The backlash against Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I must have hit SEGA hard. Here was a game everyone said they wanted — a high-definition return to Sonic's 2D roots, and while it was a decent game on its own merit it didn't feel like a true continuation of those classic 16-bit adventures. It was almost like an athlete coming out of retirement: all the right moves were there, but it was never a match for its heyday.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II, then, arrives with a twofold purpose: fix the first part's missteps and prove itself a true sequel.
It takes major steps towards both with a new physics engine that irons out most movement kinks, though some quirks remain, like the lack of acceleration when rolling downhill. Controlling Sonic feels good though, and certainly far more in-line with his 16-bit self than Episode I. It's not quite as good an approximation as the excellent Sonic Generations, but it's good enough.
It leaps above its predecessor with improved graphics too, with such good depth of field we have to wonder why 3DTV support wasn't included. There's some nice bloom and shadow work — plus the more interesting level design easily eclipses its predecessor — but it's a shame we can't say such nice things about the music, which is some of the worst in a Sonic game for years. At its best it's forgettable, at its worst it's tuneless and irritating: Death Egg in particular might make you want to reach for a screwdriver to jam into your ear.
Most stage design doesn't outright copy Mega Drive zones, instead blending two tropes together: oil and sand, snow and a theme park, although its Sonic the Hedgehog 2-esque second half is less discreet about its inspirations. The adoption of Sonic 2's tube-like special stage, while appropriate in context, is disappointing: we've seen so many half pipe special stages in recent years it feels less like a nostalgic hat tip and more like creative destitution.
Episode II also walks in its 16-bit heritage by including Tails as Sonic's sidekick, the first time the two have worked side-by-side in a platformer since Sonic Advance 3 in 2004. The little fox still copies your every move, bless him, but the two of you can team up by pushing Square to activate combo moves. In the air he'll pick you up and fly, in water he'll pick you up and swim, and on the ground you'll both roll into a giant ball of fur, whizzing along the level and smashing everything in the way. Tails instantly snaps to your position when you call him, so no more waiting for him to sort himself out before getting on with the adventure, but that creates a problem in itself.
When the speed really builds it mirrors the dazzling high-wire act of the best Sonic stages — stay on the top route for the fastest times. Being able to call Tails at any time to pick you up and carry you blunts that thrill: miss a jump or plummet towards a death pit and you have a safety net. Tails becomes Sonic's guardian angel, and while that's sweet and a welcome evolution of their friendship, it turns the action from a high-speed balancing act to a series of peaks and troughs, of dips and recoveries.
Online co-op puts each character in separate hands at least, but pressing Square as Sonic still gravitates Tails towards him, dropping solo exploration and experimentation for a weird control dictatorship. It's a halfway house, not a fully-fledged co-op mode, but with a friend — and headset, crucially — it still brings the fun.
Whether playing solo or with a buddy, there's a decent amount of play here. You'll finish the game in an hour or two but there's a red ring to find in each Act and seven Chaos Emeralds to reclaim, with Trophies for each. Score attack, time attack and online leaderboards round things out for those who like to shoot for dominance.
Owners of the first episode get to revisit an Act from each of the first game's zones as Metal Sonic, who handles pretty much identically to Sonic but looks a hundred times more metal.
Sonic 4: Episode II is good — not great, not very good, just good. Its physics are better than the first game and the broad nods to past games will please fans, but the music is a disappointment and the combo moves limit the flowing momentum that would have nudged it into "very good" territory.