Almost 20 years have passed since Sonic the Hedgehog enjoyed the heyday of his platforming adventures, yet the character remains one of the most recognisable in gaming. His status as an icon of the industry and the herald of an era ensures that fans always retain some vestige of hope for a reclamation of the glory days. That faith is occasionally rewarded with the positive aspects of the likes of Sonic Generations and Sonic Mania, but is more often met with mediocrity. Sonic Forces, out next month on PC, PlayStation 4, Switch, and Xbox One, revisits the era-spanning gameplay of 2011’s Sonic Generations in an attempt to recapture the magic that made that title the best new console platformer for the character since 2001’s Sonic Adventure 2.
Unfortunately, while novelty and the return of classic gameplay style were enough to earn Generations a positive reception, simply bottling the same elements will not be enough to see Sonic Forces through. The game features duality at its core, torn between classic and modern styles. These two sides of the experience complement each other, offering a reprieve from the threat of repetition, but even ample diversity is not enough to overcome poor execution. OnlySP went hands-on with the upcoming title, finding that the parts do not come together in a cohesive whole.
With Sonic Mania recently recreating the classic 2D gameplay adored by fans, the old-school segments of Sonic Forces have a high bar to reach. Unfortunately, the demo failed to provide a glimpse at the platforming in these sections, instead focusing on a boss battle against one of Dr Robotnik’s nefarious machines. Such fights are a staple of the franchise, but trialled in isolation, the battle leaves an unsatisfying impression. Constrained within a single screen, Sonic is only able to damage the machine with direct physical strikes, making for a dull, repetitive task utterly void of the sense of the speed for which the character is known. Despite the lacklustre structure of the demo, the controls are extremely responsive and Sonic accelerates quickly, promising that the platforming segments are more enjoyable than the combat. As if to offer the sharpest possible contrast, the demo level for Modern Sonic charged the player with running a gauntlet of obstacles and foes to reach a seemingly arbitrary goal.
The 3D sections of Sonic Forces look like poetry in motion, the character a manic pinball shooting effortlessly across the map. The effect is mesmerising, giving the impression of unparalleled fluidity controlled by the deftest of hands. However, reality disappoints, as this smoothness and speed are baked in, reducing the player’s input to the most basic and superfluous prompts. A single path lights the way and the hyperlinearity betrays the kinetic freedom that merely looking at the game implies. Rather than being the fast-paced romp of trailers, the design of the game transforms energy into window dressing, leaving the experience flaccid and static.
These core issues are made worse by the conflicted aesthetic of the demo. As is standard for the franchise, the visuals are lurid, marrying bright colours to bold lines for an eye-catching recreation of classic cartoons. However, a grim apocalyptic setting drowns the game in muddy browns and greys, detracting from the whimsy. Given that the series was originally conceived as an “edgy” alternative to Super Mario, the more mature themes are fitting. Nevertheless, the choice of tone works against intention, slowing the pace and making Sonic Forces feel burdened with a thematic weight not reflected in gameplay.
Thus, Sonic Forces is ruled by dissonance. Gameplay, theme, tone, and feeling all fail to gel into a cohesive whole, and although the novel inclusion of a customised playable character holds promise, the core of the game is too shaky to benefit much from even the most brilliant implementation. Sonic Generations made the intelligent choice to look to the past to find a new way forward for the series. Sonic Mania was a revelatory throwback. Sonic Forces aims to pillage the best idea of both of those games, but is unable to make it work, resulting in an experience that feels regressive, turning back the clock on the strides the series has made towards reclaiming its relevance in the past decade.