapid confirm/canceling until you find a hero you want to take with you.
There are also levels where Modern Sonic and your custom character are controlled at the same time. This vastly improves the gameplay of both since you essentially gain access to both character’s abilities. You get Sonic’s speed and boost abilities but the custom character’s jump height, wispon, and maneuverability. Unfortunately these are the shortest stages in the game, usually over after a brief platforming segment and quick-time event.
The game seems to downplay its strengths as much as possible. The fun Classic Sonic stages and Modern/Custom team-up stages are the rarest. Meanwhile, Modern Sonic has a bunch and the custom character alone has the majority of stages devoted to them. Yes, the majority of the stages in Sonic Forces don’t let you control Sonic!
New Features Don’t Go Far Enough
The battle against Eggman is framed as a territory acquisition game. As you go through the world’s many stages, you’ll slowly eat away at Eggman’s forces. This is represented by a percentage meter which shows how much power the rebellion and Eggman have. The problem is, it’s all an illusion.
There is only one linear path through the game. You can’t travel from territory to territory, striking where Eggman is weakest. You just proceed onward to the next canned platforming stage. Every so often secret stages open up and defeating them will unlock new costume choices and wispons for your custom avatar, but diverting from the main path to play them makes no difference in the larger conflict. It would have been much more engaging if you could actually tackle the game in a non-linear order, gaining new wispons and building your army.
Everything you do unlocks new customization options for your avatar. Beating stages, completing achievements, finishing limited time “SOS missions,” and taking on daily challenge, all give you neat hats, or shoes, or wispons to play with. This would make it seem like the game has a lot of replay value, except it doesn’t. There are only a few wispons in the game, and each new wispon just comes with a few negligible special abilities like “increased score when gaining rings” or “start each stage with a shield.” Meanwhile, most costume choices are just recolored versions of the same few pieces of clothing, and they all look horrible. I unlocked the same pair of gloves five times in one playthrough, all a slightly different shade of grey.
Another problem with the character creation system is the limited number of options you have at the beginning of the game. You can choose from three or four shirts, gloves, and shoes, and that’s about it. I tried to indulge my inner fanfic writer by throwing together a gender-bent version of the original Sonic, but eventually I said “screw it” and put her in the Persona 5 costume for the rest of the game. As I played the game a ton of new options opened up, but I had already become attached to my starting costume.
Lacking Graphics, Sound, and Presentation
The graphics are also a mixed bag. Let me give you a piece of advice: do not buy this game for the Switch. It’s the only platform where it is locked to 30fps in low 720p resolution, and the game simply isn’t built for that. It makes the action blurry at high speeds, which is horrible for a Sonic game. The game looks remarkably better on the PS4, and even better on the PC, though the Xbox One shares some of the Switch’s flaws, despite playing at 60fps.
Even the best graphics in the world wouldn’t offset Sonic Force’s lackluster presentation. Cutscenes cut in and out suddenly, with no satisfying fade out or transition. Characters routinely talk without moving their mouths. Sometimes you’ll race to the end of a level to find Eggman just waiting there, before the game cuts to black and shoves you into the results screen. Voice clips get cut off all the time by quick cuts to new scenes.
To be fair, this isn’t just a problem with the presentation. It’s also a problem with level design. You can rarely tell when the end of a stage is coming. Goals usually show up so abruptly it feels like the stage is only half complete. You never actually manage to make it to important recognizable landmarks. Instead, you suddenly run into an Eggman symbol and that’s it, stage over.
This too gets worse as the game goes on. Early stages, like Green Hill zone, change as you make your way through them, transitioning to desert and eventually leading you to Eggman himself. Later stages just cut off the action in the middle of a platform somewhere. Goals are so random that I actually managed to jump over them in multiple instances, getting nothing but a death in a pit for my achievement.
At least the music is good
There is one thing that I can’t complain about, and that’s the music. Believe it or not, Sonic Force’s music is pretty good. It offers a decent selection of techno, dubstep, rock, electronica, and other genres of music appropriate for a game themed around speed. Even the horrendously cringey “butt rock” that Sonic is known for is enjoyable in an ironic way.
But the music alone isn’t enough to save Sonic Forces because it simply doesn’t have time to. When I first started Sonic Forces, I was having a decent time. The first hour or two was filled with good, fast, Sonic fun. At around hour three, frustration set in as I began wrestling with the controls and camera and got sick of the game’s awkward pacing, crap narrative, and poor presentation. At hour four…. the game was over!
That’s it. No search for the chaos emeralds. No secret boss. Nothing. Roll credits, make another avatar if you want, and go back to playing Sonic Mania or Super Mario Odyssey. I tried hard to find some replay value but there just wasn’t anything substantial to do. Sure you can go back to every stage and try to collect the hidden red rings, but doing so gets you nothing but more avatar customization pieces. You’ll already be swimming in those by the end of the story!
I wanted to like Sonic Forces. I loved the idea of creating a custom character. I actually enjoy boost gameplay. You might call me a Sonic apologist. I didn’t even think Sonic Unleashed was that bad. Yet I struggled to find fun in this short four hour game. It just felt half-baked. Maybe if Sega delayed Sonic Forces another year it would have been the Sonic game we were all waiting for. As it stands it’s not worth it, even at its 40 dollar price tag.
If you are really jonesing for more Sonic, I’d recommend playing Sonic Mania again.