Last year brought two new Sonic games, an ambitious 3D title from the head of the franchise, Sonic Team, and a smaller-scale throwback to his 2D days of yore, developed by a team of ardent fans, who were also proficient in fan-game design and art. And, while Sonic Team’s Sonic Forces stumbled, Sonic’s real success was indeed the fan-focused Sonic Mania, led by Australian developer Christian Whitehead, which not only was my highlight of E3 last year, but possibly the best thing to come out of the franchise in the last decade.
Sega have thankfully caught on to the acclaim and popularity brought by Mania and decided to capitalise on it with the release of Sonic Mania Plus this year – a physical release of the previously digital-only game on PS4, Xbox One and Switch, with a few enhancements to the main game and bonus modes and characters. If you already purchased Sonic Mania last year, then the tweaks and enhancements Plus brings to the original game are already available to you thanks to a free patch. However, the new material is contained within the extremely reasonably priced Encore DLC, which will run you about AU $7.
Whichever you decide to purchase, the main meat of Plus’ extra content comes in the form of two new characters and ‘Encore Mode’. Finally rejoining the Sonic roster after years of absence are Mighty the Armadillo (last seen in Knuckles Chaotix) and Ray the Flying Squirrel (probably never seen by most people since his Japan-exclusive Arcade appearance in SegaSonic the Hedgehog). And, the best part is, they feel right at home. Mighty is the more obviously useful of the two, with a powerful ‘ground pound’ attack allowing him to instantly drop to the floor causing a small shockwave to take out nearby enemies, and his armoured back allowing him to withstand a couple of hits from spike traps, making him a much more forgiving character than we’re used to in a Sonic game, and useful for newer players. Ray, on the other hand, is seemingly more geared towards speedrunners. His single unique ability allows him to glide and swoop in the air almost indefinitely, provided you get accustomed to his physics and have the space necessary to use him effectively. Of course, he takes some obvious cues from Mario’s cape in Super Mario World, but there aren’t nearly as many open spaces for him to have quite the same freedom as the plumber did, making him feel a little different.
Mighty and Ray join Sonic, Tails and Knuckles as part of ‘Encore Mode’, the new main attraction of Plus and the Encore DLC, which serves as a sequel (sort of) to the events of Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces. After returning from his inter dimensional travels, Sonic returns to his world with the powerful Phantom Ruby, which is quickly re-acquired by Dr. Eggman’s robotic menace, the Heavy King. He uses it to reverse time to the beginning of Sonic Mania, meaning that after a short sojourn through part of Angel Island Zone, you’ll be playing through the original Mania‘s levels from start to finish, with some cosmetic differences like a change of colour or time of day, and altered enemy and trap placement.
This makes Encore Mode a little more challenging than the original game, but the real differences lie in its new character swapping mechanic. In place of lives, Sonic can rescue each of his friends in Mania Plus for a total of five characters, two of which can be on-screen at a time and swapped between. When one dies, you move along to the next one in the queue, meaning that you’ll only ever have a maximum of the equivalent of five lives, and you’ll constantly be switching up which character you’re using as well. Character switching is nothing new to Sonic, and in fact it’s been a core mechanic to several games in the past like Sonic Heroes, but here it actually feels like a pretty smart idea, and largely works very well as a way of breathing new life into last year’s levels. When you’re forced to play a section as Tails, for instance, before hitting a power-up that randomises your character line-up to switch to Ray, adapting on the fly becomes a pretty fun challenge, especially when there isn’t especially a weak link in the character chain either.
Other significant changes come to the Bonus and Special Stages strewn throughout Encore Mode. The Bonus Stages, activated by hitting a checkpoint with more than 50 rings, were represented by ‘Blue Sphere’ in the original Mania, a rather slow and pace-breaking mini-game to have constantly crop up within levels. In Encore Mode, these are replaced by 3D pinball stages, that while easy, are much faster paced and have tangible rewards for performing well, such as rescuing characters, or gaining elemental shields – a big improvement. The Special Stages are accessed via hidden giant rings in each level – which have all changed place from the original – and have all received a pretty significant upgrade in difficulty, filled with bombs, pits and tight timers. However, they’re still the only way to collect Chaos Emeralds and unlock the true ending of the Mode, which unfortunately isn’t as significant as it could be, with no extra boss or level.
Overall, it is a little disappointing that there aren’t any new levels to be found, aside from the token inclusion of Angel Island near the start of Encore mode, which is more or less a straight translation of its Sonic 3 form. I should make it clear that Encore Mode doesn’t bring a whole lot new to the table, as much as it remixes and experiments with existing elements.
As mentioned, minor enhancements have been made throughout the original ‘Mania Mode’ as well, the most notable being little cutscene transitions between levels, where previously there were none, which actually helps convey the narrative a little better than last year’s seemingly random flinging of our heroes from Zone to Zone. There’s also an upgrade to the Competition mode, now with support for up to four players.
Sonic Mania Plus as a physical release has nice packaging and a neat little artbook, but at AU$49 it’s a bit of a mark-up for what is essentially a collector’s item. However, if you haven’t previously bought the game, it’s still quite a nice release. For the rest of us who bought and beat Sonic Mania last year, the Encore DLC is actually worth the relatively paltry AU $7 for its fun new characters and the cool ideas behind Encore Mode. Either way, Sonic Mania remains the best outing for the hedgehog in a long time, and hopefully a positive sign for the way-past-cool mascot’s future.
- What was already the best Sonic game in the last decade gets even more content - Fun new characters with useful abilities - New bonus stages feel more useful - Encore Mode is a fun spin on the original game
- Encore Mode, while fun, doesn't bring as much new content as you might have hoped for - Physical release is pricey for not a lot of extra features