Sonic 4: Episode 1 Review
I remember growing up going over to my Grandmother's house to play the Sega Genesis upstairs every week when I was about 7. I would pop in the 6-Pak that would have games like Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine, Golden Axe, and Sonic the Hedgehog. I can't imagine how many times I played through the 16-bit glory of speed and couldn't get over how such a simplistic game could capture hearts of a generation and provide such a rewarding mechanic by just collecting rings and jumping on enemies. Fast forward almost 20 years, and Sonic Team has brought back the coveted side-scrolling phenomenon in releasing Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 to the XBox Live Arcade. After dozens of spin-offs and rehashes in the Sonic franchise, was their any possibility in bringing back the old glory that wow-ed audiences so long ago?
Sonic 4 starts off with a nostalgia alert running the old Sega logo and audio as was used in previous titles long ago, then continues on to reveal a similar title screen, showing off the crisp HD graphics that show the first of many changes to the old formula. There's no denying that Sonic 4 is a very pretty game that is coated with gorgeous backdrops and crisp environments that are bright and eye-catching. Sonic Team put a lot of polish onto the 2.5D world that puts Sonic 4 ahead of the Arcade game in terms of graphics, rivaling most sixty dollar purchases. Sonic himself received a graphical upgrade, though looks almost nothing like previous versions of Sonic in recent titles like Sonic Colors and Sonic Unleashed; his shape and the way he runs is almost awkward to watch, and almost feels like it was animated wrong in some places. As much as I can praise Sonic 4 on its fantastic backdrops, their credibility is hurt exponentially knowing that nearly every stage has been used in some Sonic game in the past. For having almost two decades to conjure up ideas for the next rendition, one would figure they would have a little more originality in their set pieces.
If originality is absent in terms of stages in Sonic 4, their attempt at a revamped style of play could knock on the particular door. Sonic 4 includes an auto-lock-on system seen in previous games Sonic the Hedgehog for the Dreamcast and Sonic Unleashed. This system allows the player to press the jump button when the game locks on to an enemy to instantly spin dash towards the enemy to kill it, and can be used to combo up multiple enemies and reach further parts of stages. Having this lock-on system in place makes it almost impossible to just jump and hit an enemy knowing that the lock-on system is pressed onto the player hard and early as the way to defeat enemies. The problem with this system is that when an enemy is hit with the lock-on: all previous speed is lost immediately unless you can continue the combo to another enemy or can hit the nearest speed-up tile. This isn't a good sign that the main part of Sonic is hindered by its own "combat" mechanics.
While the combat can be forgiven most of the time since enemies are few and far between, some of the level designs just baffle me as to why they are even there in the first place. What may one ask would classify under this? The inclusion of puzzles. Heaven forbid the fastest hedgehog around has to figure out a certain combination to continue into a level, especially when using speed has nothing to do with the puzzle in the first place. One example has Sonic using a torch as his only light throughout the level, which in itself is a questionable call since it forces you to walk through most of the level since the player can't see anything within four inches of screen. During this level, Sonic must light certain torches in a certain order to move columns into different places and bypass them to continue on in the level; the problem is that the torches have about a quarter second difference as to when one should or shouldn't light the torch, which will cause multiple tries, and caused me to time out twice in the same puzzle.
Another design piece that was just confusing is in Sonic 4's successor to Casino Zone, aptly named Casino Street. To finish one level, you have to blindly run across giant cards to access further parts of the stage, these cards switch between accessible then tip vertically to become unreachable. These cards will do this in a very random order and is hard to keep track of knowing the amount of cards one has to memorize goes off the screen. So most players will perform leaps of faith, praying on luck that the cards under them don't tip and send Sonic to certain death, and to much dismay: will have to do this around three times in the same level. These decisions just don't make much sense as they destroy any sense of speed when the real point of Sonic 4 was to revive that template of game play that got the Sonic franchise such popularity in the first place.
If there wasn't enough icing on the cake for Sonic 4, it doesn't help the game's credibility when Sonic 4 is criminally short. Though if the episodic manner of the game didn't give it away, there are only four main acts with a final boss act after getting through the previous acts. Knowing there's a ten minute time limit on each stage and most acts have around three to four stages per act, Sonic 4 barely scavenges 3-4 hours of gameplay; and for a $15 price tag, that's just absolutely ridiculous. Wouldn't have been a better idea to add some original levels, some more replay-ability to the game and make Sonic 4 not look like a cash-in on nostalgic gamers looking for their beloved franchise to rise from the ashes?
As excited as I was for Sonic 4: Episode 1's release, I can't recommend much other than the fact that it's not as bad as previous Sonic titles to be released within the past couple years. The revival of Sega's uber-popular 2D speed romp is fantastically ruined by very poor level decisions, a useless lock-on combat system, and the unforgivably short time you'll spend playing through the unoriginal stages. I sure hope Sonic Team has a set poise to deliver an apology in terms of a better game in the soon to be Episode 2, since I don't think I can take this series for another Spin Dash at this rate.
+ Sonic in 1080p Goodness
+ Slick, Polished Levels...
- ...That were used in Sonic 2.
- Lock-on Combat Hurts
- Terrible Level Design Choices
- Un-Godly Short