Sonic Forces Review
Short bursts of fun, but far from a sonic boom
It’s safe to say that in both a literal and metaphoric sense, the Sonic series and its Mario-on-speed gameplay has been a crazy ride full of peaks and valleys. Our favorite blue hedgehog has seen some major triumphs as well as some monumental flops; and seemingly everything in between. Sega’s latest attempt to bring some credibility to 3D-era Sonic is in some ways a perfect representation of the mascot's turbulent history as a whole - and not exactly in a good way.
Sonic Forces suffers from something of an identity crisis; it seems to be a game that doesn’t quite know what it is. It’s a hodgepodge of various concepts and gameplay styles that don’t mesh particularly well and often feel shallow. Hints of classic Sonic platforming and nostalgic throwbacks like Green Hill and Casino Night Zone stand out as the most entertaining portions. Though these exist as more of a footnote amongst the convoluted 3D bombast which is more glamor than gameplay with its basic on-rails platforming. There is also the new concept from which Forces really hitches its wagon to; custom created avatars that can utilize unique powers and abilities. While these are amusing at first, they ring more as a gimmick and a novelty that fail to really hold up.
Developer Sonic Team, whose resume does contain some solid recent entries in the series in Sonic Colors and Generations, seems to take a step backwards with Forces in just about every aspect aside perhaps from the presentation. This is especially apparent in contrast to Sonic Mania, which not only comes at half the asking price, but more successfully embraces its classic platforming roots.
The game’s story leaves something to be desired, which isn’t surprising, but a bit disappointing considering there is only a single player campaign to be had here. Yes, unfortunately there exists no multiplayer or online play to speak of. The narrative resides somewhere within the realm of overly-convoluted exposition and cliche cheese straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. Eggman, along with a mercenary jackal named Infinite, has harnessed the power a coveted gem called the Phantom Ruby, which allows him to alter and rip the fabric of space and time itself. With this gem he captures Sonic, and manifests virtual, super-powered replicas of various well known characters such as Shadow, Zavok, and Metal Sonic, along with a band of robots to act as his fighting force.
This is where you come in, taking the form of one of 7 animal avatars to help rescue Sonic and ultimately defeat Eggman, with the help of “classic Sonic” who has emerged from another dimension. Known as simply “Rookie” to Sonic and his ragtag band of “Resistance” fighters whose company includes Tails, Knuckles, Amy, and others, you must stop Eggman before he uses his Death Star ripoff “Death Egg” and the Phantom Ruby to take over the world. Yeah, it’s about as stereotypical “superhero movie plot” as it gets. Given that Forces is a platformer - a genre whose premiere franchise has involved saving a damsel in distress as its major plot device for decades - a basic narrative is perhaps to be expected. The dialogue exchanges are almost so bad they’re good, including gems such as “enjoy all the nothing!” and “don’t smash your eggs before they hatch!”
The developers had been adamant that the gameplay was crafted and refined based off what Sonic fans seemed to respond most strongly to from past iterations. Yet in my experience, Forces seemed as though it was the experiment which Sonic Team was using as its test run for a future project. And me? I felt like patient zero. It’s particularly odd that they’ve managed to cram so many concepts into a campaign that’s lacking in both length and depth. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll compartmentalize the game into a handful of major components.
First you’ve got the modern 3D platforming style Sonic; though “platforming” is a generous term here, as these stages typically play more like interactive movies with on-rails segments interwoven throughout. There are diverging paths on occasion, but overall the level design is limited and uninspired, failing to live up to the visual spectacle as a whole. In all fairness, these bits are certainly fun to watch at times - in the same sense that sitting through one of those virtual roller coasters at an arcade might be. The game contains some nice aesthetics, with some vibrant color schemes, pretty textures and lighting, in addition to an overall smooth frame rate of 60fps. Some of the more acrobatic moves like loop-de-loops, boosts that can plow through baddies, and spring jumps are enjoyable as well; yet many of these more exhilarating moments are just subtly injected cutscenes masquerading as gameplay.
At least this minimizes the potential for pitfalls however, as often the weird floaty mechanics and spotty homing attacks led to me unexpectedly propelling poor Sonic into the abyss below. Another strange element here is that these modern segments sometimes shift to 2D perspective mid-level. The transitions manage to be pretty smooth with how fast everything zips by, but also in-part add to the convoluted mess of Forces. This is largely because these moments make it appear that the game’s shifted to full-on classic Sonic, yet you’re still given the moves and controls used in 3D mode. The modern boss battles, while generally on the simplistic side, are at least creatively designed and offer a change of pace from the extremely linear gameplay throughout.
Then there are the classic stages played with a 2D perspective and classic controls, which proved to be the highlight of my experience despite their somewhat dated gameplay. I quite enjoyed these nostalgic moments, but unfortunately they’re even more brief than the already short 3D stages. Even without the aid of homing attacks, the gameplay felt tight and straightforward, and revving up Sonic with his charge spin before firing him across the stage felt as satisfying as ever. These alterations in the control scheme make sense from a mechanical standpoint, though they also add to the prevalent and jarring nature of the inconsistency throughout. You’ll need to sort of shift your brain back to oldschool-mode when you’re thrown into these stages. The simpler 2D portions almost feel like a separate game; and a superior one to be sure. Speeding across familiar environments like Green Hill Zone and the visually stimulating Casino Night Zone reminded me just how much better this gameplay works in the 2D realm.
The majority of the game contains avatar stages, which are something of a mixed bag. As mentioned, the big selling point comes in the form of these custom characters, which are mildly fun to play around with for a time and can help keep things fresh. However, the cookie-cutter environments, overpowered weapons, and often wonky mechanics bog down an idea that could have held more potential. Rather than boosting, dashing, or spamming homing attacks ala modern Sonic, you now have a grappling hook to swing around like Spider-man. Depending on which colorful creature you chose to play as, you’re given a unique special ability as well. The wolf, for example, will draw nearby items towards you, while the cat will hang on to some rings after getting hit rather than losing them all in typical Sonic fashion. Additionally, there are a handful of stages in which you control both Sonic and an animal, allowing you to swap between the abilities of Sonic as well as your avatar. Oh - there is also the mostly pointless gimmick of using a “double boost” by furiously mashing a button on command to finish off bosses or zip to the end of a stage.
Avatars wield weapons known as “Wispons”, which are basically sci-fi blasters that come equipped with various elemental powers. For instance, you can pull a cluster of baddies into a black hole, blast them with a flamethrower, knock them back with a shockwave, or my personal favorite - zap rows of them with an extensive lightning whip. Wispons also contain secondary abilities that are pretty hit and miss. Again, the lightning power wins on this front, as triggering it will enable you to zip through streams of rings midair, allowing for both boosts in speed and effectiveness in racking up points. Unleashing elemental hell on inept bands of robots can be a satisfying endeavor, but also proves dull once this novelty has worn off, as most of these weapons feel too powerful, obliterating any real sense of challenge. Think lightsaber-wielding Jedi vs scrawny droids in Star Wars, and you’ll get a sense of what I mean. In fact, aside from some flawed level design invoking unexpected falls down pits in some of the later stages, my run through Forces proved to be a simple one, even when playing “hard mode.” Lives are absent from the game and checkpoints are pretty frequent, making dying a virtual non-issue aside from taking a minor hit in your point total.
You can collect additional Wispons, each with unique stats and abilities tacked on, by completing missions during the game or obtaining a high enough rank. This checklist of objectives range from zipping through a stage within a given time limit, to simply putting on some newly acquired clothing. The missions provide a bit more depth, and act as a sort of achievement system during your run. Aside from Wispons, completing missions will usually land you additional flair to decorate your character with, such as goofy looking clothing items and accessories. It’s a cute feature but feels rather hollow since they’re merely aesthetic in nature. The game makes a point to shower you with these items quite liberally, no doubt as a means of masking the mediocre experience the campaign generally provides.
While burning through the few dozen stages takes only a handful of hours at best, Forces does toss in some incentive to bounce around to previous levels in order to finish off certain missions and snag other collectables. These including scavenging for “red rings” that are partially hidden across each level, and sporadically appearing “SOS Missions.” The latter forces you complete a stage a second time with a given avatar without dying. Some SOS Missions also force you to play as Sonic, and you must locate a capsule to free a confined animal.
The game contains a point and ranking system which is determined by your performance, speed, and number of rings you’ve earned. There is also an online leaderboard system, which is essentially just for bragging rights. Occasionally you will unlock secret stages as well, which usually contain bite sized platforming challenges. These tend to stress puzzle elements more than action or speed, and thus don’t quite feel like they belong in a Sonic game, though in all fairness, the Avatars don’t really either.
Sonic Forces tries to do too much, and ironically excels in little as a result. Modern Sonic portions are visually stimulating and provide some brief thrills, but the gameplay itself is limited and feels uninspired. The custom avatar feature and their accompanying stages are an amusing novelty but little more, and most of the Wispons they wield are almost absurdly powerful to the point where you’ll worry far more about deceptive pitfalls far more than enemies. Extra content is sprinkled in to supplement the short campaign but sparsely, and much of it can either be completed quickly or just isn’t worth it in the first place.
Perhaps it's my inner retro gaming hipster coming out, but the classic Sonic portions proved to be superior in almost all aspects except perhaps the visuals. From the charming Genesis melodies - as opposed to the annoying pop-rock soundtrack of the modern stages - to the simple controls and mechanically tight gameplay, these brief stages prove that classic Sonic is still the way to go. This leads one to wonder if Forces even needed to be made at all. If it did, then at the very least, it should have gone full throttle in just one of the four or five directions it tries to haphazardly cover at once. It’s probably not a great sign when the most positive aspect to take away from Forces is its throwback portions, along with the simple fact that “at least it’s not Sonic ‘06.”