So, as may already be apparent, I am a pretty big fan of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. I am, by no means, a “Sonic Apologist” though; I am more than capable of admitting to and pointing out flaws in individual videogames and the franchise as a whole. However, unlike what appears to be the majority of Sonic fans (seriously, is there a more toxic fan community that the one adopted by Sonic fans?), I tend to be quite pleased with most Sonic titles.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that, these days, I generally ask little from my videogames than a fun, engaging, pick-up-and-play experience that has some depth but not an infinite amount of depth. It probably also helps that I rarely, if ever, buy videogames first-hand on launch day and therefore spend less money per purchase so have less to complain about.
With that in mind, I recently completed Sonic Forces (Sonic Team, 2017) for the Xbox One and figured I would share my thoughts on it. Created to commemorate Sonic’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Sonic Forces ostensibly positions itself as a loose sequel to Sonic Generations (ibid, 2011) and Sonic: Lost World (ibid, 2013) and was developed and released within the development and launch of the massively successful Sonic Mania (PagodaWest Games/Headcannon, 2017), a videogame that successfully (and finally) returned Sonic to his high-speed 2D roots.
Sonic Forces, in comparison, sees players once again take control of “Modern Sonic” in 3D and 2.5D action stages and “Classic Sonic” (now retconned as being from “Another dimension” rather than being Modern Sonic’s past self) in 2.5D platforming sections. Players can also create their own custom Avatar from a variety of options, a feature that seems to have replaced the arguably more sensible idea of playing as the Sonic Boom iteration of Sonic.
Narratively, Sonic Forces attempts to be the darkest in the series since Shadow the Hedgehog (SEGA Studio USA, 2005); during a routine battle against Doctor Eggman, Sonic is attacked and defeated by Eggman’s latest creation/ally (the exact specifics are a little…blurry, to say the least), Infinite, a villain so dark and emo that you’ll went to throw on a dirty black hoody and bust out some Taking Back Sunday while crying over that girl who cheated on you and writing badly composed poetry every time he’s on screen. Infinite appears to possess the Phantom Ruby from Sonic Mania and uses its reality-warping powers to conjure multiple illusions of some of Sonic’s greatest foes (Chaos Zero, Shadow the Hedgehog, Zavok, and Metal Sonic).
With Sonic defeated, Eggman and his forces overrun the entire world and take control, leaving the world’s hopes in the hands of a rag-tag resistance led by Miles “Tails” Prower, Knuckles the Echidna, and (most of) Sonic’s other friends and allies. Vastly outnumbered, they recruit a rookie to help the cause (the player’s Avatar) and, randomly, Classic Sonic, and set out to first rescue Sonic from the Death Egg and then put a stop to Eggman’s nefarious regime.
If you’ve played Sonic Generations, then you’ll be immediately familiar with Sonic Forces. Ditching the poorly-conceived “run button” of Sonic: Lost World, Sonic Forces once again sees players smash robots, collect Golden Rings, and collect Wisps to fill up a Boost meter as Modern Sonic. When the meter fills up, you can hold down the Boost button and blast through enemies and stages at break-neck speed; Modern Sonic can also utilise the now-classic Homing Attack to target enemies and other objects and team up with the player’s Avatar to perform a Double Boost or allow the Avatar to attack enemies.
Classic Sonic, meanwhile, can no longer collect Elemental Shields or be assigned different abilities like he could in Sonic Generations, but he does have the Drop-Dash from Sonic Mania (which I honestly used even less than in Sonic Mania, if that’s even possible). As in Sonic Generations, Classic Sonic feels very heavy and floaty and sluggish, especially compared to Modern Sonic’s gameplay and the picture-perfect controls of Sonic Mania and his inclusion in the videogame is an odd question mark for me as he doesn’t really factor into the plot that heavily.
Players can create their own Avatar from seven species: hedgehog, dog, cat, bird, bear, wolf, and rabbit. You can customise the Avatar’s skin colour, fur colour, eye shape and colour, ear type, and pile all sorts of clothing and accessories onto them. For a fan community that loves to create recolours and their own characters, this is a fun opportunity to create your own Sonic character, with quite a few options to choose from, but the function does have a few limitations. Firstly, you can apply hats, gloves, and shoes to your Avatar but you cannot recolour them; secondly, you cannot alter their height or width (so you can’t create fatter Avatars); and, thirdly, most of the clothing and accessories must be unlocked by completing Missions during gameplay.
You can use the Avatar function to create close approximations of Sonic characters, but they’ll never be perfect; for example, clothing for Tails, Knuckles, Shadow, and Amy Rose are available but you can’t really create any of them in picture-perfect detail. The Avatars attack using a whip-like lasso that allows them to do a poor-man’s Homing Attack and can be equipped with a variety of “Wispons”, gun-like devices that are powered by Wisps and allow the Avatar to perform awkward variations of Sonic’s Wisp abilities from Sonic Colours (Sonic Team, 2010). I say “awkward” because many of these abilities can cause the Avatar to go shooting off the stage and to their death or have a slight delay that cause you to take damage; honestly, I don’t really know why Wisps are even still a thing in the Sonic franchise.
As mentioned earlier, you can complete a variety of Missions to unlock clothing and accessories for your Avatars, additional features for Wispons, and bonus stages. Some Missions are stupidly simple, like switching your Avatar’s footwear, and others are more tricky, like completing stages within a time limit. You’ll also be tasked with completing random SOS Missions; occasionally, a blue, green, or red SOS signal will pop up from a stage you’ve previously completed and you can revisit the stage to complete the Mission. These range from finding and freeing prisoners from familiar-looking prison pods, completing stages with your Avatar, or completing them with a random Avatar. Ironically, considering Sonic Forces continues the annoying trend of modern Sonic titles to hand hold you through every arbitrary function (“Press X to jump!” springs instantly to mind), you only ever get one notification about which colour equates to which SOS Mission, so you’ll have to make sure you know what you have to do or you might blast through a stage in record time only to fail the Mission like an idiot because you forgot what the red signal meant.
Both Sonics can still collect Red Rings in stages; collecting these allows you to get Achievements and unlocks bonus stages. Bonus stages consist of annoying tasks like dodging lasers and making it through small stages where platforms randomly vanish beneath you, but collecting the Red Rings can be a fun task as it encourages exploration.
Graphically, Sonic Forces is gorgeous; running on an updated version of the Hedgehog Engine, you’ll marvel at the level of detail and layers in every stage. Blasting through Green Hill as it’s attacked by giant mechs or through a city under attack by Death Egg Robots is a real thrill and there’s clearly been a lot of thought put into the presentation. Gameplay-wise, there are still times when control gives way to automation (dash pads, boost pads, loop-de-loops, and quick-time events all take control away from the player) but, honestly, I didn’t really care because the game is all about speed and going forward so I am happy to be propelled along as long as it’s not into a bottomless pit.
Despite my disappointment at having to play through Green Hill and Chemical Plant again, stages are fun and surprisingly layered; players can take multiple paths in many levels, some of them only accessible when you have certain Wispons equipped, others by simply using the Homing Attack, and they’re short enough that they never become tedious or boring. Indeed, the longest stages are saved for later in the game and, by then, it’s a real sign that the difficulty has ramped up a bit. For me, though, having fun stages to play in short-to-medium bursts makes for a far more enjoyable experience and really assists in speed runs.
On a slightly related note, acquiring trophies/achievements is a blast in Sonic Forces, largely thanks to the short stages and the ease of their requirements; if you like getting trophies/achievements without much effort then you’ll love Sonic Forces. I know that I was so encouraged by how many I popped in my first playthrough that I was more than happy to try some of the more difficult ones and the game really lends itself to a pick-up-and-play mentality.
Narratively though…oh boy. This is perhaps the weakest aspect of Sonic Forces; when the videogame uses CGI cutscenes, its amazing and, as always, Sonic Team excel in this area (graphically, anyway; the script still leaves a lot to be desired). Unfortunately, a great deal of the plot is told through talking heads on the world map or through simple white text on a black background. Quite how Eggman acquired the Phantom Ruby is never really explored and Infinite’s back-story (largely told in the free DLC, “Episode Shadow”) is paper thin; he got beaten up by Shadow and has apparently become some kind of weird cyborg-thing. It’s a neat twist to see Eggman win right from the start but there’s never a real sense of urgency or threat; you blast though stages and Eggman’s underlings with very little fear of failure.
As for bosses, there’s a surprising lack of them here. You’ll do battle with Zavok, Eggman, Metal Sonic, and Infinite but Chaos Zero is depressingly taking out in a cutscene…by Classic Sonic…with one move…and you never battle against Shadow. Boss battles take three forms; either you battle on a 2.5D arena, race down an infinite highway towards the opponent, or take them on from a slightly skewed overhead perspective. Bosses have a variety of attacks and forms/stages, which can make them challenging but not too difficult, and sometimes require you to team up with the Avatar to win the day.
There’s honestly a lot to like about Sonic Forces if you ignore the writing and the poorly-conceived plot; gameplay is fun, action-packed, and blasts along at a decent speed. It’s fun to create Avatars, unlock new gear for them, and to pop trophies/achievements. I do feel like more could have been done, though; honestly, Sonic Team really should have included Boom-Sonic as the third character (maybe include the Avatar function as well, though) because the Avatar is so blatantly and clearly there in place of him that it just feels weird. I also would have liked to see the ability to more accurately create Avatars of other Sonic characters and greater customisation in the Avatar function; it works but it feels very limited at times.
On the plus side, it’s really easy to get S-ranks if you blast through as fast as possible and don’t die, which is great for me, and I didn’t encounter that many cheap deaths or glitches while playing. Sure, sometimes you blast along so fast (especially as free DLC Super Sonic) that you’ll over shoot jumps, pits, or automated sections and fall to your death but I never glitched through anything or found any oddities and the game also ditches the lives system so you don’t have to worry about running out of tries.
As great as Sonic Mania was at bringing Sonic back to his roots, I feel like the universal praise for that game has tainted the reception of Sonic Forces and that people are all-too-ready to tear apart the modern, Boost-heavy emphasis of 3D Sonic titles to focus on the positives. I feel there’s room for both, especially given how little funding and development is needed to make a top-notch 2D Sonic game compared to a Triple A 3D title; I just hope that Sonic Team either introduce more of Sonic’s cast back into the 3D games as playable characters or, at least, work on Classic Sonic’s gameplay as he feels jarringly slow and sluggish compared to his Modern counterpart.