Game Corner [Sonic Month]: Sonic Unleashed (Xbox 360)


Sonic the Hedgehog was first introduced to gamers worldwide on 23 June 1991 and, since then, has become not only SEGA’s most enduring and popular character but also a beloved videogame icon and, in keeping with tradition, I will be dedicating an entire month’s worth of content to SEGA’s supersonic mascot.


GameCorner

Released: 18 November 2008
Developer: Sonic Team
Also Available For: Mobile, Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 (via PlayStation Network/Now), Xbox Series S/X, XboxOne (Backwards Compatible)

The Background:
These days, people would have you to believe that Sonic the Hedgehog (ibid, 2006) is an under-rated classic and worthy of your time and attention. Don’t listen to them. Play it if you must but make no mistake about it, take it from a life-long Sonic fan: Sonic ’06 is an absolutely dreadful experience. Great cutscenes and music, yes, but the gameplay (the core of any videogame) is diabolically bad and there’s a reason that the game was not only received terribly and is almost universally seen as one of the lowest points in the franchise…it’s because it’s a travesty of a videogame. Following that game’s dismal release and reception, Sonic Team scrambled to make good on their next mainline Sonic title, which started out as a semi-continuation of the Sonic Adventure games (ibid/Sonic Team USA, 1999 to 2002) but soon took on a life of its own and began the annoying trend of having Sonic be the only playable character. Sonic Unleashed saw the development of many new lighting, graphical, and gameplay mechanics for the series, chief amongst them the “Hedgehog Engine”, which allowed Sonic to boost ahead at breakneck speeds without losing graphical fidelity, while also incorporating 2.5D  perspectives to hearken back to the series’ roots. The game was somewhat controversial for also including brawling combat in the form of the “Werehog” in stages that were criticised for their length and tedium. Regardless, Sonic Unleashed was just the shot in the arm the franchise desperately needed after Sonic ’06; the game was a commercial success and critics lauded the speed and exhilaration offered by Sonic’s gameplay.

The Plot:
Sonic is unsuccessful in his attempt to thwart Doctor Eggman’s latest scheme and the mad scientist fires a giant laser cannon at the planet, blasting chunks of the surface to the atmosphere and awakening the ancient beast “Dark Gaia”. Though outpouring of evil energy causes Sonic to transform into the animalistic Werehog at night, he resolves to travel across the world, accompanied by an amnesic sprite nicknamed Chip and his old friends Miles “Tails” Prower and Amy Rose, to restore the power of the seven legendary Chaos Emeralds and undo the damage caused to the planet.

Gameplay:
Sonic Unleashed is a 3D action/platformer that switches to both a 2.5D perspective and a third-person brawler during your progression through the main story. Very similar to Sonic Adventure (Sonic Team, 1998), Sonic navigates a variety of hub worlds across the globe, talking with non-playable characters (NPCs) and performing a number of challenges and side quests in his quest to activate the seven Gaia temples (and the Chaos Emeralds) to restore the splintered planet.

Sonic boosts, grinds, and blasts his way through stages at breakneck speeds!

Players are put into the high-speed shoes of Sonic the Hedgehog; Sonic can jump with A (which you can tap for a hop and hold for a higher jump) and attack enemies either with his regular jump or by pressing X when in the air to perform his patented Homing Attack. An aiming reticule directs you towards the nearest target and you can chain together successive Homing Attacks to hit springs or cross gaps over bottomless pits to progress. Sonic can also crawl and slide (and perform a sweep kick) with a press of the B button; this doesn’t come up often but it’s essential for getting you through small spaces when running at high speeds. This is the big gameplay mechanic for Sonic in Sonic Unleashed; similar to the God-awful “Mach Speed” sections of Sonic ’06, pressing and holding X while running will send Sonic boosting ahead at breakneck speeds. When boosting, you can charge right through enemies without fear and will also suck up any nearby Golden Rings, which are essential for maintaining your boost as they power the mechanic. While this can cause you to fly right off the edge of stages later in the game and can cause the game to spaz out on occasion when Sonic’s speed increases, you can perform quick-steps with the Left- and Right Bumper to dart through narrow alleyways and such, and perform quick turns to stay on course on tight curves. Overall, the boost mechanic is exhilarating fun and it’s brilliant to fly through stages at full speed, crashing through enemies and bouncing and grinding your way towards the Goal Ring.

Fight, swing, and platform your way through slower, trickier stages as the Werehog.

Of course, you can also play as the much slower “Werehog” in the game’s night-time stages; Sonic Unleashed has a rudimentary day and night mechanic where, by attacking hourglasses in the hub worlds, passing time on the main map screen, or as dictated by the story, day will turn to night, transforming Sonic into this monstrous little brawler. Clearly taking inspirations from popular hack-and-slash titles, Sonic Team made the Werehog distinct by having him attack with his elongated limbs and perform grapples to take down his opponents. While the controls remain mostly the same, there are some differences: you can now perform a double jump with A and the X and Y buttons allow you to pull off different strikes and combos. Holding the Right Trigger allows you to dash on all fours (and can extend your jump) while LB puts up one of a limited number of shields to protect you from attacks. Pressing B lets you grab onto objects and ledges to save yourself from falls, grab objects to throw at enemies, or grapple enemies to pull of quick-time events (QTEs) to deliver massive damage. As the Werehog attacks enemies or smashes barrels and such, you’ll build up your “Unleash Meter”. Once it’s full, or hits the minimum marker, you can press RB to “unleash” the Werehog’s true power, which will dramatically enhance his strikes and speed to help you clear out groups of enemies or larger foes. The Werehog’s stages are far longer than Sonic’s and also involve a bit of puzzle solving (usually mashing B to pull switches or open doors or bringing gems to special alters to progress further) and some very tricky platforming. This involves a combination of jumping to and from platforms, grabbing to poles, and balancing on narrow beams, all of which can be extremely difficult as the game’s camera often makes it hard to judge the distance between your targets, button inputs can be a bit slow and clunky, and a lot of the platforms you’ll be grabbing and jumping to will either be moving, collapsing, slippery, or damaging in some way, which can lead to a lot of annoying deaths.

Perform QTE tricks and defeat enemies with style to get EXP and a sweet S rank.

As is the standard for Sonic titles, Sonic is protected from damage by Golden Rings. This time around, when Sonic is hurt, he won’t lose all of his Rings and, when playing as the Werehog, you have a more traditional health bar that is replenish by the Rings. Collecting one-hundred Rings awards you with an extra life, which you will also find scattered here and there around stages (usually right before a dangerous area), and you pass through checkpoints to allow you to continue from later in the stage should you die. Deaths can be quite frequent as Sonic gets a bit slippery at times and it’s pretty easy to blast off out of bounds or over the edge and to your death, and you can also fall to your death in hub worlds! When you complete a stage, though, you’ll be given a grade based on how fast you finished and how any tricks you performed as Sonic (by jumping through special hoops and performing QTEs), among other things. This, and defeating enemies, will provide you with experience points (EXP) that you can use to power-up Sonic’s base speed and Ring Energy, and the Werehog’s strength, Unleash Meter, maximum life, and learn new combos and attacks.

There are many hub worlds and Medals to collect but I could’ve done with more Tornado sections.

Out in the hub world, you can spend your Rings on food and other items and must perform a few tasks to open up stages. The main way you’ll access new areas, though, is by finding Sun and Moon Medals; I’ve heard many complain that this slows the game down as you have to replay stages or hunt around to find them just to progress but, honestly, I have never experienced this problem. There is a bit of backtracking and replaying of earlier stages required, though, as you sometimes need to farm for extra lives and need to hop from one location to another, playing stages out of order in order to access the next boss or area as part of the story. Gameplay is given a bit more variety when you acquire a camera that you can use to battle Gaia Beasts that have possessed NPCs and through the inclusion of auto-scrolling shooting sections in which Sonic mans the armaments of the Tornado while Tails flies him towards their next destination. Unlike in Sonic Adventure, this involves pressing the right buttons when they flash up on screen and alternate between mashing LB and RB to refill your power meter if you press the wrong button or are hit. Also, these sections only appear twice in the game, which is a shame as they’re quite fun, though you can replay them (and any other stage of boss) from the main world menu.

Graphics and Sound:
Even now, Sonic Unleashed looks absolutely fantastic; the game has a crisp, colourful presentation and everything really pops when onscreen, especially compared to how drab and muted Sonic ’06 was. Sonic looks fun and full of energy and has a number of idle animations in both his base and Werehog form; Sonic is also constantly accompanied by Chip, who acts as an annoying guide, and is voiced by Jason Griffith who was always my least favourite voice actor for the character. The rest of the Sonic X (2003 to 2004; 2005 to 2006) voice cast are fine, with Mike Pollock absolutely nailing Dr. Eggman, but I always found Jason to be so lifeless and boring as Sonic, though the game does stand out by briefly having Sonic’s usual confidence shaken by his monstrous appearance. Graphically, though, the game is gorgeous; Sonic, the Werehog, Tails, and Amy all look vibrant and full of life and fit perfectly with the game’s Pixar-like aesthetic for the NPCs. Rather than have the NPCs be realistic-looking humans like in Sonic Adventure, Sonic Unleashed’s are exaggerated, cartoony characters with large eyes, noses, and larger-than-life properties that help them to be visually interesting even when they mainly just wander around in short animation cycles, stand in one place, or communicate using text boxes and gibberish. The most prominent human NPC is the kindly Professor Pickle, who offers advice and exposition regarding Dark Gaia and has a penchant for cucumber sandwiches and souvenirs.

Stages are gorgeous and varied and full of unique elements, gimmicks, and jaunty music.

The game’s hub worlds and stages are all based on different societies and cultures of the real world. Apotos is based on Greece, Spagonia on Italy, Mazuri on Africa, Holosoka on Antarctica, Chun-Nan on China, Shamar on Egypt, Empire City on New York City, and Adabat seems to be based on the likes of Hawaii. This means that every area feels distinctive and unique, mainly thanks to having different seasons, hub worlds of various sizes that all look and feel different, and are populated by different NPCs. This translates into the playable stages as well as you’ll blast through the air, grind on rails, and plough through alleyways, race up winding paths, and fall through the sky in a variety of colourful and action-packed environments. When playing as Sonic, you’ll naturally often blast past your environment without really noticing little details here and there but, when the game switches to its 2.5D view or you tackle the Werehog stages, these subtleties are brought to life wonderfully. This means you can see markets, animals, and entire cities in the background, discover alternative paths by jumping through boost rings or hopping up walls and rails, and run up and along pathways at breakneck speeds while dodging axes, laser traps, and blasting through enemies. Stages become increasingly bigger and more complex as the game progresses, with you hopping from collapsing ice floats and using a killer whale and a bobsleigh to progress in Cool Edge, grabbing onto rockets and hopping to spinning platforms in Dragon Road, and running across water and through ruins making tight, dangerous turns in Jungle Joyride.

The game’s high-quality cutscenes are incredible and the best in the series at that point.

As beautiful and detailed as the game’s stages are, though, Sonic Unleashed goes above and beyond with its high-quality cinematics. While these are a notable highlight of Sonic ’06, even the cutscenes that use the in-game graphics are a joy to watch here as Sonic and Chip bond and overcome numerous obstacles on their journey. When the cinematics kick in, Sonic and his world are rendered magnificently and it honestly baffles me that Sonic Team never used this style of animation to produce a CGI feature film. These sequences, and the graphics in general, are only bolstered by the game’s jaunty, uplifting, and varied soundtrack; the game’s main theme, “Endless Possibility” by Bowling For Soup’s Jaret Reddick, is a catchy little punk-rock piece that captures the high-spirited adventure aspects of the game while the ominous Gaia themes help sell the threat and menace of the monstrous Dark Gaia. Even better is the fact that the day-time Savannah Citadel stage uses a remix of the ending credits theme from the 8-bit Sonic the Hedgehog (Ancient, 1991), which was especially pleasing to me since I am a big fan of that game and it was the first Sonic title I ever played.

Enemies and Bosses:
As you blast through Sonic’s stages at full speed, you come across a number of Dr. Eggman’s robots; mainly comprised of Egg Fighters, these robots will throw slow punches or swing swords at you and defend themselves with shields. Later, they’ll bounce you back with springs, blast at you with laser bolts or homing missiles, and attack with electrified swords but, for the most part, they’re largely disposable pawns that you can bash through with your Homing Attack or boost. You’ll also use the small robots (who sometimes blast at you or defend themselves with electrical shields) to get across gaps and have to watch out for spikes, Eggman-branded springs that often push you into spikes, crushing platforms, and other environmental hazards that can mess up your run.

Bash through Dr. Eggman’s robots and beat down Dark Gaia’s minions with your combos!

Although Sonic also has to fight Dark Gaia’s minions, you’ll mainly battle against these as the Werehog. Gaia’s creatures take a variety of forms, from small, annoying little critters to the larger, more commonplace “Nightmare” variants. These guys will attack as a group with their own punches and combos and even defend themselves from your attacks by putting their guard up. You’ll also have to contend with Dark Masters, wizard-like enemies who can fire elemental blasts at you or replenish the health of other Gaia creatures, and the ever-annoying Killer Bees, who always seem to hover just out of reach and dive at you with their stingers. The Werehog also has to battle the much larger Big Mothers and Titans, often while dealing with many other enemies at the same time; the Big Mother will endlessly spawn smaller Gaia creatures and its rotund belly allows it to absorb a great deal of punishment. The Titans are much worse, though; attacking with giant clubs and causing shockwaves to cover the immediate area, they can blast you into a stun (which you must desperately mash A to get out of) or even off rooftops and to your death with a ridiculous amount of ease. For both enemies, I recommend expending your Unleash Meter and using the Werehog’s QTE combos/grapples to take them down quickly.

Sadly, as fun as they are, the boss battles against Dr. Eggman are all very similar.

Just as there are two distinct playstyles in Sonic Unleashed, there are also two types of boss battles; those against Dr. Eggman and his latest contraption and those against Dark Gaia’s gigantic guardians. The battles against Dr. Eggman, however, are largely similar in each instance; when you battle the Egg Beetle, Egg Devil Ray, and Egg Lancer, you’ll be continuously running around an endlessly-looping track, collecting Rings to boost towards Dr. Eggman and ram into his cockpit. Each machine sports a variety of lasers, missiles, and bombs and tries to fry and bombard you with its armaments and you’ll have to use the quick-step and the advantages of the 2.5D sections to dodge these hazards. The battles do get more difficult as they, and the game, progresses, though; I recommend avoiding using the Homing Attack when running across walls or ceilings as you can sometimes drop to your death and you’ll also have to complete a QTE when hopping from wall-to-wall to land hits on the Egg Lancer. Dr. Eggman also erects protective shields and drops flaming hazards into the arena and also challenges you in the Tornado sections in the Egg Cauldron, though here it’s simply a case of hitting the right buttons to destroy his missiles and damage his weak spot.

Dark Gaia’s minions may be big and require more strategy but they all come down to QTEs.

The Werehog’s boss battles are much more varied and interesting by comparison. When battling the Dark Gaia Phoenix, you need to throw barrels of water at it to douse its flames while avoid its flaming shockwaves and feather barrage; the Dark Moray is protected by a shield that can only be lowered by attacking the eel heads around the base of the arena, then you have to freeze the beast (while also avoiding being frozen yourself) to attack its glowing weak spot; finally, the Dark Guardian is similar to a Titan, but a bit smaller, and must be stunned long enough for you to push blocks over to a switch to weaken it. In all three cases, the bosses become tougher and increase the rate of their attacks as the fight progresses and you’ll be tasked with performing a series of QTEs in order to deal massive damage and put them down. Thus, the length and difficulty of these fights depends greatly on how good you are at QTEs as, if you fail, you’ll have to go through all the motions to get to that point again, which can be annoying.

After conquering the gruelling Eggmanland, you’ll battle Dr. Eggman’s most dangerous machine yet!

Speaking of annoying, while the game is generally a lot of fun with only a few frustrating moments, Sonic Unleashed really kicks you in the balls when it presents you with its final stage, Eggmanland. A giant amusement park literally filled with traps, hazards, bottomless pits, and every kind of enemy and obstacle you’ve encountered so far, this stage is a true test of anyone’s mettle as you’re forced to switch between Sonic and the Werehog and take on a series of incredibly challenging platforming and combat tasks in order to progress. Easily the longest and most difficult stage in the game (or any Sonic game for that matter), Eggmanland can take up to an hour to get through and will have you tearing your hair out at its finicky platforming and frustrating sections. Once you finally get through his chore of a stage, though, you’ll have to battle Dr. Eggman one last time in his most interesting and dangerous contraption yet, the Egg Dragoon. You battle this as the Werehog and run around a small platform in freefall while avoiding Dr. Eggman’s shots and taking out his robots to attack the glowing green core on the machine’s tail. Once you do enough damage, you have to pull off another QTE sequence and then the fight moves to the next stage, which involves more aggressive attacks from Dr. Eggman and less windows of opportunity to strike. Still, it doesn’t seem as though you can fall off the platform you’re on and your attacks still do damage even when Dr. Eggman is guarding himself so just keep pressing your attack and make sure you don’t fail the QTTEs and this boss is nowhere near as intimidating as it first appears.

Plot the unwieldy Gaia Colossus then battle the tricky controls and camera to finish Dark Gaia.

Although Dr. Eggman is defeated, Dark Gaia rises from the planet’s core so Chip, finally remembering his true purposes as Light Gaia, causes all of the Gaia Temples to come together as the titanic Gaia Colossus and engage with his dark counterpart one-on-one. To do this, you need to hold X to boost the slow, clunky ass of the Dark Colossus towards the beast, guarding against or desperately trying to punch the flaming boulders it sends your way. When Dark Gaia charges up its big energy beam, try to move out of the way but for God’s sake put your guard up as it can instantly drain all of your health otherwise! Once you get close enough, you’ll have to perform another QTE and then you’ll switch to Sonic and be given a few seconds to race past Dark Gaia’s deadly tentacles and energy blasts and bash it in the eye (again, after completing a QTE). This must then be repeated twice more, with Dark Gaia’s attacks and ferocity growing each time; thankfully, your health is restored for each phase of the battle and you don’t have to restart right from the beginning if you die but this is still one of the more frustrating parts of the game. Dark Gaia isn’t so easily defeated, though, and mutates into the gruesome Perfect Dark Gaia. Of course, Sonic uses the Chaos Emeralds to transform into Super Sonic for the final battle of the game. Unlike other Super Sonic levels, you don’t have to worry about a time limit as your Rings aren’t depleted over time; instead, you must fly/boost towards Perfect Dark Gaia, who has encased itself in an impenetrable shield, collecting Rings to fill up your health bar and dodging asteroids. While the Gaia Colossus distracts the creature, Super Sonic must fly around the shield avoiding obstacles, flaming meteors, and that same massive energy beam to attack the snake-lake tentacles that poke out sporadically through the barrier. This is easier said than done, though, as it’s really hard to see where you’re going or target the heads (there’s no aiming reticule this time); there are also no extra Rings to get and it’s ridiculously easy to get hit by Perfect Dark Gaia’s attacks or ram into an asteroid and deplete your health bar. Once you do finally destroy all of the heads, you’ll of course have to complete one last massive QTE sequence but, as long as you hit the right buttons and mash them into oblivion, you’ll finally destroy the beast and return the planet to normal.

Power-Ups and Bonuses:
Unlike many Sonic videogames, there aren’t actually that many in-game power-ups on offer in Sonic Unleashed. Gone are the speed-up shoes, invincibility, and protective bubbles, replaced by simple Golden Rings and a few extra lives floating about the place. The Werehog is able to pick up power-ups that will instantly fill his health and/or Unleash Meter, power-up his attacks, increase his shield count, or bath him in a protective aura, though, which makes it worth your while to smash crates and doors in search of them.

Sonic can grab new shoes to perform additional abilities and reach new areas.

In addition to increasing Sonic and the Werehog’s abilities with EXP, Sonic can also purchase a variety of foods that, when he eats them, will award him additional EXP (they can also be fed to Chip to increase his bond with Sonic, though this has no impact on the actual gameplay). Furthermore, like in Sonic Adventure, you can acquire additional abilities by finding special shoes in the hub worlds; the Stomping Shoes allow Sonic to perform a stomp to bash downwards through glass and blocks and onto enemies with a press of B in the air, the Light Speed Shoes let you dash along rows of Rings, the Wall Jump Shoes allow you to jump vertically up walls to reach new areas, and the Air Boost Shoes let you blast through the air by pressing X while jumping in order to cover large distances quickly.

Additional Features:
There are fifty Achievements to earn in Sonic Unleashed; six of these are awarded simply by playing through the story and restoring the planet to normal but you’ll naturally also earn others through regular gameplay as you get Achievements for increasing Sonic and the Werehog’s abilities and finishing stages with an S ranking. Sadly, considering the vast potential for fun and quirky Achievements, most of Sonic Unleashed’s are quite by-the-numbers; finish a Tornado section without missing a shot, talk to every NPC all over the world, collect half of (and every) the Sun and Moon Medals, and use the different shoes and you’ll snag some G but by far the most challenging Achievement sees you having to complete the various “Hot Dog” challenges in each area. The various Hog Dog Vendors will let you take on a series of challenges for the cost of a few Rings; these have you collecting a certain number of Rings, defeating a certain number of enemies, or finishing stages in a certain time limit but these aren’t like challenges in some Sonic games as you still have to finish the entire stage even once you complete the objective, By far the most difficult of these tasks you with completing Eggmanland in just forty-five minutes, which is all-but-impossible given that you’re guaranteed to die at least once during this stage and dying in these challenges means having to restart from the beginning. In the hub worlds, and scattered throughout the stages, you’ll find CDs, books, and videotapes that allow you to view the game’s cutscenes, artwork, characters, and listen to music in Professor Pickle’s laboratory. To do this, though, you’ll need to buy certain furniture from the game’s various shops, where you can also purchase some of these items and souvenirs to gift to the Professor. Other NPCs will give you side quests, such as finding lost children or clearing out enemies, or even challenge you with answering quizzes to help mix things up a bit. Finally, you can take on perilous obstacle course-like additional stages in each area and these can be expanded upon with some downloadable content that truly test your speed and reaction times.

The Summary:
Sonic Unleashed was exactly the breath of fresh, exhilarating air the franchise needed at the time; after Sonic ’06 proved to be such a broken, glitchy, disappointing mess of a game, it’s no exaggeration to say that even I had started to lose faith in Sonic Team. Thanks to the Hedgehog Engine, which allowed for crisp, vibrant visuals and high-speed action to be the order of the day, Sonic Unleashed was an incredibly fun and exciting gameplay experience that was an absolute blast to play through again. At the time, Sonic had never looked or played better and the game’s many varied locations and fantastic music and graphics really went a long way toward making up for the awfulness of Sonic ’06. And then there’s the Werehog stages. Truthfully, I didn’t really mind these all that much; yes, they could get overly long and annoying and very repetitive but they did help to break up the gameplay a bit. I think if maybe they had been a bit shorter (and fairer), and if Sonic Team had scrapped the Sun and Moon medals, these stages might have been received a bit better (or if the Werehog had been scrapped completely and replaced with, say, Knuckles the Echidna!) If there’s one area that truly lets the game down, though, it’s the entire finale. Eggmanland is an absolute ball-breaker to get through and is less a test of the skills you’ve built up throughout the game and more a test of your sanity and patience. Similarly, while I enjoyed the Egg Dragoon fight and playing as Super Sonic, the final battles against Dark Gaia and its perfect form were a clunky, frustrating end to an otherwise solid gaming experience. Thankfully, once you clear the game, you never have to endure these sections again unless you’re a sadist and can focus on replaying the games other, more entertaining sections instead.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Are you a fan of Sonic Unleashed? Did you enjoy the boost-based mechanics introduced in the game or did you feel they made it too simple? What did you think to the Werehog and its gameplay sections and would you have preferred to see Knuckles used instead? What did you think to the story and Dark Gaia as the main antagonist? Which of the game’s stages or bosses was your favourite and why? Whatever your thoughts on Sonic Unleashed, sign up leave a comment below or share your thoughts on my social media and be sure to check back in for more Sonic content next Saturday!