Republished on Wednesday 26th February 2020: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of March's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
In some ways, Sonic Forces is exactly what the younger fan base will want. Those who grew up playing Sonic Unleashed, Generations, and the Nintendo-exclusive Colours will no doubt be excited to learn that this is a return to that brand of 3D blue blur action. Where Sonic Forces has its work cut out is in convincing everyone else that its three different play styles are an improvement on the established formula, which has endured varying degrees of criticism over the years.
Unfortunately, in an effort to appeal to everybody, Sonic Team has made a game that feels at odds with itself. The primary offender is the story. Eggman has allied with the mysterious and powerful Infinite, who quickly defeats Sonic in their first faceoff. Months pass, and the world has nearly fallen to Eggman and his cronies, while Sonic’s ensemble of multicoloured friends has formed a resistance. The problem isn’t so much with the plot itself as it is with the way it’s written. An example: early on in the game, Vector the Crocodile says, “Oh man, that’s not good,” to which Knuckles replies, “None of this is good, Vector. That’s why it’s called ‘war’!” It’s regularly and noticeably inconsistent in tone. The writers clearly struggled to find a balance between telling a more hard-edged story and keeping things fun for the young audience that will consume it.
Part of this wavering story is the introduction of your very own custom character, who then stars in his/her very own levels. First you pick a species, and each one has a unique trait. We went with a cat, for example, which holds onto a couple of rings when you take damage. You then change your chosen animal’s look and, once you’ve unlocked some costume items, can kit it out with your choice of hats, clothes, shoes, and accessories. You’re rewarded with five or six new items every time you finish a level, so you won’t be short of options for long.
You also equip your avatar with a Wispon, a weapon they’ll use during their levels to combat Eggman’s legions of robots. There are a few to unlock, such as a lightning whip and one that lets you turn enemies into platforms, but the flamethrower weapon you’re given at the start is also more than serviceable. It serves as a differentiator between your character and the Sonics, along with a grappling hook, although it’s basically modern Sonic’s homing attack.
The levels themselves, however, are messily designed, and sit in a weird middle space where they’re not as fast as modern Sonic’s levels but also aren’t as platform-heavy as classic Sonic’s. The fact that Sonic Team has to factor in so many different possible combinations of species and Wispons means the levels are fairly big but also pretty empty, and like with the story, there has clearly been a struggle concerning how the avatar levels should play.
The levels starring either Sonic are more straightforward to explain and more fun. While level design across the board is sketchy, the Sonic stages are generally better. Modern Sonic has his moments when everything flows and you’re blitzing through a stage, getting S ranks and beating levels in record time. That said, modern Sonic’s gameplay is still problematic. Jumps are difficult to judge, homing attacks will sometimes fail to work, and you can be travelling so fast that you scream off the edge of a level before you even see it. Control is often taken away from you during the most impressive stunts, and switching to a 2D perspective doesn’t resolve any problems when control comes back.
Speaking of 2D, classic Sonic’s levels fare a little better. Again, the design isn’t particularly interesting, but the stages do benefit from a slower approach and more thoughtful platforming challenges. The thing about classic Sonic, though, is that we all enjoyed a little game called Sonic Mania a few months ago, and that game makes Sonic Forces’ classic levels feel like a bunch of eager fans made them. Wait…
Jokes aside, the platforming action found in classic Sonic’s levels really isn’t up to scratch. Much like with modern Sonic, jumping is imprecise and hard to get a handle on, but it sticks out more here because 90 per cent of the classic stages are about making calculated jumps onto platforms and enemies.
It at least all looks decent, with a sharp image quality, colourful environments, and a solid frame rate. The music is also worth mentioning: you have some nice orchestral pieces alongside modern Sonic’s catchy up-tempo tracks and classic Sonic’s more traditional sound. Sadly, it isn’t enough to distract from the game’s flaws, which are much too fundamental to overlook.
Sonic Forces is a disappointing step back for the franchise. Uninteresting level design and subpar gameplay on all three playable characters make for a game that can be frustrating to get through. The nonsense story is poorly written and makes more tonal shifts than Mariah Carey with an ice cube down her back. The game is perfectly fine for the younger audience it’s targeting, and we’re sure they’ll enjoy it for what it is, but in the wake of Sonic Mania’s tremendous success, the problems 3D Sonic has always faced are becoming much harder to ignore.