Over the last couple of years, Sonic fans have finally been rewarded for their patience in putting up with that really bad half-decade filled with the likes of Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic 2006. Now, we all have great Sonic games in the form of Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations, which seem to indicate at last that Sega ‘get’ what makes a good Sonic game. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 has the right idea. A direct continuation of the original Sega Mega Drive series, with 2D gameplay and a renewed focus on simple stories and familiar characters. However, the first half of the game in 2010′s Episode I didn’t go down so well, with botched physics and lackluster design. It’s taken almost two years for Sega to bring out Episode II, and they have obviously tried to learn from their mistakes. But is it enough?
Certainly, things look a lot different at first glance. Gone are the 2D backgrounds and quasi-cel-shaded graphics from Episode I. Instead, we have fully-rendered 3D characters and locations, with designs that are more or less in line with what you’d expect from a Sonic title (although don’t ask me how Oil Field Zone got in there). The physics have been improved, and Sonic can no longer hang upside down a loop-de-loop simply by walking slowly up one of its sides. The gameplay feels tighter than before.
If Episode I’s setting and design and took inspiration from the original Sonic the Hedgehog, then Episode II equally draws inspiration from Sonic 2 and Sonic CD. Sonic’s increasingly-less-threatening-with-each-appearance robotic doppleganger, Metal Sonic, is back, along with Doctor Eggman and a new, Death Star-sized battle station, the Death Egg mk.II. To combat these new foes, Tails also returns as Sonic’s on-screen partner, able to follow him around every level, although not quite as uselessly as he did before.
One of the big changes in Episode II‘s gameplay are the new team-up moves with Tails. Frequently, you’ll come across impassable obstacles, which you’ll need to either fly over using Tails to carry you, or destroy by combining your rolling attacks. These parts of the game feel like they somewhat artificially hinder your progress, as there’s always a hovering screen informing you of what move you need to perform, removing any thought from the process. However, Tails’ flying move proves to be one of the more invaluable additions to the game. Remember all those bottomless pits Sonic has a habit of falling into? Well, now you have a chance to save yourself thanks to this move, as long as you’re quick enough on the button to summon Tails. There’s also a strange team-up power move you can perform by encountering special icons within a stage, which shows a little cutscene and lets Sonic & Tails clear all enemies on-screen. I only encountered it a couple of times, and neither time did it do anything a couple of well-aimed spin attacks couldn’t solve, so this one feels fairly poorly-implemented. If you’ve got similarly Sonic-obsessed friends, Tails also brings local and online co-op mulitplayer with him.
As in Episode I, there simply isn’t a lot of content here. There are four main zones, and then a final one consisting of boss battles. For the most part, these levels don’t really have anything new to offer. There’s a castle that fills the ‘water level’ role, a ‘snow level’ theme park and the ‘desert level’ oil field. You won’t find many inventive traps or gadgets to assist Sonic or Tails, making each zone feel largely-by-the-numbers. The only zone I really liked was the final boss zone, as it opened with a gravity-defying platforming section that was more imaginative than anything else in the game. There is one zone, the Sky Fortress, which has a couple of flying sections as Tails flies Sonic around on top of the Tornado bi-plane. However, the way they control is really odd. Sonic basically walks very slowly back and forth to move the whole plane around, which looks weird and also has the effect of destroying any enemy the plane comes into contact with. Having to battle Metal Sonic in one of these sections comes off as particularly lackluster.
The boss battles are a mixed bag. Re-living Sonic CD‘s race with Metal Sonic is a good idea, but your new team-up rolling ball move turns it into a laughably easy victory. Square-offs with Eggman’s giant contraptions fare slightly better, with battles that can last for a very long time with multiple forms and no checkpoints. These sections are challenging in the right way. Another fight with Metal Sonic. which sees him without warning destroy the ground beneath your feet resulting in instant death, is not. Special stages are a direct lift from Sonic 2, which was a good idea as they provide a fun diversion from the main game. An ‘Episode Metal’ is also available to those who purchased Episode I on the same console, which boils down to a playable Metal Sonic running through harder variants levels lifted from the last episode.
Many have complained about the music in Episode II, and to be honest it’s not completely awful, but it can be very annoying. Oil Field Zone’s music in particular will have you reaching for the mute button, with twanging tones that grate the ears in a special kind of torture. If there’s one thing Episode II should have been copying from Sonic 2 and Sonic CD it’s their excellent soundtracks.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is not a bad Sonic game by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s perfectly pleasant running through most of the game’s zones. Sonic fans will no doubt eat it up. However, neither it is the franchise’s best game, or really anywhere near the top. It’s a fun re-hash of past ideas but the levels are a little dull and uninspired, and the price tag is a little high for what’s on offer. If you’re not a hardcore fan, it might be a good idea to wait for the game to go on sale.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is currently 1200 Microsoft Points on 360, $19.95 on PS3 and $7.49 on iOS.