Well, it looks like SEGA got the abysmal message about Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 and actually did something about it. We're happy to report that, based on our time with two zones of the game at PAX East, the long-awaited Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 plays a lot closer to how our nostalgic hearts remember the series before the “Sonic cycle” kicked in and crushed everyone’s hopes and dreams.
It’s tough to overstate how astronomical the difference is between episodes. The momentum-defying physics of Episode 1 flew in the face of what made Sonic enjoyable to play in the first place, whereas this new entry in the Sonic 4 saga actually feels like it could exist, somehow, in the same universe as the Mega Drive games. Call us purists, but really we're just happy that SEGA remembered to add more blast processing to this one.
Our sample of both winter and Aztec-themed zones showed a lot of promise: multiple paths through stages, hidden areas, fewer inexplicable death pits, fewer stretches that require a series of lock-on attacks and, oh yeah, physics that make sense for the franchise. They haven't got rid of the death pits, per se, but they've been clearly labelled as such — nobody can say they didn't realise infinite death awaited them below now that flashing red warning signs showing Sonic's springy death animation are littered about.
Much of Sonic 4's raison d'etre was to peel back a lot of the junk that had built up around the franchise, and while Episode 2 does branch out a tad, the additions feel organic to the Sonic 4 universe. Most significant is the inclusion of fan-favourite character Tails, who offers both temporary flight by lifting Sonic by the hands as well as a devastating tag-team roll that can carve through enemies and dense snow alike. What makes them enjoyable is that they don't feel arbitrary — the two stages we played made good use of them, unlike Episode 1's botched lock-on target choices in its stage designs.
We're not quite ready to brand Sonic 4: Episode 2 a resounding success, but it feels more confident in its shoes than Episode 1 did. Maybe it's a manner of expectations; a lot of weight was on Episode 1 to earn that dubious "4," and all Episode 2 has to do is be better than Episode 1. Sonic has had his share of ups and downs — with Episode 1 being particularly divisive — but it's good to see him back on his feet.